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  • How Binge-Viewing Became a Cultural Phenomenon - A Brief History

    Binge-viewing is surely one of the most notable cultural phenomena of the past few years. Barely registering as a concept less than 3 years ago, many recent research reports now cite binge-viewing as having been adopted - if not regularly practiced - by a majority of TV viewers (examples here, here, here, here, here, here).

    The shift toward binge-viewing has immense implications for the TV and video industries, touching everything from the creative process to programming/distribution decisions to monetization approaches. Some companies are fully embracing binge-viewing and riding its wave, while others are taking a more cautious approach.

    Stepping back though, how exactly did binge-viewing become such a cultural phenomenon? I believe there are at least 5 key contributing factors, with the relationships among them creating a perfect storm of growth.

    1. Netflix and the start of binge-viewing, Q3 2011
    Some degree of binge-viewing existed with DVDs, to be sure, but down the road, when the full history of binge-viewing is written, I suspect that the 3rd quarter of 2011 will be identified as its real starting point, because that's around when the early seasons of 3 critically-acclaimed TV series became available for streaming on Netflix: "Mad Men" (seasons 1-4 on July 27th), "Breaking Bad" (seasons 1-3 on September 10th) and "The Walking Dead" (season 1 on October 7). As new seasons of these programs became increasingly popular, catching up on prior seasons gained a lot of appeal.

    Coincidentally, this was around the same time Netflix's price increas and Qwikster fiascos unspooled, shining a spotlight on the quality of Netflix's streaming selection and putting these programs front and center. Highlighting these 3 series is not to take anything away from other popular TV programs that subsequently popped up on Netflix (and other OTT and VOD services).

    But, in my opinion, these 3 series, with their cultish followings, compelling narrative structures and complex characters (more on that below), meant starting from the pilot episode was essential to enjoying them (not to mention fully understanding them!) making for perfect binge-viewing fodder.

    It's worth noting "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan has said that had it not been for Netflix, Walter White and company likely wouldn't have made it to season 3.

    2. Availability of compelling TV
    Netflix's strategy to license past seasons of  popular programs became essential to its success because it was severely challenged to add popular movies to its streaming library. Playing to Netflix's favor was that a lot of really good TV programs have been made relatively recently, which millions of time-starved viewers hadn't necessarily seen (Netflix also wisely invested in evergreen kids' programming was also ripe for binge-viewing).

    "Arrested Development" is a perfect example, which Netflix juiced by releasing an original 4th season in May, 2013. While Comcast's CEO Brian Roberts once derisively said "What used to be called 'reruns' on television is now called Netflix," in reality Netflix had realized past seasons of high-quality TV series were binge-viewing gold.

    Then in February, 2013, Netflix raised the stakes on binge-viewing's value, turning it from a way to watch past seasons of existing programs, into a way to watch full current seasons of new programs, all at once. Netflix flouted TV industry convention by choosing to release all 13 episodes of the first season of "House of Cards" (it would do the same with "Orange is the New Black" in July, 2013).

    Given its $100 million budget, A-list talent and Netflix's resurgent user base, the full House of Cards release was a very high-profile, but risky bet. However it paid off big-time, gaining massive media attention and helping to restore the perception of Netflix as innovative and customer-friendly. It also reinforced for many viewers how satisfying it is to fully control your viewing experience.

    3. Others pile in: HBO GO, Hulu, Amazon, Comcast Watchathon, etc.
    While Netflix justifiably deserves the most credit for instigating the binge-viewing phenomenon, others such as HBO GO, Hulu, Amazon and Comcast have played important roles too, providing access to many other programs' past seasons' episodes.

    For its part, HBO's critical decision to launch all of its episodes in HBO GO meant viewers could watch all of the celebrated HBO programs from the start and at their own pace (HBO's recent deal to license many programs to Amazon means an even broader base of viewers will gain be able to binge-view many of HBO's series).

    Not to be left out of the binge-viewing party, Comcast launched its first "Watchathon" week in March, 2013, with thousands of episodes across dozens of TV networks, available for temporary VOD and TV Everywhere access. According to the company, the most recent Watchathon week generated almost 50 million hours of binge-viewing and spurred spikes in current season episodes.

    4. Technology enablers fall into place
    As with anything related to online video, the foundation of binge-viewing is the set of technology enablers that have coalesced in the past few years. This includes the huge base of wired broadband users (now 85 million+ in the U.S.), the proliferation of connected devices (e.g. Apple TV, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Smart TVs) that ushered online video into the living room, improved content delivery networks, picture quality, etc.

    Honorable mention also has to go to Netflix's "post-play" feature, launched in August, 2012, which automatically queues up the subsequent episode of a TV series, greasing the path for binge-viewing.

    5. Mainstream media attention and word-of-mouth
    Binge-viewing is one of those activities that is so consumer-friendly it engenders rampant cocktail-party/soccer field conversation and lots of media coverage. The first big mainstream media piece on binge-viewing I noticed was in the WSJ in mid-2012 and since then there's been no end to the coverage (samples here, here, here, here).

    All of this has been buttressed by research attesting to binge-viewing's adoption. Ultimately "binge-watching" was named runner-up for word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries in November, 2013 ("selfie" was the winner).

    No doubt there are other contributing factors to binge-viewing's popularity, but these are the ones that resonate most for me. Now, as more and more viewers grow to enjoy binge-viewing and come to expect it, what changes lie ahead in the TV and video industries? Will more TV networks emulate Netflix and the OTT providers in releasing all episodes at once? Creatively, will story lines become even more immersive and longer-lasting? And how is monetization affected - as binge-viewing behavior soars, will new revenue streams spring up?

    All of this and more are up for grabs as the transformative impact of binge-viewing continues playing out.

     
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