Brilliant illustration by Kiersten Essenpreis (youfail.com)
What’s the last TV show you binged on?
I had 30 responses to this Facebook post within an hour or so. Which, if nothing else, tells me that gluttony in America is by no means limited to food.
But let’s start at the beginning. Most of us seem to know exactly what binge TV is, though it’s a relatively new phenomenon. Nevertheless, definition please:
n. A period of excessive indulgence spent watching previously broadcast episodes of a TV show. (binge viewer n.)
Of course, one person’s excessive indulgence is another person’s appetizer course, especially given our country’s lack of portion control (Don’t believe me – try ordering a plate of pasta in Italy). Yet the inverse of this is also true, especially if you’ve ever ordered a spaghetti main course at the Olive Garden (yes, I was once dragged there and actually had a ton of leftover penne on my plate).
All of this makes me think of another great American phenomenon – the TV dinner. Originally invented as the perfect size plate (tin?) of food a person could graze on through their favorite series, it would certainly need reinvention nowadays in light of binge viewing. Maybe a — TV trough? Or at least, well let’s say, a Banquet.
Or just add a pound of butter..
This already leads to an amendment of our brand new definition in light of the recent premiere of Netflix on-demand series like Orange Is The New Black, which by far was the #l binge choice to my informal binge survey. The women’s prison drama, adapted to your screen of choice by Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds, has ALWAYS been completely available – each one hour episode of thirteen – since its debut. Which means goodbye to excessive indulgence of a previously broadcast series and hello to gluttonous viewing of ANY TV series since shows financed by relatively new content providers like Netflix give us the CHOICE of ordering up and devouring ALL THIRTEEN HOURS of a season at one sitting if that’s what it takes to satisfy our ever-growing cravings.
Programs like Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Game of Thrones all drew multiple votes – though OITNB outweighed them all at least four times over. This could in part be due to the fact that the New Big O has only been on the market for a month and is the current IT show. After all, we are all human and live in the USA which means we exist in a place where the most current, talked about material will always be the thing that is considered the most popular binge of the moment. This is as sure as the fact that somewhere among us there will always be prom queens and prom kings. (Note: It is also reassuring to know that, much like prom royalty, the #1 popular cultural choice will also quickly be replaced by something else more to one’s liking since beauty, like popularity and ratings, never last forever).
What is far more interesting and encouraging is that aside from those top contenders, 30 television series running the gamut of every genre one could possibly imagine ODing on each got at least one binge recommendation from those who responded to this very unscientific survey of what do you binge on, TV-wise? They include:
- Existing cable series: Bates Motel, Breaking Bad, Switched at Birth
- Existing pay cable: Nurse Jackie, The Newsroom, Boardwalk Empire
- Defunct series: The Wire, Golden Girls, Friday Night Lights, Studio 60, Greek
- Euro imports: Sherlock, Dr. Who, The Lake, Braquo, The Fall, A Touch of Frost
- New Media First Runs: Attack on Titan, Arrested Development
- Network Series: Scandal, Under the Dome, New Girl, Parks & Recreation
- Reality Series: Kitchen Nightmares, The Biggest Loser
At the very least this tells me that audience taste in the new media age of binge is not as monolithic as market researchers (they usually work for networks and studios) want us to believe nor can it necessarily be categorized by age, ethnic origin or region (Note: I have an eclectic group of both Facebook and IRL friends who, as they used to say in the days prior to market research binging, cover the waterfront).
But what do these ever-growing gluttons really think about all of this stuff, beyond just their choice? I wanted to know more without the help of a paid market researcher and so should you, especially since my opinion markers are probably a lot closer to your taste than theirs. So take a look at a handful of five more in-depth and uncensored responses to questions posed by your Chair about the four very different TV shows these individuals recently binged on and why. (Note: Okay, full disclosure – The Chair is the fourth respondent because, well…there IS always a method to my madness – in this case diversity of choice). And further note that these respondents range in age from their late 20s to late 60s, live on various ends of the country, and include two males and two females of various sexual proclivities who, needless to say, all have very, very different tastes.
