Will marathon viewing become the TV norm?

by on February 2, 2013 at 7:50 am in Film, Television | Permalink

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 story is here.  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.

Ad-financed shows — still a clear majority of viewing — may prefer to have impressions from the ads spread out over weeks and months rather than concentrated in one long marathon sitting.  Furthermore the show itself relies more heavily on an effective and immediate burst of concentrated marketing, with little room to build word of mouth and roll out a campaign with stages.  That intense publicity can be achieved the first time this model is tried, as everyone will write about the novelty, but it will be harder to summon up interest for successive experiments in this format.

I do not myself enjoy the marathon approach to TV shows, as I prefer to ponder the episodes over weeks, months, or years.  I rebel against watching even two episodes in a row, no matter how much I enjoy the program.  Nonetheless I hope this model succeeds, as I have the self-control to watch only one episode a week or at some otherwise chosen regular pace.

Chris February 2, 2013 at 8:48 am

This may be new in production but certainly not in consumption.

I and many of my friends have had “lost weekends” while consuming back seasons of good shows. Typically one hears about a good show a while in or waits for a show to mature before investing in it. For instance I studiously ignored the hype about Game of Thrones until season 2 was half over so I could gain more information about the downstream payoffs for watching the show and consume back to back for a better experience.

Since Netflix has served us this content for the last decade, they are well aware of our preference and are serving it.

Ryan T February 2, 2013 at 9:18 am

I was going to say something very similar. My wife and I have a television but no TV. When we hear a show is good, we’ll wait until it becomes available at the library, borrow a season, and watch it. There are several advantages to this approach. One of them is that we don’t have to endure ads. I’m reminded of Stephen King on the decline of the short story. He said something like “people are too damn lazy” to take a risk on a short story. I feel similar about television. The majority of it is garbage, and much of it is highly distracting. If a show is worth watching, it will still be good a year later. The only exception is sports, which Klosterman has discussed, I believe over at Grantland.

Dan Weber February 2, 2013 at 4:47 pm

But you became aware of it by people who were watching it in small doses and enjoyed talking about it. Without that initial critical mass of people talking about it, would you hear of it?

Waiting 9 months to get a complete story can be hell. But that doesn’t mean we go completely in the other direction. If they shove it all at us at once, there is no chance to sit down between episodes and talk about it with other people.

Maybe pushing out two episodes a day would be a better compromise. I absolutely don’t have 13 hours to sit down to watch TV, and from the media I’m getting the sense that that’s the way I’m expecting consume this show. Maybe they just need to work on their marketing message if this isn’t true.

BC February 2, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Agreed. I would think that the marketing/promotion costs would be much higher if you release the first 13 episodes all at once, rather than building a viewership over time. Think of movies vs. TV series: if a movie isn’t a hit in its first week, then it is unlikely to be financially successful (I think). Big difference between releasing a whole season or half-season of re-runs vs. new episodes.

Also, I think there is a certain optionality (for the studios or TV networks) in releasing one episode each week. Based on initial reaction, one can order production of new episodes or cancel. For 13 episodes, it may not make much of a difference if studios order series in 13-episode chunks anyways, but producing more episodes than that without feedback about viewership, could be a problem. Similarly, it may be easier to sell ads if episodes are released one at a time so that advertisers have a better idea of how many viewers to expect.

From a risk perspective, I think businesses generally prefer to release product as its produced rather than incurring significant up-front costs to produce a bunch of product for “inventory” before releasing it all at once. There may be exceptions, but I’m not sure that TV programming is one of them.

Peter H February 2, 2013 at 11:48 pm

I would expect marketing costs to be much lower for a one-time release. You only need to buy ads a couple weeks before and a couple weeks after release. You need 15-16 weeks of ads for a 13 week series on the other hand.

Also, since it’s online, one of the two barriers to a full season run is eliminated. When a network decides to continue a series or not, the two considerations are the production costs for more episodes, and the opportunity cost of the timeslot it fills. Netflix only has the former cost to worry about, so there’s less of a downside to producing the whole run. Also, it’s much more efficient to film the whole thing in one go, so you don’t have to keep sets and stuff around and fly people back in to do more filming.

Peter H February 2, 2013 at 11:40 pm

A few things to consider (and I am typing this between episodes 7 and 8 of House of Cards — It’s really good!)

1.) Netflix will presumably stream this show forever until they go out of business. That means if someone is talking about it 6 months from now, and you want to see it, then 6 months from now you might be prompted to do a trial subscription to see it.

