With the rise of online streaming websites like Amazon Prime Instant Video and Netflix, binge viewing has come to the forefront of media attention, in terms of how we consume media – television in particular – in the modern age. With that in mind, it seems fitting that we should look at the rise of binge watching in light of students’ behaviour.
Though some people like to make out that binge viewing is an entirely new Netflix-invented phenomenon, it has been going on for years, from the advent of video cassettes to the DVD box set. Sky+ and other digital recorders with the series-link function also paved the way for people to stack up multiple episodes and watch them in one go. However, it is striking how ever-present and prevalent binge viewing has become. While it’s far from a new pastime, Netflix and various other platforms have helped to democratise the process. Before the creation of these platforms, an individual would have to spend vast amounts of money on overpriced box sets, or have a costly Sky subscription and the foresight to know what was going to interest you and when, so that you could set your recording. Now, all you need is a Netflix subscription, an open mind and time to kill. This means that you can try out the first episode of a show on a whim, without having to pay for the whole boxset.
The rise of binge viewing is easy to understand. The phrase ‘just one more episode…’ is an apt reflector of the easy temptation to watch one more television show – another forty minutes watching is easy to justify in your own mind, while a two hour long film can feel like too much. Netflix’s ‘your next episode starts in 15 seconds’ feature means you don’t even have to touch your iPad or computer mouse, obviously encouraging this kind of watching. Netflix has moved beyond providing shows from other broadcasters in one big bulk, and has started to create its own content. The success of House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black is linked to this rise of binging, because both were released all at once for audiences to consume as they like. Netflix has attracted big name directors like David Fincher and Eli Roth adding to the credibility that the platform has garnered. New Google Chromecast now makes it easy to stream your Netflix account to your television, so you don’t even have to get a pricy Smart TV to watch your content on a big screen. However, there are doubts as to whether this can currently offer the same levels of picture quality as, say, a Blu-ray box set of Sherlock.
From this then comes the inevitable question of whether the rise of Netflix, and its associated rise of binge viewing on a more obvious stage has changed the way that we consume media. Kevin Spacey, star of House of Cards, one of the first original shows to come from an exclusive online platform, certainly thinks that it should spur network executives to think about television in a different way. In a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival he argued that: ‘the success of the Netflix model – releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once – proved one thing: the audience wants the control. They want the freedom. If they want to binge like they’ve been doing on House of Cards and lots of other shows, we should let them binge’. Spacey’s desire for the control to be placed in the hands of the audience parallels the need amongst many of us to know what happens next right now.
As Spacey points out, the transfer of television shows’ past series to online providers has let to bigger audiences for the currently airing series. Spacey points to Breaking Bad as the ultimate example of this. ‘Breaking Bad was a slow starter ratings wise’, Spacey notes. That is, until the whole back catalogue of episodes became available on Netflix. He calls it a teaching moment for networks – ‘a lesson in patience’ – where a show can take time to attract a larger audience. This alone seems like a lesson network executives – who are very quick to cancel shows if they do not provide expected numbers – need to learn. This suggests that a greater connection with online streaming platforms can only add to to the successes of network television. Learning from each other can only bring better quality television to the audiences.
Many have used the rise of Netflix originals and online streaming to suggest that there has been an irrevocable change in the television industry, suggesting it will result in the end of normal broadcast television. This is erroneous however, as the extreme majority of the public still watch television as it is broadcast. ITV’s hit Broadchurch and the BBC’s Line of Duty have proved that delayed gratification is still very high on the public’s agend, and in some cases results in massive viewing figures, as peoples’ desire for the space to wonder and question what happens next still creates ‘the water cooler moment’. In fact, one of the biggest TV shows in the world, Game of Thrones, has achieved continued success without being made available on one of the main streaming platforms, although it should be noted that SkyGo, Sky’s on demand service frequently makes the whole box set available on demand for individuals to download all at once to their computer or Sky box.
Overall, the rise of binge viewing, – and the platforms which cater to this desire – places the impetus upon the viewer. While there is a broad audience for television on demand, people still want to engage beyond the show, perhaps to talk to a friend the day after an episode has been broadcast about what Frank did, or how much Walt has changed since the first episode. Online streaming platforms allow those who may have missed the train the first time around to jump in and engage with material they would previously that that isn’t a TV repeat or an expensive box set. In the end, it just gives audiences more control over the way they watch, which encourages the impetus on quality storymaking, rather than big single moment viewing figures.