Binge viewing: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes fuel the frenzy

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5 2013 7:00 a.m. MST

In this Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, photo, a woman holds up a Netflix envelope to be photographed in front of  a Netflix application on a television in East Derry, N.H.   (Charles Krupa, ASSOCIATED PRESS) In this Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, photo, a woman holds up a Netflix envelope to be photographed in front of a Netflix application on a television in East Derry, N.H. (Charles Krupa, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

SALT LAKE CITY — On Friday Netflix’s streaming service debuted “House of Cards” — the high-profile drama that includes actor Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher, a TV-MA rating and a $100 million price tag for two seasons. By making all 13 episodes of the show’s first season available at the same time, Netflix consciously opted to enable the practice of “binge viewing” in which viewers spend hours on end consuming episode after episode of their favorite TV shows.

Brian Stelter explored the multifaceted, cause-and-effect relationship between Netflix and binging in a front-page article for Friday’s New York Times: “Binge-viewing, empowered by DVD box sets and Netflix subscriptions, has become such a popular way for Americans to watch TV that it is beginning to influence the ways the stories are told — particularly one-hour dramas — and how they are distributed. … ‘House of Cards,’ which is the first show made specifically for Netflix, dispenses with some of the traditions that are so common on network TV, like flashbacks. There is less reason to remind viewers what happened in previous episodes, the producers say, because so many viewers will have just seen it.”

Entertainment Weekly summarized the Netflix rationale for trying to spark binge viewing. “Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wants to feed our guilty-pleasure viewing habit,” James Hibberd reported Thursday. “He’s previously declared that ‘Netflix’s brand for TV shows is really about binge viewing.’ In his latest earnings report to investors, he touted the revolutionary wisdom of his company’s ongoing plan to release entire seasons of original TV shows all at once. ‘Imagine if books were always released one chapter per week, and were only briefly available to read at 8 p.m. on Thursday,’ he wrote. ‘And then someone flipped a switch, suddenly allowing people to enjoy an entire book, all at their own pace. That is the change we are bringing about. That is the future of television.’”

Conversely, Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein penned an analysis piece last week that, in looking at the issue from a business standpoint, ultimately called into question the financial prudence of Netflix’s binge-friendly strategy.

“The appeal of binge viewing isn't difficult to comprehend,” Wallenstein observed. “Anyone who has been left on pins and needles by a great episode of TV only to have to wait to another week, or conversely, sat bleary-eyed in their living room for hours on end, knows its power firsthand. But the efficiency that makes binge viewing so compelling also accelerates the time a consumer spends with Netflix. … And therein lies the paradox inherent in Netflix's business model: Allowing consumers to consume at their own speed contradicts the company's financial imperative to keep them on the service paying the seductively cheap flat monthly fee of $8 for as many months as possible.”

In a follow-up update for Variety that went online Sunday afternoon, Wallenstein pointed out yet another way in which the new Netflix model diverges from the heretofore status quo practice of shows being released in weekly installments: Only Netflix will know how many people are actually watching “House of Cards.”

“There won't be any immediate answers, however, as to the impact of ‘Cards’ on Netflix, which isn't expected to divulge any audience measurement stats,” Wallenstein wrote. “Nor does it profess to care how many people watch right off the bat — in stark contrast to the way the TV business is attuned — because the value of the series won't be realized until far into its run.”

The February 2013 issue of GQ magazine profiles Hastings. In the article, writer Nancy Hass outlined Netflix’s plans to release new original content later this year with all-episodes-at-once rollouts that are conducive to binge viewing: “Within months of (the ‘House of Cards’) debut, two other series, ‘Orange Is the New Black’ and ‘Hemlock Grove,’ an adaptation of the supernaturally tinged novel, will also stream exclusively on Netflix. And in the spring, Netflix will debut the long-awaited season four of ‘Arrested Development,’ the beloved series that Fox canceled seven years ago.”

Netflix isn’t the only company looking to capitalize on viewers’ binging habits. As Marcus Wohlsen detailed Friday for Wired, iTunes and Amazon are allowing consumers who purchase a season pass for the popular British drama “Downton Abbey” to watch the final three episodes of season three before the shows even premiere in the U.S.

“Since Netflix doesn’t sell ads around its shows,” Wohlsen wrote, “the all-at-once release of the entire season (of ‘House of Cards’) is a marketing gambit that lets the company present itself as in touch with 21st-century viewing habits. … The decision has led to will-you-or-won’t-you-binge hand-wringing, a decision that ‘Downton’ fans now also face.”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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