A few months ago, President Obama stopped HBO’s commander in chief, Richard Plepler, at a state dinner for French President François Hollande. Obama didn’t want foreign policy tips from Plepler; rather, he inquired about getting advance copies of HBO’s blockbuster original series Game of Thrones, which at the time was still a month away from its new season premiere.
The leader of the free world is among nearly three-fourths of Americans who don’t mind being binge-TV viewers. About 73% of consumers say they’re proud they watch at least two to six episodes of a series in one sitting, according to a December 2013 Harris Interactive poll of binge viewers conducted for Netflix.
The hoopla over the novelty of binge viewing may have died down since last year, when the phrase was as prominent in the cultural zeitgeist as “selfie” or “twerking.” What’s impressive is these marathon TV viewers are indulging as much as or even more than they did in the past. The trend shows no signs of abating as a constant stream of quality original shows, and the technology to store and retrieve them, has consumers watching as much as they can as quickly as they can.
The expansion of digital services like Netflix and Hulu and MSOs’ digitally-enhanced services, like videoon- demand and digital video recorders, has continued to fuel the habit of many TV viewers to consume continuous episodes of current shows like Thrones and AMC’s Mad Men, as well as older titles such as AMC’s Breaking Bad, for hours on end.
“We’ve reached the tipping point of consumer behavior,” Michael Wright, president, head of programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies, said. “Viewers now know it’s OK to sample any TV show at any time because they can catch up on their own time.”
Viewers are still watching live television in big numbers. More than 286 million total viewers per month watched television during fourth-quarter 2013, a slight increase over the 283 million that watched a year earlier, according to a Nielsen Cross-Platform Report released last month. But viewers are also increasing their time-shifted viewing: Nearly 20 million more viewers watched shows on VOD, DVR or on digital platforms in fourth-quarter 2013 than did in Q4 2012, according to Nielsen.
Binge viewing has almost become a lifestyle for many viewers — a diversion from the hustle of everyday life. Fully 76% of TV streamers say watching multiple episodes of a great TV show is a welcome refuge from their busy lives, and another 80% say they would rather stream a good TV show than read social media posts, according to the Harris poll.
The binge-viewing phenomenon isn’t new — cable networks for decades have offered on-air marathons of popular shows to allow viewers to catch up on episodes they missed or to help build awareness for an upcoming new season. Networks over the years have also benefited from full-season DVD sales of their most popular TV shows. History’s miniseries The Bible, A&E’s Duck Dynasty (seasons 1, 2 and 3), PBS’s Downton Abbey (season 3) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (season 2), for example, all finished among the top 100 topselling DVDs last year, according to DVD market data website thenumbers.com.
Yet a virtual “perfect storm” of technological advances over the past three to five years has created a new category of viewer who is devouring content more thoroughly than the flesh-eating zombies on cable’s most-watched series, The Walking Dead.
Executives have said the increasing capabilities of DVRs and their proliferation in cable homes — nearly 40% of households have DVRs that can record, in some cases, up to as many as 200 hours of high-defi nition video, according to MagnaGlobal — has spurred viewers’ desire to tape their favorite shows for future binge viewing. In fact, viewers spent 14 hours a month watching time-shifted television in Q4 2013, an increase of more than two hours per month over Q4 2012, according to Nielsen.
“People are catching up on a number of platforms, including their own DVRs,” Joel Stillerman, executive vice president of production and digital content for AMC, said. “On any given night, the No. 1 show on television could be the one that people are watching on their DVRs.”
VOD viewing of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and other series has also exploded over the past few years as more operators look to offer complete seasons of popular shows. Comcast recently completed its second annual “Xfinity Watchathon Week,” targeting binge viewers. Comcast customers watched nearly 50 million hours of shows over seven days during the on-demand stunt, and helped build ratings for premiere episodes of several titles featured during the promotion, according to Comcast. For example, Comcast subscribers watched past episodes of Game of Thrones during the Watchathon and then posted viewership for the show’s April 6 season four debut that were 17% higher than in non-Comcast households across the U.S., the MSO said.
BINGEING VIA OTT
Arguably the biggest development driving binge viewing has been the growth of inexpensive OTT services like Netflix and Hulu, which offer past seasons of popular shows for subscribers to watch at their leisure. The Harris Interactive poll reported that 61% of video streamers binge-watch two to three episodes of a series at least every few weeks; that plays into the offerings of Netlfix in particular, which offers episodes from hundreds of series, including its own Emmy-winning drama House of Cards.
