So sayeth Netflix. And Deadline. And…for what it’s worth, TVWriter™. Here’s the skinny:
Harris Interactive conducted a poll of nearly 1,500 TV streamers (online U.S. adults who stream TV shows at least once a week) on behalf of Netflix and found that 61% among that group binge regularly — and feel good about it. 73% defined binge watching as watching between 2-6 episodes of the same TV show in one sitting. And nearly three quarters of TV streamers say they have positive feelings towards binge streaming TV.
“Our viewing data shows that the majority of streamers would actually prefer to have a whole season of a show available to watch at their own pace,” said Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix. 76% of TV streamers say watching multiple episodes of a great TV show is a welcome escape from their busy lives. 79% said watching several episodes of their favorite shows at once actually makes the shows more enjoyable. And three-quarters (76%) also say streaming TV shows on their own schedule is their preferred way to watch them.
Among those who ever stream multiple episodes of a TV series in a row, more than one-third (38%) most like to do so solo; however, a combined 51% prefer to watch with at least one other person. 39% of TV streamers who prefer to “save” TV shows to watch at a later date choose to stream saved series or seasons when the person they want to watch with is available. Harris Interactive conducted the survey online within the U.S. between November 25-27, among 3,078 adults aged 18 and older, of whom 1,496 stream TV shows at least once a week.
Great phrase, don’t you think? Man, we wish we’d thought of it. But it’s part of the title of the following piece by Josef Adalian, wordsmith extraordinaire:
FX, Turner, and Netflix Face Off in a Battle of the Binge
by Josef Adalian
Let’s say that your friends have become increasingly obsessed with a new TV show that’s already on episode eleven of a thirteen-episode season. You finally realize that you are missing out on something great and want to quickly catch up in time for the finale … but you’re out of luck. Most networks only have rights to stream the last five episodes of their series on their websites and VOD, and Netflix usually doesn’t post the whole season until a few weeks before the next season begins.
But Vulture has learned that a couple of cable’s biggest programming powerhouses, FX and Turner, are fighting back on this industry standard, telling TV studios that they will not buy any new show unless it comes with the right to keep streaming every episode in a current season until it ends. Netflix has made its position on the issue clear: If studios give into these demands, the service could dramatically cut the price it pays for streaming rights, potentially denying producers millions of dollars in revenue. A battle of the binge is brewing.
Before getting into the clash, a quick lesson is in order for how streaming has changed the traditional economics of TV production. When a network picks up a show, it doesn’t own it; it essentially leases the episodes of a season for a pre-determined window (usually one year) from the studios that make them. Because the networks are renting and not buying, they usually pay around 60 percent of production costs and make their money back (and, presumably, a profit) by selling ad time. Studios try to recoup their 40 percent outlay via international sales or syndicating reruns. But in recent years, both sides of this financial equation have come under attack.
At the networks, ad revenue has been squeezed by the rise of time-shifting and other alternative means of watching shows. While networks love to tout how many viewers are watching a show a week after it airs (so-called “L+7” ratings), advertisers only pay for viewers who watch commercials, and then only if they watch within three days of an initial telecast (C3 ratings, in industry parlance). According to a senior cable network executive, it’s not unheard of for that C3 number to be anywhere from 35 to 45 percent below the L+7. “That means we’re losing [35 to 45 percent] of our ad revenue,” says the suit.
Meanwhile, studios have been feeling the pain because syndication deals, while still a big part of their profit formula, are not nearly as reliable or lucrative as they might have been even five years ago. Some cable networks, like TNT, that used to rely on reruns of old network dramas have diverted more resources to creating their own scripted hours. And with comedy, some networks are finding it more cost-effective to create 100 episodes of a show on the cheap (like FX’s Anger Management) rather than pay big bucks for a modestly rated network sitcom.
No, we don’t mean the technology. We mean the writing.
by Sarah Fonder
Despite the oft-repeated assertion that this is the Golden Age of Television, TV has typically not been too kind to smart, well-written shows. When a network puts an underdog series like Bunheads or Happy Endings on the cutting board, it’s hard not to go from panic to complete resignation. Too many of us have had to get used to the phrase “brilliant but cancelled,” and for a long time it’s looked like daring television just isn’t all that lucrative. Thankfully, recent reports prove this might finally be changing: believe it or not, critical darlings are actually making money.
