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A version of this story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On May 28, NBC will jump on the binge-viewing bandwagon, releasing the entire 13-episode first season of Aquarius online while also airing the David Duchovny period drama each week on linear TV. NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt proclaimed that the move — a first for a broadcast network — would “push some new boundaries” and give audiences what they want. But NBC may be serving up the binge just as Hollywood is beginning to ask: Have viewers had their fill?
While pioneer Netflix has ridden the binge-viewing trend to media-darling status (62 million global subscribers and a $600 stock price), on May 21 the service quietly began rolling out Canadian co-production Between week-to-week on Netflix and Canada’s City network. At the same time, observers and even Netflix creators acknowledge that the all-at-once model limits media attention on shows beyond the burst around the premiere and might lead audiences to eschew series that feel more like a 13-hour obligation than entertainment.
“I miss having people on the same page,” Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan tells THR, adding, “I do miss being able to go online and have the conversation the day after. But it’s kind of a waste of time to lament that because that’s not the way our show comes.” The comments by Kohan, whose prison dramedy debuts its third batch of episodes June 12, echo Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner saying May 20 that if he created a series for Netflix, he would ask that it roll out episodes over time “so at least there was just some shared experience. I love the waiting [and] marination.”
Others agree. While streamers Amazon and Hulu were quick to emulate Netflix, Hulu is expected to explore non-binge release schedules for its upcoming slate and Yahoo released Community‘s sixth season over multiple weeks.
“Figuring out which shows are binge-worthy is tricky for a network or online service,” says Stephen Winzenburg, author of Putting on the Hits: How Networks Program Your Favorite TV Shows. “Some titles that are heavily promoted and build broad interest, such as House of Cards, can draw large numbers of bingers … while other series like Community do well with the more traditional week-by-week online airing.”
To be sure, Netflix has benefited greatly since it decided to stream the entire 13-episode first season of House of Cards on Feb. 1, 2013. “For Netflix specifically, binge-viewing is a key differentiator of the service,” explains Pivotal Research Group’s Jeffrey Wlodarczak. And despite the Between experiment, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos does not appear to be backing down from the binge, telling MIPCOM attendees last year that “releasing one episode at a time will increasingly be a thing of the past.” Data-driven Netflix claims that it is giving audiences what they want. Deloitte’s Digital Democracy Survey, conducted in November, found that 68 percent of those polled engage in marathon viewing and 31 percent binge-watch (defined as watching three or more episodes in one sitting) at least once a week. “The way that we’re watching TV is the way that people have read good novels,” says cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, who has worked with Netflix to explore viewing patterns.
But the model also has challenges. “What is lacking from this behavior is the watercooler aspect,” says analyst Ben Bajarin. “At least in the U.S., this is a strong social trend that may trump the binge-watching of current-season shows.” For talent promoting shows, it’s less obvious when to schedule a late-night appearance, and spoiler-filled interviews can upset fans. “It’s tricky when we’re promoting [OITNB] because I’m still going to be marathoning the weekend that it comes out,” says actress Laverne Cox. “I would love to be able to talk about every single thing … but you don’t want to give stuff away.”
Then there’s the notion of building buzz. HBO CEO Richard Plepler, who has resisted all-at-once releases, noted in April that shows such as The Jinx benefit from growing an audience over time. “There’s something very powerful about having a conversation in the culture occurring for 10 weeks, 12 weeks, 13 weeks,” he said. “Occupying social media during that time, expanding the conversation about your brand for 12 weeks. … I also think people enjoy the treat of waiting for the next episode.” But Kohan notes that the binge release promotes a new fan dynamic. “When people watch our show, they immerse themselves in it, they bathe in it, they live with these characters for hours and hours at a time — and they have a different experience because of the way they watch it, because of the binge.”
Many believe outlets — including Netflix — will continue to experiment. Viewers might get shows daily, every other day or in multiepisode batches. And they might continue to binge, just less frequently. “I think this behavior will remain for catch-up viewing,” says Bajarin. “But I am slightly skeptical that binge-watching of all current-season episodes will be the norm.”
Aquarius producer Marty Adelstein says he was “taken aback” when approached by Greenblatt with the binge plan, but the idea grew on him. “It came out of his frustration of having what he considered some really good shows on and not being able to attract an audience,” says Adelstein, who runs ITV joint venture Tomorrow Studios, which produces the series. “He said to me, ‘If you look at cable, people the first year don’t really show up. And then they binge-watch and then they come back.’ We had a unique situation where we had all 13 episodes done and in the can. If we were going to do it, this was the right way to do it.”
Bryn Elise Sandberg contributed to this report.
June 2, 9:03 a.m. Updated to correct that 68 percent of those polled in the Deloitte survey engage in marathon viewing.
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