MBPT Spotlight: Binge Viewing--A Thing or Not a Thing?

The first time I heard the term “binge viewing” was not when Netflix released its first season of House of Cards, but rather when people would buy DVDs of certain shows to catch up on the first season or two.  

I did this with Mad Men. I had seen the pilot, but not the rest of the first or second seasons. Friends were constantly telling me how good the show was, so about a month before the season 3 premiere, I bought the first two seasons, watched every episode and became a regular viewer. I did the same thing with Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead (although I caught up with marathons on AMC, rather than buying the DVDs).

Before binge viewing even had a name, DVRs enabled people to store and watch more than one episode of their favorite shows in one sitting. Fox’s hit drama 24 was one of the first to fit this category. The show actually debuted about five years before Nielsen started measuring DVR activity. The show was so intense for TV (at the time), and initially each episode left viewers hanging so much that it was a natural fit for multiple episode viewing via DVR. A lot of people simply didn’t want to wait an entire week to see the next episode.

Even before that, many cable networks built their lineups on binge viewing with a scheduling tactic known as “stacking,” whereby there are several consecutive episodes of the same program.

Hulu seems to be making a big deal out of acquiring every episode of Seinfeld, but I can’t imagine much binge viewing there. It’s been on in syndication and on cable for so many years, it’s probably binged out by now. This probably won’t have much impact on getting new subscribers or substantially increase viewing.

Not many people really wanted to watch every episode of NBC’s Aquarius at once (so no one should draw any conclusions based on any of its viewing trends that might be made public – unless none are, in which case we’ll know enough).

Ironically, Netflix, the viewing source that gave binge viewing its name, probably has less binge viewing than any cable network with stacked programming. I would think viewers spend much more time every month watching Law & Order: SVU, Modern Family and NCIS on USA, Criminal Minds on ION or Big Bang Theory on TBS than they do watching any single series on Netflix. If that is not the case, I’d love to see the data.

So to go back to my original question, binge viewing is a thing, but it’s not a new thing, and the impact all these streaming services currently have is probably similar to the impact a new mid-size cable network would have. That is, occasionally siphoning viewers from other networks, occasionally adding new viewers to the mix, and occasionally generating more fear than warranted among those who always fear something new that can’t be measured and fit into a tidy box the way they are accustomed to doing.

Sternberg is has more than 30 years of television and video analysis experience, having held top research posts at Bozell, TN Media, Magna Global and ION Media Networks. He also authors the TV industry blog, The Sternberg Report (sternbergreport.com).