2.) The whole purpose of an exclusive show for Netflix is to get new trial subscriptions. They care a little about how current subscribers feel/watch the show (it’s good for word of mouth), but they care much more about how someone who is considering subscribing to Netflix feels about watching the show. And if someone comes on a trial subscription because they heard about this great show, then Netflix wants to give them as much as they want of that show so they keep the subscription. As someone coming in at the margin for access to this show, I am much more likely than Tyler to want to watch all of it, and not piecemeal over time.

3.) Without a TV timeslot, there’s no obvious way to parcel out the show. Release it at midnight each week and annoy people anxious for the next episode? Release it at primetime and try to compete with the networks?

4.) Netflix as a brand is all about unlimited access to media. It’s why they’re so popular. A Netflix subscription gets you full access to everything they have, no ads, no caps, and no meters. From a brand positioning standpoint this is almost how they have to do it.

Alan Coffey February 2, 2013 at 9:32 am

My wife and I find the limited DVD plan from Netflix offers a nice compromise. We get to watch a season of the wire in about two weeks. Since we share a two DVD at a time plan with our boys, we enjoy the anticipation and reflection as well. Mail does not deliver on Sunday, but Downtime Abbey gets is through ;-)

celestus February 2, 2013 at 9:40 am

1. Market segmentation matters when we consider the response here. The Internet commentariat is disproportionately marathoner (myself included).

2. I can very much see a show aimed at the stereotypical Lost/Battlestar Galactica/Community audience made for online marathoning, though I doubt it would have the budgets of any of those shows until the model was proven.

3. Theorization/speculation depends on gaps between setup and reveal, so the optimal “serving” of that type of show might be more like 3-4 episodes, and might vary depending on the show. Maybe Hollywood has had it right all along; a 9 episode season, with episodes released 3 at a time, is really a trilogy of 2 hour movies.

4. Experimentation is good. Netflix is if nothing else providing a public service here. I may watch the show just out of curiosity for how they’ve done it.

F. Lynx Pardinus February 2, 2013 at 9:46 am

“Maybe Hollywood has had it right all along”

Absolutely, this is what should always be mentioned in TV episodes vs. movie analyses: 2 episodes ~ 1 short movie and 3 episodes ~ 1 long movie in running time. If you took a poll, I would guess that most people consume TV episodes in 2-3 episode blocks.

F. Lynx Pardinus February 2, 2013 at 9:54 am

“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.”

Absolutely, I think a great online learning experience is where the student attempts to solve a problem, then visits the forum to discuss how other students are approaching the same problem, and then improves their initial solution. In a site like Udacity where there’s no schedule or synchronization, this progression doesn’t work as well.

8 February 2, 2013 at 9:55 am

In many countries TV shows are filmed at once. Episodes are shown back-to-back on a nightly basis. Networks have sometimes run miniseries that go for several nights in a row, but this would eat up weeks of programming. 24 changed network TV by becoming the first (that I can recall) to delay it’s opening so that it could run without reruns. Imagine they ran it for 6 straight weeks (M-Th) during sweeps. They might have annihilated the competition.

nathan w February 2, 2013 at 10:11 am

Remember when they used to release novels one chapter at a time? Well, neither do I, but I read about it once.

I would not be surprised to see this become the norm. It’s about the only way I consume “TV” series anymore: one season at a time.

Tomasz Wegrzanowski February 2, 2013 at 10:11 am

> I do not myself enjoy the marathon approach to TV shows, as I prefer to ponder the episodes over weeks, months, or years.

The pirates are tho only group who has a choice, and they strongly prefer watching multiple episodes at once.

marris February 2, 2013 at 10:41 am

You mean in quick succession?

Ronald Brak February 2, 2013 at 11:23 am

Under the eyepatch there is a USB port that lets pirates jack in and experience multiple episodes at once via parallel processing.

Christine February 2, 2013 at 10:18 am

I watched the first two seasons of Downtown in quick succession on DVD, but now I am really enjoying getting season 3 one week at a time. People have forgotten how much of life’s pleasure lies in anticipation.

axa February 2, 2013 at 3:25 pm

anticipation of vacations, a birthday, OK…….but TV?

Colin February 2, 2013 at 10:20 am

Ok I’ve got to know: which TV episodes have you pondered for years afterwards? What’s out there that is that profound?

GGS February 2, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Yes, I’d like to know this as well.

anon February 2, 2013 at 10:24 am

You can buy an entire book at once, as serialization — while not dead — has ceased to be the norm for long novels.

Don’t read much fiction – are novels getting shorter or longer? Less or more expensive? And what about Kindle singles? I suspect that we will see shorter and shorter “books” (i.e., longer “short stories”) especially ebooks priced at $0.99 to $2.99. (TGS for Kindle is $3.99, the print edition $8.29.)

