We think this is an issue worth discussing. We also think that the answer to the question will be “no,” at least in terms of the general – as in casual – audience. But true believer fans have always been marathon viewers. And now it’s become so much easier!
I used to watch new episodes of my favorite shows every week on television. Now I watch one show, episode by episode, in sequence and on a computer screen. Then the next show. According to New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, that’s become normal:
Binge-viewing, empowered by DVD box sets and Netflix subscriptions, has become such a popular way for Americans to watch TV that it is beginning to influence the ways the stories are told — particularly one-hour dramas — and how they are distributed. […]
On Friday, Netflix will release a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting:“House of Cards,” a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TVs, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day,” the producer Beau Willimon said with a laugh.
“House of Cards,” which is the first show made specifically for Netflix, dispenses with some of the traditions that are so common on network TV, like flashbacks. There is less reason to remind viewers what happened in previous episodes, the producers say, because so many viewers will have just seen it. And if they don’t remember, Google is just a click away. The show “assumes you know what’s happening all the time, whereas television has to assume that a big chunk of the audience is always just tuning in,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.
Television producers now have to grapple with customers who won’t even start watching a series until it’s over:
Some hoarders wait years: Mr. Mazzara, for instance, said he’s waiting to watch HBO’s “Girls” until the whole series is over, several years from now. This stockpiling phenomenon has become so common that some network executives worry that it is hurting new shows because they cancel the shows before would-be viewers get around to watching them.
Economist Tyler Cowen reflects on this trend and notes where immediate sequentialization does and does not work:
You can buy an entire book at once, as serialization — while not dead — has ceased to be the norm for long novels. At MOMA they do not run an art exhibit by putting up one new van Gogh painting each day. Coursera, you will note, still uses a kind of serialization model for its classes rather than putting up all the lectures at once; presumably it wishes to synchronize student participation plus it often delivers the content in real time. Sushi is served sequentially, even though several cold courses presumably could be carried over at once. Still, a plate in an omakase experience typically has more than one piece of fish.
For TV I do not think upfront bingeing can become the norm. The model of “I don’t really care about this, but I have nothing much to talk to you about, so let’s sit together and drop commentary on some semi-randomly chosen TV show” seems to work less well when the natural unit of the show is thirteen episodes and you are expected to show dedication.