1. What show and why binge on this particular show?
2. How did you watch it? Did you speed through it, or take a little at a time?
3, What is your reaction to this show? Are you hooked? Would you recommend?
4. Did you know spoilers previously? If not, how did you avoid them?
5. Do you prefer binge to regular watching and why?
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, Netflix
Respondent #1- Female, 20s, NYorker
1) After all the buzz, I waited about 2 weeks and finally had to get “in the know.”
2) I watched it via Netflix streaming, probably at about 2 episodes a night (sometimes 3!). It took about a week to get through.
3) The great thing about it being available on Netflix is that it lends itself to voracious viewing – meaning, it needs to be seen in a short period of time. The pacing of the show doesn’t lend to a week-to-week viewing, and I’m not sure I would have stayed as invested in the characters if I’d done it that way. I almost imagined that I was in “viewing prison” with Piper (the lead character) – it was time to hunker down and be trapped with the show for a short period of time and then be released. I would recommend this to someone who is looking for a show to fill the void until the fall season – and who has 13 hours to kill.
4) I had steered clear of all spoilers, despite working in front of a computer all day, and having a lengthy commute which allows me to read every entertainment article imaginable. It’s fascinating to me that bloggers and recappers are incredibly careful and considerate when it comes to respecting the binge-watching viewer. Headlines are kept clean of any spoilers, first paragraphs are even non-specific and filled with warnings regarding content below. Vulture (one of my go-to recap haunts) decided to space out its reviews of Orange to suit a three-episode a week average. Considering the trolls out there, and the loose lips (fingers?) of my Facebook friends, it is a miracle that I was still able to be unsullied by spoilers.
5) It fulfills the need for instant gratification – there is no need to wait to find out what happens next – which I simultaneously love and hate. I love it because I’m impatient and love being able to see full character arcs unfold in a short time. I hate it because I lose the excitement of the week leading up to the episode… the wondering, the guessing, the appointment viewing… the last vestiges of a pre-DVR world. But who am I kidding? DVRs are the greatest invention since the remote control, or Google Maps. I just prefer regular, weekly viewing because then I don’t end up a mole-person, permanently in my PJs, un-showered, unaware of the time of day. (Chair Note: Is the latter really such a bad thing?)
BREAKING BAD, AMC, Basic Cable on DVD
Respondent #2 – Female, 40s, Los Angelino
1) My friend kept telling me to watch it, and I had read about how good it was. I wanted to see for myself — and to see if I liked it as much as Mad Men. They’re both great in their own ways. Impossible to compare.
2) I watched it on Netflix – 54 episodes in just under 2 weeks. One Saturday I think I watched 6 in one day. Most days I watched between 2-4. I wanted to make sure I finished before the season premiere aired because I knew that if I didn’t I would have found out what happened. Social media and the Internet would have spilled the beans.
3) I love the show. I am completely hooked and would definitely recommend. I was reluctant at first because I wasn’t interested in the world where it was set. But once I started watching I was captivated by the storytelling choices, and the acting, and the visual style choices. I had recently heard that they were supposed to shoot the show in Riverside County, California but Albuquerque was offering a huge production discount so that’s why it was shot there. The location really suited the show and I’ve heard numerous people say that Albuquerque became a character also. It really did, I couldn’t picture it being shot anywhere else. It’s wide open and claustrophobic at the same time. Also, the editing is stellar. Two of the episodes are nominated for Emmys this year. I’m probably voting for the season finale. (Chair Note: The latter fact makes this person that very desired elite binger).
4) I knew the basic premise of the show but did not know any spoilers. I could tell from the image of Bryan Cranston on the poster that the character undergoes some type of transformation. He starts out with hair in season one and he ends up with a shaved head and a goatee, kind of the badass look. I also made sure I didn’t read any of the articles on the Internet. When I started watching people were already talking about it in anticipation of the season premiere because it was off for a year and everyone was really excited for its return. I really made an effort to stay away.
