Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

To binge or not to binge (on TV)

Advertisers, networks struggling to cash in on TV's 'Shakespearean' era

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Before the days of Netflix, Hulu and even DVDs, Helen Popkin called in sick from work because she was too busy watching all of Twin Peaks with her roommate.

"I didn't watch Twin Peaks when it first came out, but my roommate had always been obsessed with it, so when the box set came out on VHS, my roommate got it... so we watched one episode and we couldn't stop," Popkin, who is now the deputy editor of technology and science at NBC News, said. "We stayed in three days and called in sick Monday and just plowed through every single episode. I remember on Monday morning I got up -- we hadn't yet decided to call in sick -- and he's sitting there watching an episode without me, and I was furious."

This story isn't as extreme as you might think. Binge-watching, by definition, is watching many, many episodes of a television show all in one sitting.

Binge-watching, as a trend, is puzzling to advertisers, viewers and executives alike -- how can networks satisfy viewers and vice versa?

With sites like Netflix ($7.99/month) and Hulu ($7.99/month for Hulu Plus, free for limited episodes with advertisements) streaming complete seasons of shows -- as well as original content -- theoretically, one could spend a lifetime at a computer consuming as much TV as they'd like.

Thomas Cooper, a visual and media arts faculty professor at Emerson College in Boston and author of Fast Media, Media Fast (AuthorHouse, $17.96), spoke about binge-watching as a means of catering content directly to viewers over and over again.

"Vendors/programmers/corporations always want more 'eyeballs,'" Cooper said. "Releasing multiple episodes and complete series increases revenues and makes viewers into repeat viewers when they can watch all episodes in rapid succession. The market is increased and products can be recycled more readily in addition to reruns. Since both initial releases and reruns are scheduled, whole menus and clustered episodes have the value of time-shifting, serialized viewing and complete ownership... The trend will eventually peak, as all do."

Netflix's director of global corporate communications, Joris Evers, says Netflix's purpose is not to encourage binge-watching, just to offer as much content for its customers as possible, given the changing times.

"While it is possible to watch an entire season of a show on Netflix in one sitting, most of our members don't do that," Evers wrote in an email. "It is much more common for a Netflix member to watch two, maybe three episodes in a row. For us, making full seasons of TV shows available is about giving our members the freedom to watch what they want to watch, when they want to watch it, on their device of choice. We don't want to limit our members to a once-a-week time slot."

Illinois State University freshman Daniel Esquivel often tweets about TV shows and believes Netflix is where it's at in terms of what to watch -- but there's a price to pay. "The upside is that they don't have to worry about censorship, because it's really aggravating that we're so concerned with that," he said. "But the downside is that of any other TV show that is on Netflix in whole, you lose whole weeks of your life to one TV show. Also, I have no idea when (the Netflix original series) Orange is the New Black is coming back and it's killing me because the season finale is a huge cliffhanger."

This concept of binge-watching predates television altogether, if one considers the evolution of media consumption over time.

John Branch, a copy editor at Vanity Fair, wrote a blog post for HuffPost TV commenting on the nature of binge-watching and its early incarnations through books, music and more. Famous authors such as Charles Dickens released novels in serial format, with chapters released individually in newspapers, similar to weekly episodes of broadcast and cable-TV shows.

Critics often refer to the current period as the golden age of television, with layered, incomparable storytelling, but Branch warns this may not be permanent, as history tends to repeat itself. "There's always a desire for this complex story," he said. "It may well happen and TV will decay, because they always have. The Elizabethan Age of literature in England is another comparison. Shakespeare declined too."

Part of the nature behind how these shows work and resonate with viewers is the Shakespearean-like quality behind them.

Take Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy. Both have strong, conflicted antiheroes you root for one week and wish dead the next. Sons of Anarchy makes subtle nods to older tragedies, some noting its likeness to Hamlet, in particular.

Branch said shows like Game of Thrones, and before that The Sopranos and even Sex and the City, are crucially episodic and part of what makes each one tick. "A season of Game of Thrones is like the next book in the series," he said.

However, sometimes the most binge-worthy shows aren't ones that are necessarily good -- just addicting. Popkin named True Blood as an example, "because it's so ridiculous."

With Netflix original shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, and Hulu originals like The Awesomes and Misfits, will there be any reason to have shows broadcast on TV? Most think so.

Popkin makes the prediction that reality television will dominate broadcast TV, as it is cheap to produce, but watercooler shows like Scandal that ignite strong buzz on Twitter are the possible saving grace for the advertising industry. "We'll always have broadcast shows. Reality TV is so cheap and so successful. That depends on watching in the moment," she said.

"I didn't even realize Scandal was a thing and I happened to go on Twitter," Popkin said. "I could tell what was going on just by reading the hashtags. People love to have this conversation and love to interact with each other (about TV shows so much) that Twitter is attempting to monetize it."

Branch said the advertising industry won't give up that easily. "Any company that is used to selling or creating television series is used to accommodating and breaking them into parts," he said. "The networks that are carrying them are used to paying for them. The way that Netflix has done it so far hasn't got anything to do with advertising. You're paying them a fee."

-- McClatchy-Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2013 A14

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