In a recent meeting with an author, I suggested he consider breaking his next book into 3 to 5 smaller “books” and sell the ebook editions for $0.99 to $2.99 each. Sell the print editions for $4.99 to $7.99.

More publishers, especially smaller houses, are using print on demand, and although the per copy cost is much higher than offset printing, there is no warehousing, no upfront investment in physical books, and distribution handled by the POD provider. Also, a POD book need never go out of print.

Many print books are now designed for print and ebook versions at the outset.

And if you are a writer, you can easily try building an audience online (see, e.g., TGS). Which means that serialization is already here, but it doesn’t look much like serialization in Charles Dickens’ time.

Dan Weber February 2, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Game of Thrones is sold on the serial model. It’s just that each chapter is 800 pages long.

Philip February 2, 2013 at 10:32 am

What does Tyler’s last sentence imply? That he is glad to have his unusual self-discipline become even more of a comparative advantage?

Squarely Rooted February 2, 2013 at 11:08 am

I think this is in part generation. My wife and I are simply very accustomed to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBOGO. Most of the shows we have watched over the past four years since we started dating, moved in together, got married – The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, The Office, Parks & Recreation, Louie, Luther, Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Big Love, Mad Men – we “binge-watched” in the sense that we began our viewership after the show had either completed or had been on the air many seasons, and we would watch 1-2 episodes an evening until we had finished or “caught up.” When we are watching a show that is currently “live,” such as Homeland, there are certainly enjoyable elements to that, but we enjoy watching shows that have completed because we can watch them at our leisure. We don’t “marathon” or “binge” in the sense of losing a whole day to a single 13-episode season, but we will watch a whole season of television in, say, a week, which is still very different from the one-a-week-for-a-few-months model that has until recently dominated.

Fazal Majid February 2, 2013 at 11:12 am

In many genres like Science Fiction or Fantasy, series are the norm, e.g. Robert Jordan’s posthumously completed Wheel of Time cycle, which spans 20 years and 14 back-breaking volumes, most of which clock near a thousand pages each.

I watched the first 5 episodes of the House of Cards series. While not as deliciously black as the British original, it is quite good. I jus wonder how it will conclude, as the US system does not allow a president to be replaced in back room backstabbing the way Thatcher, Major or Blair were in Britain’s parliamentary system.

mravery February 2, 2013 at 12:58 pm

I would argue that “serial novels” like WoT, King’s Gunslinger series, Martin’s ASoIAF, etc. bear more similarity to the “whole series released at a time” model of House of Cards rather than the traditional week-to-week model of network drama. The “serial unit” in both cases is substantial (a very long novel of a 10+ hours TV season) rather than short (a chapter or single episode). Consider: When Martin’s books were adapted to TV, each book was treated as its own “season” of television.

And FWIW, I’m pretty sure House of Cards is guaranteed a two-season run. So while they’ve released 13 episodes at once, it’s not the entire work. You could argue that this is still serialization, but the dramatic shift in the size of the “chunks” being released simultaneously indicates to me a fairly dramatic shift in the way this stuff is being presented

Now, an earlier poster noted that this is more a change in the way the product is being released/distributed rather than how it is consumed. And this is true. The trick is going to be determining whether this is actually a profitable way to do things. Or more precisely, what types of content are suitable for distribution with this model.

bjssp February 2, 2013 at 2:02 pm

I think it’s a question of how this model might supplement the current model rather than replace it. I don’t know how much of a technological and/or legal problem there is for something like this, but imagine it were relatively easy to summon old episodes of any show that is still on television, like if you wanted to catch up on “Scandal” on ABC, “Person of Interest” on CBS, or “Community” on NBC because you happened to catch a new episode and liked it. There’d probably need to be a fee of some kind, but it would be small and it probably would be flat. It might then be easier for older shows to add new viewers and for the networks to maintain the model they now have.

Or maybe we are headed for a situation where, in some cases, you pay to watch a show…kind of like Pay Per View but on a smaller scale. Paying $1 per episode isn’t going to break most people, and if you can get 3,000,000 people to do it, you could probably turn a profit pretty easily, minus the charging and production costs.

el February 4, 2013 at 11:02 am

We can already do this – the last three or four episodes of most tv series are available on demand (for free) through my cable package / Hulu, and entire old seasons are available through Netflix and Hulu Plus. Watching shows in realtime has really fallen out of favor with younger generations, with quite a few of the twenty-somethings I know subsisting on some combo of Netflix / Hulu. If I wasn’t invested in sports (which I have absolutely no motivation to watch after the fact), I would jettison my cable package and be one of them.

