How will binge watching change TV?

David Cross and Portia de Rossi in a

David Cross and Portia de Rossi in a scene from "Arrested Development," which premiered May 26 on Netflix. (Credit: AP)

Meet TV binge-watcher Dan Parker.

A savvy millennial -- that is, young dude (he's 23) -- Parker is an engineer on a tugboat that runs up and down the Hudson for months at a time. But after all that time on the boat, he's now back onshore at his mom's house in Brentwood for a few weeks.

Time to catch up on his TV viewing, and catch up Dan does.


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"Right now I'm watching 'TRON: Uprising' and then I'm going to start 'True Blood,' because HBO just got their app on Apple TV," he says. He first caught the bingeing bug with "The Walking Dead" -- the whole first season -- and from there he burned through "Breaking Bad," "Game of Thrones," "Luther," "Copper" and "Doctor Who."

He doesn't need to be reminded that he's got a whole lot of bingeing ahead with "Who," which turned 50 this year. (His next shore leave, perhaps?)


Appealing to the bingers

Parker and his cohort -- that generation born in the late 1980s and '90s -- are of intense interest to a TV industry that knows the remote will be firmly cupped in their hands for years to come. And many, like Parker, are binge-watching -- consuming whole seasons of shows in one mighty gulp.

What no one yet has a firm grasp on is exactly how many people are consuming TV this way. Is it many millions or far fewer who have the time, energy, passion and, now, technology to do so?

What is known -- at least anecdotally -- is that binge viewers are out there and their numbers are growing. Bingeing is suddenly the new black. In April, a national Harris Poll said 62 percent of respondents had watched "multiple episodes" of a show in one sitting. Another poll by Frank N. Magid Associates, an Iowa-based company that advises TV stations on programming, found that a "majority" of American viewers have binged "at one time or another." (In these studies, "multiple episodes" are not always precisely defined and could include marathons or even those repeat-a-thons common on so many cable schedules.)

Meanwhile, a recent survey by MarketCast, a Los Angeles-based researcher, found most bingeing is in fact a "millennial" phenomenon, with nearly 80 percent of respondents in their 20s saying they had done so.


Netflix originals

Netflix has revived its business around the practice. The service's first original series, "House of Cards" (for which 3 million signed up), and its reboot of Fox's cult comedy "Arrested Development" were posted in their entirety upon launch for the bingeing crowd. Its newest original series, "Orange Is the New Black" -- about a woman in prison -- arrives Thursday. Bingers have plenty of other options, too -- iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, network websites and, of course, DVD collections and cable "rewind" services.

Binge-viewing is a subject everyone seems to have an opinion about -- intensely pro, or just as intensely con. The pros have a simple irrefutable perspective: It's a great way to quickly catch up on a culture-bending TV series, and without commercials.

The cons, however, are worried that binge-viewing, like DVDs and VCRs before it, stands to upend long-established TV rules that are based on appointment viewing, or what the industry calls "linear viewing" -- shows stuffed with commercials.

To some, it has a vaguely sinister, or unhealthful, connotation, like binge eating: A recent "Today" show piece even quoted a psychologist who said binge-viewing releases dopamine in the brain -- the same neurotransmitter that is considered an element of addiction.


Is bingeing bad for you?

The subject tends to polarize TV critics, too, some of whom say binge-watching erases that social media bond fans have forged over series like "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones." Some say it turns viewing into a lonely, solipsistic pursuit -- the TV equivalent of being stranded on a deserted island. Stripped of the social media component, they say, TV then becomes arid and lifeless -- just another way to release the old dopamines.

But in a recent Wired interview, "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan said, "I don't really have a complete understanding of it or a complete metric for it but I got to believe -- my gut tells me -- that it's very possible we wouldn't have made it to 62 episodes without... this cultural creation of binge-watching."

Andrew Lenchewski -- producer of "Royal Pains," set on Long Island -- said, "Without question, the bingeing trend has put pressure on many shows to favor serialized story lines, and to end every episode with a cliffhanger."

