By Tim Kaiser, Editor-in-Chief
To binge, or not to binge, that is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer through waiting a week at a time for your favorite show, or to take arms against the standard TV model and stockpile episodes like the squirrel before winter.
Ok, so this isn’t life and death, and I’m not Shakespeare, but this is the question facing TV fans when Netflix dropped all 13 episodes of Season 2 of the Emmy-winning House of Cards in their lap on Valentine’s Day. However, the question remains when normal TV schedules resume after the Olympics.
With DVR, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, On Demand, iTunes, Apple TV, video piracy, BluRays and DVDs, and countless other methods, audiences have less and less incentive to watch their favorite TV shows on the network model. It would seem that more choices and flexibility are always better for the consumer, but are we missing out on something with time shifted viewing.
There are few things in this world I enjoy than binge watching a good TV show. I can sit down in front of my laptop or TV with enough junk food and beer to put down a small hippo. Before coming up for air, Season 1 of the “The Wire” is over, it looks like a rabid hyena has attacked my snack supply, and I am ten hours older.
I may have more of a tolerance for bingeing shows than others may, but my tactics are not unlike those of many fans. This style gets you completely enraptured in the story. You don’t have time to forget plot points. In this age of serialized TV, binge watching can be better for getting the natural rhythm the showrunner is trying to achieve with the story.
The most obvious benefit is that, as people, we are naturally impatient and crave finality.
There is nothing worse than getting invested in a show and worrying about it being cancelled before it reaches finality or before it is even given a chance to get started. The traditional network machine is designed to cancel struggling shows and fill it with 1 of 20 pilots they ordered that fall. A show needs time to grow. “Parks & Recreation” and “The Office” both were almost cancelled after low viewership in their first season. However, in one of the rare good decisions NBC has made in the last ten years, they let them grow and became two of the best comedies on TV and by far the best, most consistent comedies NBC has produced since the end of the Friends/Seinfeld era.
Binge watching eliminates all these headaches and worries. No need to worry if a show is coming back if you don’t start watching until it’s over. Many viewers like having the knowledge of how many episodes they are committing to before they even start watching. People can read their favorite TV writers or listen to their friends to decide if it is worth investing in “X” number of episodes. Critically-acclaimed “Freaks and Geeks” was cancelled after 18 episodes (the action we are more accustomed to from the NBC Braintrust), but acquired a cult following long after it had finished airing and the Judd Apatow posse had moved on to feature films.
“Arrested Development’s” binge-watching cult following led Netflix to bring back the ill-fated Fox sitcom, and start another cycle of bingeing.
Netflix has embraced the binge model with their own original programming. Along with “House of Cards” and Season 4 of “Arrested Development,” the most well-known on-demand streaming service has produced “Orange is the New Black,” “Lilyhammer,” and “Hemlock Grove,” each time electing to make the whole season available at 2:00 am Central Time on the release date.
The traditional TV model has also benefited from the binge model in an interesting way. “Breaking Bad” went from critic-darling and hardcore fan base to cultural phenomenon in its final season. A split final season let viewers who were late to the game catch up through Netflix and other services. By the time the season finale rolled around, it drew approximately 10 million viewers to AMC. Walter White and Co. dominated the national conversation for months.
That national conversation is not possible with the Netflix model. People watch “House of Cards” at their own pace. I finished rewatching the first season of “HoC” around noon on Valentine’s Day and was done with the second season by Saturday night (Feb. 15). I then have to wait to discuss the show with my friends until they finish. Twitter has gained a whole new set of spoiler rules for “HoC” and shows like it. The normal 12 hour moratorium on show discussion civilized people abide by no longer applies. Whole services have arisen from the dilemma of trying to use Twitter while not having yet seen “HoC.”
So down to the question: To binge or not to binge?
As a consumer, I love having the access to the backlog of old TV episodes that Netflix provides. It gives more people a shot to get into a TV show, and I am all for that. However, the Netflix-model of TV is troublesome. “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” are great shows that should get way more conversation than some of the trash the networks peddle out on a weekly basis.
Netflix needs to feed us more slowly so we aren’t like an over-anxious Labrador scarfing down a rich meal without chewing. I need to be saved from myself. I feel a pressure to finish their shows as quickly as possible, not as quickly as I would like. This flies in the face of the freedom Netflix provides by its existence. With social media and the breadth of TV writing today, spoilers are just too much of an ever-present danger.
Three episodes a week may be a nice middle ground. This would allow for the natural cycle of the conversation, and give subscribers more flexibility without having to block all social media sites.
TV shows should be savored and digested at a pace you want, not ingested as quickly as possible so they don’t spoil.