Netflix has come a long way from its mail-order DVD beginnings, sending little red envelopes cross-country to subscribers. Now, in addition to maintaining Red Box kiosks and DVD/Blu-ray mail services, the video rental platform services over 29 million streaming subscribers worldwide. While Netflix contributed to the downfall of physical rental stores (most notably Blockbuster, who passed on buying the company in the early 2000s), it has ignited an explosion of online media streaming and downloading services – including Amazon Prime and Hulu, among others.
As a result, subscribers now have instant (streaming) access to more TV shows and films than they could ever consume in multiple lifetimes. Increased availability, and subsequent “binge-watching” of streaming media has raised the profile of countless TV series and films that might have, in a predominantly physical-media market, gone unnoticed. There’s no doubt Netflix and similar services are a win for networks, studios, and consumers – but are there hidden downsides to this convenience?
Not too long ago, the question sparked a heated debate on our Screen Rant Underground podcast, begging the question: Is Netflix binge-watching helping or hurting TV storytelling?
Netflix viewers are also able to binge-watch movies, blowing through full franchises (Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, etc.) in a day, binge-watching has become largely associated with back-to-back-to-back viewing of TV shows – a habit Netflix helps propagate by automatically loading the next episode upon completion of the previous one. For that reason, we’ll focus primarily on binge-watching of TV shows – not films.
Pro: The Fix for Your List of Shame
Aside from basic convenience, a wide range of available titles is a key feature in online media streaming (and binging). Instead of committing to an entire season of television, viewers have access to an ever-expanding supply of TV shows, making it easy to sample recommendations without the cost of a DVD set purchase or playing catchup through repeat/syndication airings. The availability of so many past TV series (in addition to original programming) means that viewers aren’t limited to what is currently popular, or even on the air – allowing them to dabble with lesser-known shows along with those which simply weren’t a fit for network television.
“A lot of times, these executives in Hollywood hand this stuff down from on high, and that is the end of it. Only it wasn’t this time, and the viewers and readers got ferocious with their attacks. I think that showed people there is a following for it and maybe changed the industry a little bit.”
Netflix (in addition to Hulu, Yahoo! Screen, and others) have taken to acquiring TV series that were abruptly cut-off by traditional networks. Along with full revivals like Fuller House (and, previously, Arrested Development), Netflix elected to produce additional episodes of Longmire, The Killing, and even Star Wars: The Clone Wars – in order to provide fans with closure and new viewers with complete “binge-ready” programming.
Many Netflix subscribers had never heard of Longmire until the series was cancelled, and even fewer bothered to set DVRs for the show’s weekly airing on A&E. Yet, following its network cancellation, and Netflix renewal, Longmire is enjoying a featured spotlight on the streaming service ahead of its ten episode season 4 – placing the show in front of a new batch of viewers. Those who gave the first Longmire episode a shot won’t need to set their DVR or purchase DVDs (those take effort); thanks to Netflix’s autoplay feature, newly-acquired fans won’t need to lift a finger to watch Longmire episode 2.
Of course, rescued shows aren’t the only binge-worthy programming on Netflix, given that the service has acquired entire series runs of everything from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to M*A*S*H to The West Wing to LOST to Breaking Bad. Anyone with a “TV list of shame” is sure to find plenty of shows they missed out on – shows that are, comparatively, better than many of the current offerings on paid cable – all without having to wait a week to continue watching.
Pro: A Captive Audience, A Tighter Narrative
Not only do most shows utilize a minute of precious airtime with a “Previously On” prologue, thanks to the pitfalls of weekly TV viewing, television series are often forced into constricted episodic storytelling. Since viewers watch a 23 episode season play out over the course of roughly 35 weeks (taking into account holiday breaks and avoidance of competing programming like athletic playoffs, award shows, etc.) showrunners spend precious time getting viewers up to speed on their show – especially in series that challenge the status quo with brainy ideas (Doctor Who) and layered characters (The Wire).