5) I love binge watching – it makes me the boss of the TV. I like being able to decide when and how many I want to watch. It’s feels similar to reading a great book, wondering what’s going to happen next. I just turn on the TV and find out. The disappointing thing is when you’re done you have to wait and watch the rest with everyone else. After this season’s premiere, for a moment I felt like I could just go to Netflix and watch the next episode, but sadly NO 😦 Also, I’ve heard that some creatives don’t like people binge-watching. They feel that people are not allowing enough time to reflect on the stories being told. I disagree. (Chair Note: This person IS a creative so that’s at least one industry vote for the binge).
DOWNTON ABBEY, PBS by way of ITV, DVD
Respondent #3 – Male, 60s, Floridian
1) My friends kept at me about it but I am resistant to the period because to me it’s feels very much like “teacup movie time.” But when my brother, who is a really straight guy who lives in Idaho and builds kitchens, started talking about it to me, and told me I’d love it, I finally said, Okay, I gotta watch it.
2) My neighbor gave me the first two seasons on DVD and I watched it in a week and a half. Then a month later someone loaned me season three and I watched it in less than a week.
3) I’m totally hooked. It’s great storytelling and great characters. You get emotionally caught up in all their stories and want to know what’ll happen next. It’s so well written, sympathetic and well developed. Plus, Dan Stevens is dreamy. (Chair Note: Uh-oh)
4) Somebody slipped and mentioned a spoiler to me when I was in the middle of season two. Then I read something about a contract with one of the actors in season three so that sadly made me aware of the possibility of losing another character. I was late to the game so the article made me aware. But it didn’t hurt the show. I suppose it might have been more of a shocker if I didn’t know but that didn’t matter.
5) I do like binge viewing. Watching Downton Abbey week to week – I would’ve been really frustrated. That’s particularly the case with Breaking Bad, which I also binge viewed a few months ago. I’m used to watching these shows sometimes till 3 in the morning, sometimes 3 or 4 episodes a night. You’re consumed with it and it becomes much more impactful. It’s not so much the show even but the process of watching it and being engulfed in that world. Now you have to wait a week and you lose momentum, the all-consuming effect. You can enjoy it for that hour but then you go on with your life.
COLD CASE, CBS via Syndication
Respondent #4 – Male, 50s, Los Angeleno
1) I accidentally stumbled on it one night when I couldn’t sleep and immediately got hooked. I don’t generally like one-hour network drama these days and refused to sample this show when it aired. Wrong! More than half of every show flashes back in time to another decade where an unsolved crime was committed and is then played out in key bits and pieces dramatically. It also uses the real songs of the period, making it one of the most expensive network shows on television because of the music rights to famous songs from artists as varied as Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, Donna Summer, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones. Those songs alone takes you right back into the period. Plus, the way they match the period character with another actor who plays the same person 20 or 30 years later is impeccable. Some of the best casting I’ve ever seen on television.
2) I watched almost three of eight seasons of 22 episodes each in about three weeks. The issue is due to the music rights of such famous songs, the show is not available on DVD. The only way to get it is on reruns on the CBS cable channel ION-TV. Though I suppose there are other ways one could get fined for. Still, it’s sort of an adventure this way – you never know what you’re going to get. And there’s something about watching all these shows that are not readily available that, well, I kind of like.
3) I love it. Sometimes it’s so disturbing, depending on the crime, yet it’s also sort of soothing because most of the shows enable people to resolve a terrible issue that happened in their past and get closure. That resolution is almost always emotionally resonant and doesn’t always happen in real life – which is part of why we watch dramas anyway. After watching so many of the shows, you can see the structure. And yet, it also surprises me. I’d particularly recommend it to friends who are stubborn like me about network procedural series and who love music. There are almost no television dramas, or even films, where famous music plays such an integral part of the storytelling. It puts you in the space and informs the action in a way no amount of great dialogue ever could.