The past few weeks have seen the once underrated Breaking Bad move from cult hit to definite success, and previously hesitant advertisers are taking notice in a big way. After a record-breaking season premiere, The New York Times reported that ad space in the final episodes of Breaking Bad is so highly coveted that a 30-second commercial is worth $300,000. These kinds of high-end ad fees are incredibly rare for cable, usually reserved for network television shows with way larger audiences (ad space for juggernauts like American Idolruns around $500,000). One could chalk this success up to the fast-paced narrative that made shows like Lost into huge hits, but the slow-burning Mad Men also broke viewership records for AMC in its season six finale.
And AMC itself has proved to be worth a lot for a channel that prides itself as a thinking person’s network. Though its shows don’t have the massive ratings of Dancing with the Stars or NCIS, AMC’s content has done so well that they’ve gradually been able to charge cable companies more money to host it. And those companies are paying, whether they like it or not: last year, Dish Network almost dropped AMC after a rise in prices, but complaining subscribers proved the channel was worth the investment. AMC’s dedication to smart TV has paid off: Mad Men andBreaking Bad sweep the Emmys year after year, and The Walking Dead was the tenth most popular show of the 2012-13 season.
The other big success story is Netflix, which saw more growth than ever after the decision to add good original programming….
Beginning later this year, Amazon Prime members — customers who’ve paid $79 for a year of free two-day shipping on millions of items as well as digital access to Amazon’s library of movies, TV shows and ebooks — will be able to watch several new TV shows the company is producing.
But unlike Netflix and Hulu Plus, Amazon’s goal, analysts said, is beyond simply getting revenue from subscriptions. The retailer may well be using expensive original content to lure more people to its Prime membership service, so they’ll be more likely to purchase products like cameras, books and K-Cups.
“Content is king,” Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group and the author of “What’s the Future of Business,” said in an email. “In an increasingly distributed consumption economy, Amazon is betting that content creates a bridge between Amazon, its products and services, and customers.”
According to a report from Morningstar, the investment research firm, Prime members shop more frequently than non-members, spend twice as much annually and tend to buy more expensive products.
Amazon won’t disclose how many people have coughed up for the annual Prime subscription. Morningstar puts that number at around 10 million. And Prime’s loyal membership is predicted to grow to 25 million by 2017.
“It’s pretty clear that there’s been an emphasis on adding Prime memberships over the last four years,” said R.J. Hottovy, the director of consumer cyclical and defensive research at Morningstar and the lead analyst on the report. He said Amazon’s foray into original content is “not only a way to keep the current Prime customers happy, but also drive a wider audience to the service.”
Entertainment as a way to gather a crowd in order to sell it something isn’t new. It’s been with us since the dawn of civilization. And as writers we’re always happy to see new markets opening up, especially markets that don’t seem to be run by the same Old Media gatekeepers. But, c’mon, Amazon, can’t you give us something better than the dreck you recently ordered? We’ll buy more. We promise.
(Our lawyers made us do it dept.: Um, we’re speaking for TVWriter™ here, not for our beloved visitors.)
Netflix’s House of Cards boasts an extensive cast, but it follows the rise and fall of two men in particular: Francis Underwood and Peter Russo. Underwood is the majority whip of the House of Representatives; Russo, a representative from Pennsylvania. Russo seems fairly satisfied with the modest power he has: an attractive aide he can sleep with, the ability to do favors for his constituency, a big office. Underwood craves power at all times.
That in itself isn’t too noteworthy. What makes it interesting is how much of the show dwells not just on power but powerlessness.
When Russo is plucked from obscurity to spearhead an environmental bill, one of the conditions Underwood imposes is that Russo get clean. No more drugs, no more drinking. To keep Russo on the right path, he sends Russo to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with his enforcer Stamper. The congressman from Pennsylvania sits in a church basement every morning, drinking stale coffee and listening to other people’s stories.
20th century pop culture has given all of us, on the wagon or off, a passing familiarity with the twelve-step program that defines Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step, as originally authored in 1935: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. Is this something Russo does? Is this something anyone in House of Cards can do?