“With the advent of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, the world changed and binge-viewing became the new norm,” Jackie de Crinis, executive vice president of original scripted programming at USA Network, said.
“With Netflix and Amazon and VOD, I can now drop in on episode five as a viewer, and if I Iike it, I’m pretty confi dent that I’m going to be able to go back and fi nd episodes one, two, three and four and catch up and not miss anything,” Turner’s Wright said.
Executives say the trend doesn’t seem to be ebbing among TV viewers anytime soon. A recent Comcast poll on bingeing found that 82% of U.S. adults watch two or more episodes of a show in one sitting, and of those bingers, 52% said they are purposely neglecting some other activity like housework, eating or showering while bingeing on TV shows.
Just Add Milk: Serial Is Tastiest Drama on Binge Menu
Binge viewing has benefitted one TV genre above all others: serial dramas.
Once considered a risky play for cable networks looking to generate big ratings for scripted dramas, the serial — with its slowly developing, character-driven plotlines — has replaced episodic crime and medical dramas as the most-watched programming genre on cable.
In 2011, AMC’s The Walking Dead and TNT’s Falling Skies were the only serial dramas among cable’s top 10 most-watched shows. Fast-forward to the end of 2013, and seven of the top 10 most watched shows and miniseries were serialized in nature. Last year’s pack was still led by The Walking Dead, which drew more than 16 million viewers — nearly double the audience the zombie-themed series averaged in 2011.
The genre’s development has been propelled by consumers’ ability to keep up with the complicated storylines and plot twists of serial dramas via binge-viewing on DVRs, video on demand, and OTT services such as Netflix and Hulu, network executives said.
“There’s a definite, symbolic relationship that nets out to something positive between the original creators and distributors of these serialized dramas and the ability to catch up on missed episodes,” Joel Stillerman, executive vice president of production and digital content for AMC, said. The network was one of the first basiccable networks to firmly step into the genre with the 2007 premiere of Mad Men and 2008 debut of Breaking Bad.
Back then, episodic dramas that featured closed-ended storylines and characters that rarely evolved beyond their week-to-week identities, like TNT’s The Closer and USA’s Law & Order SUV, dominated the drama landscape. Serial dramas were considered risky propositions because executives say they feared consumers would not remain interested in the plotlines if they missed a few episodes.
“Even if you were drawn to it and said, ‘That looks interesting,’ if you missed an episode or two most likely you were going to say, ‘I’m out,’ ” said Michael Wright, president, head of programming for TNT, TBS and Turner Classic Movies.
By the end of 2012, as DVRs and VOD became more prevalent in cable-subscriber homes and OTT services like Netflix and Hulu began offering full seasons of TV shows currently on the air, serial dramas began to find an audience — even if sometimes it was several seasons after the show first premiered.
“Subscription VOD, as well as time-shifted DVR viewing, allowed people to just capture something they missed or actually find a show over time,” Sarah Barnett , president and general manager of Sundance Channel, said. Formerly a network known for independent movies, Sundance has rode the serial series wave to record ratings and critical acclaim for such original dramas as Rectify and Top of the Lake.
“There’s now a real ease in which we can all catch up with shows,” Barnett added. “I think that serialized shows have the ability to acquire new audiences throughout [a] multi-season run, which adds a vitality to that form.”
As a result, AMC’s Stillerman said, show producers now feel more comfortable writing intricate storylines with complex characters that are compelling and appealing to fans of the genre.
“There was an unwritt en rule that your protagonist or lead had to be the same week to week, whether that was in a cop box or a doctor box or lawyer box, you didn’t see a lot of change in the most beloved TV protagonists,” Stillerman said. “Then along comes a story about (Breaking Bad’s chemistry teacher turned crystal meth dealer) Walter White or (Mad Men’s smooth but complicated ad executive) Don Draper that changes the engine that drives the story, and all of the sudden you’re on a journey much like when you read a great book.”
While binge-viewing on digital platforms is helping draw audiences to serial dramas, programming executives said the practice is more beneficial as a promotional tool than as the primary way to view such shows.
“You never want to be completely reliant on binge-viewing,” said Jackie de Crinis, executive vice president of original scripted programming at USA Network.
— R. Thomas Umstead
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.