Binge viewing: Is it good for us?

…or ‘Did Netflix kill the water cooler?’

I grew up in the 80s; before digital TV and DVRs, before the web and social media, and long before Netflix.

In the absence of social media, TV shows used massively hyped cliffhangers to keep audiences talking between seasons. I clearly remember the mystery of who shot JR being one of national importance, discussed at great lengths by my parents and their friends often in heated tones. My dad even had the t-shirt.

TV execs monitored and reacted to audience feedback over the course of multiple seasons and tinkered with the show’s narratives in order to please the widest possible audience, sometimes even bringing popular characters back from certain death.

Not so much has changed (hello Jon Snow)… or has it?

Fast forward to the 90s and the advent of digital TV, DVDs and with them an overload of choice. I first remember binge viewing DVD box sets as a Christmas holiday activity, accompanied by binge eating; mostly of chocolate, and leftover ham.

Some of these were shows like Buffy, which I already adored, but due to the nature of linear TV I hadn’t seen all episodes in sequential order. Others were shows I didn’t really know like The West Wing, which was on Irish TV in a peculiarly late night slot.

With no set rules in the holiday period, I was able to watch as much of this stuff as I could handle. And it turned out, I could handle a lot.

Over time this habit began to encroach into normal life. My friends and I would swap box sets in order to catch up and be ready to watch the latest series in real time. ‘Have you seen the Wire? Ah you have to see the Wire. Here’s season 1. When you’re done with that I’ll give you season 2 and 3 and then Joe can give you 4 and 5.

TV networks started to notice that box set viewing led to new linear TV viewers and started scheduling 3 or 4 episodes of a show back to back in a cleverly crafted block, ahead of new seasons.

With digital set top boxes came the ability to pause, rewind, and most importantly for binge viewers, automatically record a series straight from the TV. Magic. No fear of missing an episode, and if you did, you could indulge in watching a few together at the weekend. The practice of swapping (and eventually even buying) of DVD box sets withered and died.

Even with the magic of DVR, there was still a week between new episodes, so people still had the chance to discuss plot points and speculate about what’s coming next with fellow fans. We even coined the term ‘water cooler moment’ about these types of interactions.

Then everything changed.

With the rise of social networks and the kudos of being the first to wittily comment about the latest TV events, came the abundance of immediate spoilers from family and friends. ‘Oh, that show you’ve recorded to watch later. Here’s what happened. I can’t believe he’s really dead. LOL!’

>:-(

Avoidance of Facebook, Twitter and 24-hour news channels became a necessary skill to learn during the window of time between a show’s first airing on TV and my unencumbered viewing with a glass of wine at a time of my choosing.

Cartoon from The New Yorker Sept 2013

Around this same time, Netflix took their DVD-rental-by-post business online — and made it global. Alongside Apple’s introduction of movie and TV rentals to its iTunes Store, audiences now had an entire video store in their living rooms. We could re-watch old favourites, catch up on new shows, and watch shows we’d missed first time around, but had built up a cult following. Binging had become convenient. Apple’s rental model brought us fast food convenience, but it was Netflix with its monthly subscription that really introduced the world to the “10 dollar all-you-can-eat buffet” of TV binging. True Binge.

Then came House of Cards. With one swift, startling move, Netflix added fillet steak and a fine Bordeaux to the buffet. For the first time ever, audiences could watch an entire season of a brand new premium show in one day. All of it, available to watch immediately, globally.

It was a ballsy move by Netflix to say ‘ Screw audience feedback, TV advertising and everything you TV execs think you know about building audiences. We’ve crunched some actual numbers, we know EXACTLY what our viewers want and we’re going to give it all to them, right now.’

And it worked. With the help of Hollywood A-list stars and directors, Netflix broke all the rules and started to redefine television. From the very first episode, even the lead character Frank Underwood, broke the fourth wall rule and spoke directly to camera. There was no need to edit the show to a commercial TV slot duration, because there were no ads. The story would be told in whatever time was needed. Product placement came in surprising forms, including an indie developed iPad game. Test audiences didn’t get to pick apart the pilot episode and influence its full production and funding. A risk, maybe? Yes, but a calculated one. Hours of audience data had already been collected by Netflix on viewers’ habits that supported production decisions in order to make a hit show.

Then came OITNB, Arrested Development, and an automated ‘watch next episode?’ function, making that ‘It’s late, should we watch one more?’ decision all that easier to make, keeping us glued to our couches and gorging ourselves at the Netflix buffet.

However, there is always a limit to all you can eat in one sitting. And it’s usually a surprisingly low threshold. When you meet a fellow Netflix show fan at a party, there is usually an almost dance-like ritual of trying to figure out at what point each other is in the story and who is in fact ahead without giving away any spoilers.

‘Have you seen Narcos?’

‘Yes I love that show’.

‘Where are you at in it? Have you seen the episode with the cat ? … No? … Oh right I’m sorry. You’re probably a couple of episodes behind me ... So, have you seen the weather forecast?…

That’s it. No more water cooler moments. Thanks Netflix. By bringing us everything we wanted, you’ve killed our party conversation.

Although binge watching is fun at the time, I find it always leaves me a little unsatisfied. My brain simply doesn’t have the time it needs to process complex characters, story arcs and relationships between episodes when that time is a 15 second countdown to the next episode. Without the time between episodes to meet with fellow fans and be excited about what’s coming next, we miss those genuine water cooler moments and perhaps the real cost of the binge buffet is higher than it seems.

As with diet — and most other things in life — TV is best consumed in moderation. Now, where’s that remote?

First published in Rerun, Axonista’s weekly digest about the future of TV.

Claire is CEO of Axonista, where we’re leading the charge into the future of interactive television. We work with digital innovators like QVC, AOL, Viacom and The QYOU. Talk to us about making your future of TV plans a reality.

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