Consider the first episode, where Underwood learns that he’s been passed over for Secretary of State, possibly the most important office in Washington outside of the Presidency. He spends the entire day in a despondent sulk, ignoring texts from his wife. When she asks him why he trusted Chief of Staff Linda Vazquez’s promises, he pouts, “I didn’t; I don’t; I don’t trust anybody.” He throws a temper tantrum, spends the whole night brooding, then comes up with a plan – a plan that will result in the sidelining of a senior member of Congress, the ouster of the Vice President, and one man’s death.
Is this a rational response to Underwood’s setback? Disappointment at a broken promise, anger at having one’s efforts go unrewarded: these are believable. But the steps Underwood takes not only put his entire career at risk – he stakes his own reputation on the education bill that he spends several weeks sabotaging – they put the relative strength of his party at risk as well. Think how it would look if Joe Biden resigned the office of the Vice President in 2010 to go campaigning for his old seat in Delaware.
Underwood considers these stakes acceptable for the game he’s playing. This, frankly, is not a man who can admit powerlessness.
Russo has a hard time admitting powerlessness as well. This stubbornness reflects in how little he participates in the AA meetings that Stamper drags him to. “He never shares anything,” Stamper says. While there’s no requirement that you share something at an AA meeting to earn your place, openness about your inability to deal with your addiction alone is an essential step.
But Russo doesn’t clean up because he wants to repair his life. He cleans up because he wants to earn Underwood’s trust and become governor of Pennsylvania. Getting sober is a means to an end. He’s using that motivation – the chance for political glory – as a lever to help him stay on the wagon. But when that carrot is taken away, in a deliberate ploy by Stamper and Underwood, he has nothing left to stay sober for.
To live and work in Washington means to seek after power or serve those who do. It’s a city that produces no exports but law, fulfills no need but legislation. You’re there because you want to sway human affairs. The thing I found hardest to believe about House of Cards is that the Washington it depicts has any AA chapters at all. Can you imagine a sitting member of Congress running the risk of being photographed outside a church basement? Can you imagine a member of the Ways and Means committee seeking to make amends to those he had harmed?
(In real life, there are doubtless actual support groups in DC that operate with healthy discretion. But this is the DC of House of Cards, where people are more rabid and cruel than in the world we recognize)
So Russo cannot own up to his powerlessness and, as such, his powerlessness overtakes him again. Underwood can’t admit to his powerlessness either, but he appears to end S1 on an upswing. His schemes have triumphed and he’s about to be selected to replace the resigning Vice President. But is he in control, or is he just bouncing between relapses?
Russo’s addiction is alcohol (or some blend of booze and cocaine). Underwood’s addiction, on the other hand, is obedience. He gets off on having people do what he wants. Sometimes this is a subtle high, as when he arranges circumstances such that he gets control of the President’s education bill. Other times it’s an uncut dose, as when he takes Zoe roughly in her tiny apartment. Either way, Underwood can’t stand when people don’t dance to his tune.
Put that way, it sounds petulant rather than noble, just as the boasts of a three-day drunk sound. And just like a career alcoholic, Underwood is heedless of the damage his addiction does to those around him. His need to whip Claire into line costs him the environmental bill that would have put Russo on the governor’s ballot. It also drives her into the arms of her old flame, sexy Manhattan photographer Adam Galloway. When she comes back, there’s no tearful reconciliation, no promise to change his ways – just back to business as usual. We might call Claire an enabler if she weren’t co-dependent on Underwood’s style.
S1 of House of Cards is the story of two addicts on alternate trajectories. Both have coping mechanisms that they’ve built up over years of practice. Both see those coping mechanisms fail, with damaging results. But Underwood lives in a city that caters to his addiction and punishes Russo’s. He has his network – Claire, Stamper, Congress, the Oval Office – to prop him up when he falls. Russo has nothing, and the few people he has, he drives away. The result for him is tragic. Will the result for Underwood, in later seasons, be the same?
(As a postscript, it’s ironic that this is one of the first TV series released in its entirety on its debut weekend. Seth Godin called this a mistake, but Kevin Spacey, at least, seemed to understand the reasoning behind it. “When I ask my friends what they did with their weekend, they say, ‘Oh, I stayed in and watched three seasons of Breaking Bad’ or it’s two seasons of Game of Thrones. For whatever reason, people are consuming large chunks of story – they’re getting really involved in big arcs.”
So, yes, it’s a show about addiction that’s catering to TV addicts.)