4) I knew NOTHING about this show. Absolutely nothing. Except that it didn’t interest me. Which proves that sometimes I literally do know nothing.
5) I like both but do love binge watching when I get to discover something I didn’t know about or resisted. That is not to say that I want to binge watch everything. I couldn’t imagine binge watching Mad Men because I got hooked immediately. The same with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Dexter. That said, there is plenty to binge on. Oh – and added bonus. Cold Case was created and written by Meredith Stiehm, one of the principal writers on the brilliant Homeland in its first two seasons. Another of its writers and eventual show runners was Veena Sud, who has gone on to create AMC’s The Killing. This allows you to understand how creative people grow into their careers and to experience the great works of their pasts.
So what have we learned here? That there is a huge gamut of public taste buds waiting to be tapped into if done in the right way. It just can’t all be done in the same way and, given our changing patterns of consumption, it won’t be anymore. Certainly producers understand this. You might think it’s cheapie programming on Netflix but you’re wrong – the low end cost estimates of shows like House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black is $3.8 – $4 million per episode. And there’s a reason why so much money is being spent. With so many options of ways to view and so many platforms to do it on, content providers see avenues opening up to make substantial overall gains on their investments.
Keep the drip flowing
Here’s the deal. They need lots and lots of content – both new and old. Not only what is the next new thing but what will be the next new “old thing.” What will last /endure beyond first run – which is more and more not much of a run – certainly not even a sprint and, in fact, something even longer than a marathon.
For a large and growing segment of today’s audience it’s not AS important to watch one episode (or even season) of a show when it debuts than it is to discover something that’s already been checked out by your friends and loved ones and given the seal of approval so you don’t have to waste time deciding. That’s the new model being established by binge viewing. This greatly differs from the network model, which wants to sell overpriced ads for first run appointment television, charging companies and audiences as much as they can for goods delivered with as little creative challenges or off-centeredness as possible to the widest possible audience. (Note: This model also causes them to complain endlessly at Emmy awards time when they’re often shut out in favor of more inventive cable programming).
What both cable and on-demand providers and have now discovered, thanks in part to technology, is that you can forever make money on superior (or even just plain quirky) creative choices that don’t necessarily take the easy way out and tell great and far more sophisticated stories. How much money? Well, this remains to be seen. But judging from Netflix’s investments coupled with initial and growing audience response – quite a lot. In particular, this change should cause creative unions to take note and readjust their financial demands because certainly none of these newer companies will fully share their true profits from these alternative revenue steams unless their hands are absolutely forced. The creative guilds, especially the writers, lost a fortune by not pushing back harder on the studios for a share of DVD revenue when it was the hottest thing going and the studios cleaned up. That is until there were newer and quicker ways to watch older or just seen shows. The same thing will undoubtedly happen with the burgeoning on demand /web based viewing – binge or not – if there is soon not some strong re-accounting adhered to.
A glimpse into our future?
Meanwhile, we mere viewers can bask in the many great choices now available on a growing home, tablet, or computer-screened menu. For decades television was seen as the poor stepchild of movies but these days it seems like the roles have been reversed. Respondent #3 notes that if he were an Emmy voter he’d find it impossible to choose the winner of best drama series between such nominees as Mad Men, Homeland, Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey. Almost as difficult as he found it to choose the winner of the best picture Oscar in 1976, the first time he was a voting member of the Motion Picture Academy. Among the nominees that year were Network, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Rocky. Nowadays, he struggles to even have that many films worthy of nomination. But has no trouble finding many more choices than that to binge on from the small screen.
Addendum: This blog inspired me to binge view all six episodes of a new half-hour Australian show called Please Like Me. It’s sort of a gay version of Girls and it is faaaabulous. And — it can now be seen here
Addendum 2: 2.0? A previous version of this blog ended up in many spam folders… I blame network television execs!