What tends to get lost in the discussion are hard facts. Nielsen, the world's leading media measurement service, is just now gearing up to measure the phenomenon and hasn't the vaguest notion of bingeing's prevalence -- though Nielsen does assume much is done on mobile devices.

There also was talk of a "bingeing" revolution in the past decade, when the DVR came into popular use, and before that, with DVDs. Instead, most viewers just used the DVR to catch up on individual episodes.

"Remember when the DVD market for TV shows exploded?" said Derek Baine, senior analyst for Charlottesville, Va.-based SNL Kagan, a leading cable industry research firm. "It then later contracted dramatically. I think the summer is a little bit different because there's not a lot of new shows on the broadcast networks so people do have time to sit down and watch a chunk of a season on one show and catch up. [But] I haven't seen any evidence of this type of behavior when looking at VOD viewing, where you would be able to watch a big chunk of episodes."


The perfect mousetrap

Almost any talk of bingeing these days gets around to Netflix -- which currently has about 30 million U.S. subscribers -- because, for bingers, the service has built just about the perfect mousetrap. If someone starts to watch "Battlestar Galactica," he or she can go through an entire season (there were four) without so much as lifting a finger. At the end of each episode, the next one automatically cues up.

Ad-based Hulu Plus works pretty much the same way, and, like Netflix, is not just confined to the TV set but can be accessed via Blu-ray players, game consoles, phones and just about any other device you can think of. But bingeing is obviously good business for both, because the more time spent bingeing means less time spent with rivals, like HBO or any other cable network.

Netflix never discloses viewership data to the press and a company spokeswoman did not respond to requests seeking comment. But at a recent analyst conference, Ted Sarandos, the company's chief content officer, said only a small fraction of subscribers swallowed all 15 episodes of "Arrested Development" in one gulp when it arrived in May. The rest grazed through a couple of episodes at a time, he said.

Meanwhile, Dan Parker readily admits he, too, doesn't have a clue about how much bingeing is going on or whether he's part of a national trend, or the future of television, or a pawn in the plan for world TV domination by a few major players. Nor does he care.

"All I know is that during college, we had all these great shows, but we were just so busy taking 20, 25 credits a semester that we didn't have time to watch. Then coming out, everyone is talking about these water cooler shows, and we were able to finally get it going."


CANT'T STOP WATCHING?

Bingeing is not for me.

There really are only so many hours in a day, and, for a professional TV watcher -- or at least this one -- to spend them power-watching yet another series seems excessive. And exhausting. But let's say I was forced to sit in front of a set and binge, baby, binge. Here are four obvious and easy candidates:

Homeland The first and second seasons: 24 hours total. Why, I could be done in a day. "Homeland" is perfect for the TV gluttons among us -- a plot that spins so quickly that all it took was two seasons for Brody (Damian Lewis) to return home from Iraq a hero... to staging a terror plot... to running for Congress (and winning)... to having a messy, torrid affair with Carrie (Claire Danes)... to making an escape to Canada.

Downton Abbey A couple dozen lead characters would seem to make this classic a difficult six-course meal to sit through, hour after hour. Except... it is not. Binge on "Downton" and you'll get to know (and love) Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) better than your next-door neighbor.

Game of Thrones There are so many reasons to binge on "GoT" -- great show, cast, plot, writing, details, narrative, settings, mythology -- but here's an obvious one. By the end of your long Westeros sojourn, you'll know what a Missendei is -- and a khaleesi, meereenese knot, and warg, too. Pay extra special attention and you may end up being fluent in Valyrian, Braavosi and Dothraki.

Breaking Bad "BB" is perfect for budding bingiacs because each episode ends with such a gut-wrenching twist that you just have to keep watching to see what happens. Of course, you do run the risk of not eating or sleeping or talking to family or spouse over the course of this splurge. Maybe bingeing "Bad" isn't such a good idea after all. 

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