In the age of instant access, the concept of binge-watching TV is still relatively new. But with Netflix’s go at episodic programming and full seasons of shows on demand at Hulu and Amazon, the way audiences like and even expect to watch media is shifting.
More and more we see viewers, and some network executives, praising “the binge.” Online distributors have even jumped on the binge-wagon when it comes to their own original programming, which includes Emmy winners Transparent (Amazon) and House of Cards (Netflix).
Meanwhile, this summer NBC became the first broadcast network to attempt a version of the online binge model with its dark Charles Manson drama, Aquarius. It’s a big step for networks that rely on the week-to-week model, not just in terms of narrative, but for business.
Binge watching does, in its own way, offer a more immersive and personal viewing experience. You can watch as much or as little as you want, when you want, over whatever period of time you want to do so, with the added bonus of no commercials (in most cases). It’s media-on-demand, and a level of control most TV watchers have dreamed about for years.
But despite its silent, creeping takeover, there has been some push-back against the consumption model as of late. Even Netflix, a pioneer in the arena, is stepping out of form with the introduction of Between, a Canadian co-production set to be released in weekly installments. So far there hasn’t been any negative response the distribution shift, with viewers still flocking week after week to catch a new episode.
It raises an interesting question though about whether binge-watching is a new format or a new fad. While it’s clear that watching this way has its merits, both Netflix’s foray into the weekly release as well as some negative opinions about the binge platform itself suggests that the format doesn’t necessarily reign supreme for all series or watchers.
Is it better to binge or not to binge? What kinds (and qualities) of series are better binged, as opposed to those rolled out over time? To answer that question, we’ve put together a list of things that can help make for a good (or bad) binge series.
The Already Aired
Shows that have completed their run seem to be some of the best shows to binge. Why? Because they avoid all the major issues of watching seasonally, week by week.
Since they are finished, there is no water cooler culture left to spoil viewers about key developments. It’s just you and the tube (or the computer). That means your attention is completely focused on the storylines and the drama surrounding major events, even if you know what happens next.
For viewers, the blows of major deaths or twists (Rob Stark and the Red Wedding, anyone?) are lessened if you know ahead of time.
And since you generally don’t have anyone to talk to it about, you keep watching to find out how the show deals with the fallout.
The Low Performing Favorite
Networks, artists, and fans alike might find that having the ability to binge watch currently airing series on their last leg is exactly what everyone wants. It usually costs more to start and promote a new show than it does to keep a current show afloat, so if a network is given the chance to pump less money into its schedule (with the hopes of getting more back on their investment), it will take it. Meanwhile, series creatives get to keep their gigs and fans don’t have to say goodbye to their favorite characters just yet.
Binge-watching is attributed to Breaking Bad’s success and the ratings re-rise of The CW’s Supernatural now headed into its 11th season. When it started, Breaking Bad had a small, but passionate fan base.
Word of mouth promotion ultimately helped the show grow after its seasons began streaming on Netflix. Curious viewers binged what they had, then turned to watching it weekly with their fellow fans.
Supernatural also got a considerable ratings boost after facing a near death sentence at The CW.
Following the network’s streaming deal with Netflix, the fantasy series found itself climbing the ratings ranks to become one of The CW’s highest rated shows — once again.
Considering the way that comedies and dramas are written, the latter makes better binge-worthy fair. With the storytelling style typical of comedies, coming in and out of a season is pretty easy.
The comedy favors shorter, multi-episode and even single episode arcs. Each new half-hour can function as a self-contained story that has no bearing whatsoever on what happened the previous week, or what will happen the next. You may come across season long arcs — especially in dramedies, but their development doesn’t function on a week-to-week basis.
Often, an arc is started and then touched on periodically as a season unfolds. As a result, storylines are less complex and dense in terms of subject matter and development.
If you miss one you can pick up the very next episode and not have to worry about skipping important plot developments.
Dramas are almost exactly the opposite, offering longer, more complex plots that require significantly more attention and commitment to fully appreciate and understand the story.
The structural nature of storytelling for serials versus procedurals makes one the most obvious choice for binge-programming.
Procedural dramas are much like comedies. When a viewer leaves for a week or two, they won’t immediately pick up on the handful of seasonal (and slower) developing plots. However, they will feel comfortable jumping right in as most of the smaller details can be pieced together fairly quickly through throwaway dialogue.
Character development can also be a tad more shallow than in serials as more time is focused on immediate action versus building development. This can mean a viewer’s investment in what happens to the show’s central stars isn’t as strong.
The very opposite can be said of serials. With series like Lost or The Walking Dead, missing out on a week means you miss out on a lot.
You can have an answer to a key mystery or even a character’s motivations and backstory heavily revealed, explored and explained in one episode. In the very next week, the revelation can be put into play or the character can die — under circumstances and by actions that you can’t understand if you missed last week’s pivotal 42 minutes.
The Easy Commitment
Speaking of minutes, run time can have a significant impact on whether someone chooses to binge or bounce.
When you are dealing with a shorter amount of content — 22 minutes versus 44, or even 13 episodes to 22 — catching up becomes a whole lot easier. Viewers may feel more inclined to binge something that demands less time — especially if they have regular life duties such as a job or family.
You want to be able to watch your favorite new show, but not have to explain to the fire department that your house burnt down because you couldn’t pull yourself away from the computer screen.
The full list first appeared at ScreenSpy.com on July 30, 2015.