This backtracking is subtle, coming in lines of dialogue or quick establishing scenes to jog viewer memory, but even the most un-intrusive reminders undermine the purest forms of storytelling. In books, engaged readers, immersed in a story and characters, can simply turn to the next page when a chapter ends – removing any need for an author to refresh memory. Of course, novels can be, themselves, installments in a larger storyline (such as Harry Potter) but unlike TV, where audiences often watch five or more shows a week, very few bookworms read a chapter in one book, then proceed to read one chapter in five other books, before returning for chapter two. Certainly, some readers consume more than one book at a time, but reading novels the way that TV airs would be downright confusing. As a result, their are undeniable benefits of a captive audience – for both creators and viewers.
You can’t deny that there will be binge-viewing. You know that there are going to be some Marvel fans that when this show premieres, they are going to go on to Netflix, and they are going to sit there for 12 to 13-plus hours, and watch the entire thing all the way through. It’s going to happen. The Netflix model offers us the advantage of being able to construct the show in a manner that is very different than a weekly network TV show… With weekly TV, you sit there and go, “The audience may not want to wait two or three weeks to get this particular bit of information.” Whereas with Netflix, we might be able to hold onto a particular piece of information, because they may just watch it two hours later.
While competing television shows might be ruled by procedural case-of-the-week storytelling and cheap cliffhangers, Daredevil only has to keep viewers engaged enough to either keep watching – or come back. To that end, TV showrunners who are producing content for binge-based services like Netflix can place more trust in viewers, without having to worry that their audience will be too distracted to make connections or follow subtle character development.
Some will argue that binge-watching prevents viewers from fully-appreciating a TV show (more on that soon), because fans do not have to wait for the next episode, but there’s no doubt the prospect of a dedicated and captive audience, one that watches back-to-back-to back episodes of a single show rather than visits only one time a week, is attractive to storytellers. Ironically, in giving viewers more episodes at once, creators are able to withhold a bit more – giving their shows room to unfold naturally, and with adequate setup and payoff, rather than be determined by network competition.
Still, there is a downside to binge-watching.
NEXT PAGE: What are the “Cons” of TV Binge-Watching?
Con: Spoilers In, Water Cooler Talk Out
Without a doubt, Netflix binge-watching has made it easier for viewers to discover new TV shows – and, subsequently, follow their stories; yet, what have we lost in the process? Ever since serialized TV dramas were created, they’ve been episodic – forcing live viewers to wait (a day, a week, or more) between episodes. Instead of simply focusing on what will happen next, viewers were afforded more time to reflect on how what already happened made them feel – or what new insight they might have gained into a character. While “Water Cooler” talk still exists, mostly thanks to reality competition series (The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, etc), the advent of DVRs, streaming media, and binge-watching have created a desynchronized viewing audience – where friends, family, and co-workers are not watching the same shows, at the same time, with the same urgency.
I would try to convince [Netflix] to let me roll them out so at least there was just some shared experience. I love the waiting; I love the marination. When you watch an entire season of a show in a day, you will definitely dream about it, but it’s not the same as walking around the whole week, saying, “God, Pete really pissed me off.” And then at the end of the week, saying, “When he said he had nothing, that really hurt.” I remember people saying that. You can reconsider it. And you see it pop up in your life. I feel like you should be able to be as specific as you possibly can, and let that sit with people. I loved having the period in between the shows, and it probably is the end of it. I do love the idea of pressing that button and getting it right away and getting as many as you can take.”
As Weiner suggests, it’s hard to argue with the impact of binge-watching – in that it pushes as much of a show onto viewers as they are able to enjoy at any given time. Still, even though some shows offer guilt-free escapism, would viewers get more out of a show like Mad Men, if it they are forced to wait one week between chapters? Without the ability to simply see what happens next, TV watchers have time to reflect on what happened, how it might relate to our own lives, and discuss with others what it could mean in the future.
ABC’s mega-successful, but still controversial, sci-fi drama LOST culled one of the most passionate and dedicated TV followings in modern history – thanks, in large part, to the series’ cryptic mysteries (ancient statues, smoke monster, and polar bears, among others). After every episode, TV forums, message boards, and LOST fan sites would erupt with speculation and new theories. For many fans, week to week conversation with fellow viewers became the most rewarding aspect of the series – especially in the aftermath of the show’s controversial finale. While those experiencing LOST as a binge-watch on Netflix will benefit from tempered expectations, they will have missed out on one of the show’s most rewarding aspects: spirited theorizing and discussion.