Bradley Gardner February 2, 2013 at 2:40 pm

I vastly prefer marathon viewing, for two rather basic reasons.

1. I can’t stand watching commercials.
2. I dislike scheduling around entertainment consumption.

TIVO and the like somewhat solve these problems, but I also like having a broader view of how everything fits together when I’m thinking things over.

Like the breakdown of the studio system in the 50s, I think this trend is going to give more influence to people with media presence (stars rather than producers) while supporting to some degree a “long tail” of people not making that much money off their work. It’s also likely to be more of a boon to scripted television than reality shows.

On the other hand, I got my parents a Roku for Christmas, and they seem to prefer TV programers deciding what reruns they’re going to watch rather than finding them without commercials on the machine.

axa February 2, 2013 at 3:28 pm

for 13 episodes in a row, the script has to be well written. if not people is going to find a lot of errors and get disspointed.

Jethro February 2, 2013 at 8:44 pm

The BBC released basically the show 23 years ago: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Cards_(UK_TV_series)

ChrisA February 2, 2013 at 10:29 pm

An hour of TV a day is enough for me. We only watch DVDs now and the news, regular TV with adverts is too annoying.

My question with both DVDs and ebooks, why don’t they do more bundling? I can imagine buying a block of say 50 ebooks, chosen for me by someone with a good reputation. Also a block of DVDs of short series or films. With the growth in amount of media out there it is really hard to know beforehand what’s worth reading or watching, with this model I would feel much better about trying stuff and then discarding it if I didn’t like it. I buy much less new material at the moment because of the fear of buying something I don’t like. This approach would spread my risk so I would buy more. From the producers point of view it would increase revenues on the less popular items. And for less popular writers, there will be increased readers, and an increased chance of becoming a star.

The old model of selling one book or DVD at a time was fine when there was an actual physical item to produce, but the marginal cost of adding additional items to my bundle is basically zero now.

Just to illustrate my idea, let’s imagine a bundle containing game of thrones, with five other less popular series at 50% more than game of thrones on its own. There is a revenue increase to the producers since there was no chance of me buying the less popular series anyway.

anne February 3, 2013 at 12:14 am

My husband and I have done both the catch up and then watch current episodes as they air (Mad Men) as well as the wait until the series is over and binge (Lost.) By the way, we hammered out all six seasons of Lost in under three weeks. Pretty strange experience.

Courtney February 3, 2013 at 2:36 pm

I guess I’m confused. Are you actually required to watch all of the shows in one sitting or is the show written assuming that people will watch all of the episodes close in time and Netflix is just posting them all at once.

If the latter, then I am not sure why this is any big deal. Consuming television shows by the season is not a new thing and each person watches at their own pace. I came to Buffy late and marathoned through 7 seasons (not very productive at work during that period). I am catching up on Downton Abbey but only watching one or two episodes a week – it’s a different show and, for me, I feel like I will appreciate it more if I take a little more time watching it.

It’s easy for me to think of episodes as chapters in a book, with each season as a volume in a series – some books I race through and others I take more time. With so many complete seasons of TV shows available for streaming on Netflix, it is difficult for me to see how adding one more signals a shift in the viewing Zeitgeist.

The elephant in the room here is that Netflix, which is not a member of the traditional entertainment industry, is moving into the business of producing original content to drive customers to its streaming service. This is as significant (maybe more) as when the cable networks, HBO/Showtime/AMC, started creating original content in competition to the traditional networks – fracturing the television viewership model. Netflix is firing a shot across the bow of the cable companies and traditional content providers – the fact that they are doing by releasing an entire season at once is interesting as a strategy but it is not the story here.

NL7 February 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm

Hulu has also moved into the content business, with original stuff and by syndicating BBC shows not otherwise in the US. They picked up Battleground, a sitcom that a broadcast network passed on.

NL7 February 3, 2013 at 4:41 pm

I prefer to watch TV in bursts, where possible. When a show is good, I want more. This model tends to work well for the ramp-up, working on word of mouth. Everybody under 35 tells you Arrested Development was good, so you go watch all three seasons on Hulu or Netflix; same for things like the Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, whatever.

You like the show and you’re already in watching mode, so this is the best time to let you watch it. Even shows I find mediocre are more likely to get a second or third episode in before I decide to stop or watch something else; I would not sit down to watch TV (or program a DVR) to catch the second episode of a mediocre show.

I think people middle aged and older do not relate to entertainment this way, but I find people in their 20s and 30s prefer ‘television’ unscheduled and on demand.

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