When TV Viewers Get Control

Netflix released the second season of the House of Cards Friday February 14, 2014.  All thirteen episodes were immediately available.

My wife and I viewed 5 of them in one afternoon.  We plan to complete the season within the next week (or not). 

Like other Netflix subscribers we choose how and when we watch the new season.

This is called “binge” viewing.  It seems an odd word to describe this phenomenon.  As in “binge” drinking for example. We immediately picture someone who gives into his worst impulses and has no control.

Curiously it is just the opposite.  Why?  Simply put, the viewer controls the experience.

This option breaks the standard release pattern for new “TV” episodes. 

The standard pattern forces you to wait for the right moment on the right day for the episode to magically appear.  The control resides with the linear network—not with you.

We are also watching True Detective on HBO, a show that runs for 8 episodes, released one at a time.  You can’t see them all at once, even if you wanted.  You are not in control.

Let’s try a thought experiment.

Assume that House of Cards and True Detective are novels.  

Can you imagine buying them and being told that you had to wait to read the second chapter or the chapter after that?  That you have to wait ten to fifteen weeks to complete the narrative?

No you cannot.

You properly see them as unified stories, with characters and themes that deepen over time.  When they work—they grab you and refuse to let you go.  You do not want to put them down. 

Or put them down as little as you can— your schedule permitting.  And it is your schedule that shapes the experience. 

Is it all at once, without a stop or just an episode here, an episode there, as you meander to the end?  Is it somewhere in between?

You decide.

Many people see binge viewing as a stunt cooked up by Netflix. Others see a temporary fad that will fade away when we all return to the “regular” experience of TV.

They are wrong. 

The opportunity to see all the episodes of a “TV” series returns us to an experience that predates the creation of TV—when we curled up with a book, silently reading at our own pace, with our own thoughts, under our own control.  

This is an experience that human beings really treasure, young and old.

This is also the unintended consequence of whole TV seasons being released on DVDs.  Surely you remember when you first experienced that rush of seeing The Sopranos from one episode to another without interruption. 

You thought, “Why can’t I get this experience when I first watch Sopranos on HBO?”  

Netflix took the next logical step and added originals to give viewers this experience from the beginning.

The traditional networks thought that DVDs and the Internet were just another way to make incremental revenue for the shows released on their linear networks.  They didn’t realize they were doing something more profound and disruptive. 

They (re) created (old) new consumer habits.  Habits we have always enjoyed-just not on television. And by doing so, they laid the groundwork for the gradual decline of their own linear networks.

Human beings do not want to watch a scripted series when the network says they must. 

We want to curl up with great shows like House of Cards and True Detective just as we might a good book-when it calls to us and when we have time.

This is where TV is headed—where the linear schedule exists just for people who do not want to control their own lives.

Are you one of those people who longs to have someone else control your life?

I didn’t think so.

All the TV networks need to catch up with their customers.

Give us a great TV series we can curl up with.


About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at [email protected] or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • Moone

    You can binge watch shows like True Detective, wait until it is done airing and watch.

    • chrisdorr

      That is true, but only after the whole series has run its course from beginning to end. And that is a crucial difference. Netflix has a tremendous advantage because it is not wedded to a linear channel as we switch more and more to a nonlinear viewing world.

      • Moone

        Premium Channels could easily release each season on the internet and their apps. Why do you think HBO and Showtime don’t do this? I think they must have some reason they don’t.

        • chrisdorr

          I think they are still tied to their linear channels. Their ratings on those channels are still used as a measure of their success. I suspect that as Netflix continues to release their originals all at once and their audiences respond positively to that experience the pressure will build on HBO and Showtime to do the same.