Of course, a desynchronized viewing audience is also prey to entertainment fans’ number one fear: spoilers. Without the structure of weekly TV viewing to align everyone, it’s become even harder to avoid TV show spoilers. Even if viewers stay away from social media and online articles, careless friends and co-workers can easily spoil a character death or other twist in a casual conversation.
In the best case scenario, TV viewers can attempt to figure out where their follow fans are in a season – before talking about the latest episode. Nevertheless, even if they succeed in holding back potential spoilers, the stunted conversation forces certain members to avoid specific topics and, possibly, outright misrepresent what is going to happen – to help keep surprises unspoiled. Given the amount of high profile TV series on air currently, attempting to engage in conversation about your TV shows is the equivalent of navigating a minefield – especially since what might be considered a spoiler to one person, might not be to another.
Con: Less Flexible TV Creation
Understandably, while many viewers binge on past shows, that have been off the air for years, there’s no question that Netflix is still banking hard on its choice to release an entire season of a show, all at once, each year. Every few months, the streaming giant unveils a new season in a popular series, ensuring that for a week or two, Orange is the New Black, Daredevil, or House of Cards is the talk of the town. Yet, by releasing an entire year’s worth of any show at one time, the series’ showrunners have no time to retool the unfolding season based on viewer ratings or executive feedback.
In some cases, this is a good thing – protecting a TV show from the fickle ups and downs of weekly network programming. However, it also makes storytelling less malleable – especially as a season rolls towards its conclusion. TV production is a moving train, where minor course corrections are only noticeable to viewers months after they are implemented in the writing room, and major changes can take a full season to provide substantive improvement. Nevertheless, few network television shows are completely locked at the beginning of the season – and, for better and for worse, creators are constantly tweaking their shows in response to fan feedback. Some shows (and their showrunners) are more pliant than others but countless TV shows have benefited from addressing criticisms with subtle, and sometimes not-so subtle adjustments within a season (we’re looking at you Sleepy Hollow).
In her own interview with THR, Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan, stated that, while the Netflix model has proven successful for her show, it does have drawbacks:
I miss having people on the same page. 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.
That said, it can be argued that a TV series like Orange is the New Black, produced under the eye of a streaming platform that encourages binging, shouldn’t need subtle course correction – since creators were able to map out the entire season at once (avoiding many of the trappings in drawn-out network TV shows). Still, not every pre-set series finds the same success as Orange is the New Black – with shows like Mulaney failing to find a second season.
All thirteen episodes of Mulaney season 1, from former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney, were produced ahead of the show’s premiere on Fox. When the series’ initial run of episodes drew negative reviews from critics, the network had little choice but to run the remaining episodes to steadily decreasing viewership. We’ll never know if Mulaney could have made it to season 2 in a more traditional model (that allowed for mid-season changes) but TV history is full of misfires that, with some tinkering in medias res, did find enduring success.
Admittedly, there has yet to be a Netflix series that failed because of the locked season model, which certainly speaks to the benefits of a captive audience and planned season arc (as discussed on the previous page); yet, the network’s current track record doesn’t negate the point: flexibility has saved shows in the past – flexibility that Netflix’ binge-watch original programming simply cannot provide.
So, the questions remains: to binge, or not to binge? With pros and cons on both sides, the best thing that viewers can do is choose which TV shows they want to binge and which ones they feel are better suited, for them personally, as weekly viewing. Mega-fans of a franchise or TV series aside (the people who want to avoid all spoilers and be among the first to consume a particular show), most viewers will be influenced by life circumstances and the fellow entertainment lovers around them – meaning that if all your friends get together on Tuesday night to enjoy an episode of Orange is the New Black together, it might be worth holding-off and dedicating your binge-watching time for one of the numerous TV series accumulating on your personal list of shame.
There’s nothing wrong with binge-watching but, knowing that there can be drawbacks, be sure to consider what you might be missing out on (conversation, reflection, speculation, etc) simply by letting that “play next episode” timer tick-on and on and on.