Netflix touts binge viewing: Is waiting better?

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Image Credit: Sam Urdank/Netflix

We’ve all done it. The marathon. Those Lost weekends. The red-eyed nights watching episode after episode of 24 and Rome. We start acting like Breaking Bad meth-heads at 3 a.m. just one more hit show and then we’ll go to sleep.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wants to feed our guilty-pleasure viewing habit. He’s previously declared that “Netflix’s brand for TV shows is really about binge viewing.” In his latest earnings report to investors, he touted the revolutionary wisdom of his company’s ongoing plan to release entire seasons of original TV shows all at once. “Imagine if books were always released one chapter per week, and were only briefly available to read at 8pm on Thursday,” he wrote. “And then someone flipped a switch, suddenly allowing people to enjoy an entire book, all at their own pace. That is the change we are bringing about. That is the future of television.”

On Friday, Netflix debuts the first 13 episodes of its new series House of Cards, which stars Kevin Spacey as a Machiavellian politician. Hastings predicted the event “will be a defining moment in the development of Internet TV” due to the company’s innovative delivery plan — here’s our show, clear your weekend.

If any single series marks a light-switch moment for the release of full TV seasons, it will probably be when Netflix unveils the eagerly anticipated fourth season of Arrested Development in May rather than Cards. But let’s take a look at his overall point. Most of the major recent technological entertainment evolutions are about more, better, faster, everywhere. So why should the way we watch TV seasons be any different?

Some analysts say there are distinctions that make Netflix’s model unwise. After all, even street corner dealers know the value of customers coming back week after week.

Variety’s new media guru Andrew Wallenstein wrote a deep-dive on this issue, criticizing the strategy from a business perspective.

“Allowing consumers to consume at their own speed contradicts [Netflix's] financial imperative to keep them on the service paying the seductively cheap flat monthly fee of $8 for as many months as possible,” he wrote. “Yes, the binge opportunity makes Netflix all the more addictive. But compelling the viewer to pace their programming consumption will generate more revenue.”

Wallenstein also points out that the model ignores all the media buzz-building and word-of-mouth benefits generated by having a show parsed out for 13 or 22 weeks of the year.

“For Cards, ardent bingers will make for pretty passionate brand advocates in the days, maybe weeks, after they’ve gobbled up the first season, but will they be talking it up at the watercooler for months the way a series like Homeland is as the buzz of its 13 episodes gets dispersed across a broader time span? No matter how high-tech Netflix fancies itself, it’s old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations from fans that are the most effective ambassadors for a brand.”

While over at Fast Company, writer Austin Carr knocked the Netflix model from a more humanistic perspective.

“Stringing viewers along has its benefits,” he wrote. “And to say the web has killed our patience to wait for serialized content to be rolled out is to say human beings no longer have an appetite for the building of excitement, anticipation, and suspense … Yes, it’s annoying having to wait for new seasons of Game of Thrones or Mad Men. But when they premiere, isn’t there something enjoyable about the campfire moments the shows create?”

I think Wallenstein and Carr are both correct, yet ultimately it won’t much matter. Making customers wait for episodes might be better business for Netflix. And waiting for episodes might be more emotionally satisfying for viewers. But that’s like telling kids to save their Halloween candy and make it last for weeks. Once a more, better, faster, everywhere system is invented, it’s difficult to stop its spread and adoption. If technology permits us to watch full TV seasons over days or weeks instead of months, we’ll do it.

Think of it this way: One study showed that — like Carr’s point on a micro level — having to sit through commercials instead of skipping them actually increases our enjoyment of a TV program. “The phenomenon we think is at work here is adaptation,” the researcher said. “The easiest example of adaptation is a massage chair. The longer a massage goes on, the more you get used to it. You adapt. But if it stops briefly, then starts again, it re-triggers that initial enjoyment.”

TV viewing, he says, is the same way. “It’s more enjoyable when it’s interrupted.”

So who wants to give up their DVR?

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