Why Netflix is distancing itself from the term “Binge-watching”

Barry W. Enderwick
Sep 8, 2018 · 4 min read

It was recently revealed (accidentally by Guy Pierce) that Netflix is instructing cast members of Netflix Originals to not say the words “binge-watching” when doing press junkets for their shows. Wait, what? Netflix not only coined the phrase but is responsible for its integration in popular culture. So why on earth would they not want to use those words? You might be forgiven for thinking that Netflix is going to stop releasing all episodes at once or somehow inhibit the ability to watch a season in one go. But you’d be wrong. The reason for the change is more nuanced than that.

The origins of the term “binge-watching.”

In 2011, when I first heard the words “binge-watching” uttered at Netflix, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My immediate reaction was that it was a horrible term. After all, the only association I had with the word “binge” wasn’t “watching,” it was “purge.” I thought that if we used that in consumer-facing materials we were going to pay a big price for it.

But I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings (to the best of my knowledge) coined the phrase because that is exactly how people were watching episodic content on Netflix. One-after-the-other.

Except it didn’t begin in the streaming era. The earliest signs of this behavior showed up when Netflix was still just DVDs-by-mail. HBO had begun releasing box sets of their hit shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under on disk sets. Obviously the entire season wouldn’t fit on just one. And, with people able to have three DVDs out at a time, you could have three of the four discs for Season 2 of a show at home ready and waiting. Sure enough, people talked about putting a disc in to watch one episode only to blow through all three on the disc. Maybe even start on disc two.

While it doesn’t feature Netflix, this Portlandia sketch illustrates the idea beautifully.

So here we are in 2018 and people have been binge-watching on Netflix and other services for about six years now. So why would Netflix want to move away from it now?

In a word, context.

When the term was introduced back in 2012, the idea of Netflix having high-quality originals was new. Not only that, but Netflix was going to take the radical step of releasing all episodes at once. Anyone could watch as much or as little as they liked. It was a novel approach that addressed a latent behavior already existing in the marketplace. Netflix gave it a name — “binge-watching.”

Remember, the move to Originals was a strategic one for Netflix. Owners of content catalogs were initially caught unaware as they had no idea how to monetize the streaming of back catalogs. So they licensed the content to Netflix for cheap. Hey, it was better than getting nothing for it. But then they watched as the subscriber numbers for Netflix quickly grew and realized what was happening. By 2011 the writing was on the wall and they were all raising prices. So in a world where deeper pockets can lock you out of licensing content (not to mention the amazingly complex issues surrounding global licensing), they turned their focus on growing Netflix Originals.

Fast-forward to 2018. If you log on to Netflix today, I would wager that roughly 70% or more of the cover art you see is for Netflix Originals. Netflix continues to churn out more and more Netflix Originals and is only planning to ramp that up. Amazon, Hulu, HBO, and Disney are also dialing up their originals efforts as well.

The problem with “binge-watching”

With so many players in the game, “binge-watching” now applies to any episodic batch viewing. Sure, for now it still conjures up Netflix for most people but that is starting to fade. And therein lies the problem.

In a world of increasing volume, the novelty of being able to watch all episodes at once is now table stakes. In fact, continuing to beat that drum signals to the consumer to look at the quantity, not the quality. Sure, Netflix is cranking out a lot of original content but in a world where everyone is creating originals, quality has to win out over quantity. Thus you won’t be hearing the phrase “binge-watching” from Netflix.

P.S. I am very heartened to see them move away from using the Netflix logo on cover art. When Netflix Originals was a new concept, it made sense so they would stand out. Now that the catalog is mostly Originals, there’s no need to have a million logos all over the their user interface.

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