Web TV binge- watching comes at cost of communal buzz


Forgive me, for I have binged.

I have used the two Internet-based video services to which I subscribe — Netflix and Amazon Instant Video — to watch multiple episodes of a TV series in one sitting.

Thus have I watched “The Americans,” “Call the Midwife,” “Scandal,” “Top of the Lake,” “Louie,” “Homeland,” “The Killing,” “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black” and episodes and bits of episodes of series since purged from memory.

Unlike some media analysts, who ascribe deep psychological meaning (i.e. personality deficiencies) to the practice of binge-watching, I do not. Which is not to claim that I’m free from any number of deficiencies, only that watching “Scandal” isn’t evidence of it. Then again, watching “Scandal” isn’t exactly evidence of a healthy psyche, either.


Nor am I among the new-media enthusiasts who so crave the crumbling of old-media oligopolies that they regard binge-watching as a sign of the end of days for the likes of CBS, Fox, Comcast, Disney, et al. This is delusional, of course, the old-boy masters of the media universe having merged and consolidated themselves into positions of more power than ever.

Binge-watching is handy for revisiting old shows and catching missed episodes of ongoing ones. But the practice has a destructive dimension when it comes to new series, especially as deployed by the principal promoter of binge: Netflix.

Netflix exploits the binge impulse like a crack dealer, sucking you along when you finish one episode by automatically starting the next episode if you don’t halt the process within a few seconds. You can disable this feature, but good luck finding where to do it. (“Your Account,” “Your Profile,” “Playback Settings.” You’re welcome.)

But Netflix’s biggest binge gimmick so far is its handling of new seasons of its high profile original productions: It makes all the episodes accessible at the same time. For example, when Netflix launched the 13-episode first season of “House of Cards” at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 1, 2013, it wasn’t with just the first episode; it was with all 13. If you’d been so inclined, you could have polished off the whole season by lunch.

How many people actually do this sort of thing? A Netflix press release last winter hyped binge-viewing as “the new normal.” The company, of course, stands to gain enormously from public acceptance of such an idea, which could help convert more people into paying subscribers. That, in turn, would elevate Netflix’s credibility, validate its approach to programming and justify the billions of dollars it has tied up in TV-episode rights licenses.

But Netflix steadfastly refuses to disclose actual viewing data, so the wintertime announcement cited, instead, a new survey of the binge-viewing phenomenon. Fun with numbers was more like it.

First, the survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, was paid for by Netflix. Second, the survey was conducted only online, leaving out anyone who wasn’t online during the survey period and everyone who doesn’t have Internet access. Third, although 3,000 people were surveyed, Netflix calculated its results based only on half that: the 1,500 people who said they view online streaming feeds of TV shows on a weekly basis. Having thus narrowed the sample to people tilted toward Netflix’s business model, the company then crafted a conveniently malleable — and laughably imprecise — definition of binge-viewing: “watching two or three episodes [of a series] at least every few weeks.”

Surprise, surprise: Substantial majorities of this carefully selected group turned out to be engaged in and enthusiastic about binge-viewing. 

From a longer perspective, binge-viewing is neither new nor novel. TV critic Willa Paskin of Slate.com bravely has recalled watching “The Real World” marathons on MTV, which were telecast, I think, back in the late 1800s. And the advent of whole series packaged in boxed sets — first as VHS cassettes, then as DVD/Blu-ray discs — freed collectors to gorge themselves at will, rather than at the promotional whims of cable programmers desperate to fill time.

But was there ever really much binge-viewing of boxed sets? I mean, I’ve had all the DVD boxed sets of “The Sopranos” for years, but I’ve never watched even one of the 86 episodes inside — all of which I’d seen during the series’ seven-season Sunday night run on HBO.

`Yet there I was last week, head-bobbing in and out of consciousness on the couch, when I punched up Amazon Prime on screen and saw “The Sopranos,” Season One, beckoning to me. I thumbed a couple of buttons on the remote, and there he was: Tony Soprano, sitting in silent agitation, waiting for his first session with psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi.

My concession to temptation is of no real consequence. Binge-watching is a matter of personal choice, and if some businesses figure out how to make piles of money creating and facilitating these little addictions, it seems harmless enough from the viewers’ side of their various screens.

But it might not be so harmless for new series, at least as Netflix is doing it. Releasing all episodes of a season at the same time essentially robs a TV series of meaningful, substantive word of mouth among viewers. As my friend and former colleague, Dave Bianculli, put it in a column for his website, TVWorthWatching.com, “It doesn’t keep the pop-culture conversation going.”

He’s right. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations -– in person, via social media, private messages, in e-mail, whatever — that had to shut down because the participants hadn’t seen the same number of episodes, and nobody wanted to spoil things for the others.

Netflix may revel in coverage by TV-watching professionals of its simultaneous full-season launches. But while the practice facilities binge-viewing, it also all but eliminates the kind of week-to-week buzz among ordinary viewers that allowed slow-starting franchises like “Seinfeld,” “Breaking Bad” and, yes, “The Sopranos” get traction as they went along.

The Nielsen Company’s May 2014 report on television usage — i.e. real numbers — found that the average U.S. home now receives 189.1 channels of various kinds of television, but tunes in an average of only 17.5 channels.

Most of the latter are the over-the-air networks and their local affiliates. People spend about 170 hours per month watching traditional television, live or time-shifted. They spend only about 6 ½ monthly hours using multimedia devices that carry Netflix, Amazon and scads of other Internet video services, although time spent streaming video directly on a computer adds another 7 ½ hours to the total.

If Netflix wants its original series to survive in a viewing environment this cluttered, it better think about which actually has value: meaningless self-generated hype or real viewer word-of-mouth buzz.