IS a populist cabal of remote-control-wielding, DVD-obsessed fans controlling the Emmys?
OK, not quite. But heading into tonight's ceremony, it's indisputable that "24" -- the fifth season of which earned 12 Emmy nominations, more than any other series -- owes much to viewers like Starlee Kine who consume entire seasons in a few short days.
"That show is like crack," she said. "I don't know how you watch that show and not binge."
It didn't start out that way. Back at the end of its first season on Fox, "24" ranked as one of the most expensive shows on television and was a critical and cult favorite -- but it was only a moderate ratings success. To recoup some of its costs, 20th Century Fox Television ditched the traditional four-year wait and released the series on DVD in September 2002, six weeks before the second season premiered. The results were unexpected: Not only has the first-season set sold 1.7 million units, but the return of the series averaged 3 million more viewers than the previous year. "That seems to be the way people find the show," said "24" executive producer Howard Gordon of the DVD success. "It's been a great enhancement."
The trail-blazing DVD release boosted the number of Jack Bauer-worshipping viewers and -- along with the show's cardiac-arrest-inducing cliffhanger endings -- contributed to a new phenomenon: binge-watching.
Serialized narratives such as "24" are tailor-made for such back-to-back-to-back episode viewing -- and their release on DVD has altered the way we watch TV by giving consumers the freedom to view shows on their own schedules, all at the flick of a fingertip. Just a few of the binge-watchers' favorites: HBO's "Six Feet Under" and ABC's "Lost" (which netted nine Emmy nominations each), as well as lighter fare such as HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage" (five nods apiece) and Fox's "Arrested Development" (four nominations).
Clearly no one's going to raise a silver disc overhead during tonight's acceptance speeches at the Shrine Auditorium. But it's impossible to look at these series' showings this year without noting the intersection between the Hollywood awards culture and this evolving consumer behavior.
An obsessive compulsion
IN addition to feeding her "24" addiction, Kine, a New York-based writer, has binged on another nouveau classic: the BBC version of "The Office." She recalls placing the first season of Ricky Gervais' droll English comedy into her DVD player and settling down with her boyfriend on an air mattress with a slow leak. After it was over, she said, "we looked at each other and it was a silent agreement." Season 2 went into the player.
"We were like junkies," Kine, 31, recalled, and then chided herself: "It's not good to watch that much TV."
Another binger, Jessamay Kroth of Chicago, calls herself a "recent addict." Kroth, 30, didn't watch much TV growing up, but now she finds herself obsessively consuming a broad variety of serials on DVD. Like many bingers, one of her earliest forays came with "24," and she too speaks of it in terms of a drug.
"I was so hooked," said Kroth, who recently completed a master's degree at the University of Chicago.
Initially, Kroth relied on Netflix for her series fixes. Now, like some of her more obsessive fellow bingers, she makes sure to keep track of DVD release dates so she can be among the first to rent or buy entire seasons of her favorite shows. (That crowd is eagerly awaiting Sept. 5, the day the second season of "Lost" is released on DVD. "It's going to be huge," said Dan Vancini, DVD editor at Amazon.com, where the season ranks as the most popular DVD.)
Kine and Kroth are a new kind of couch potato. This variety of 21st century television watcher might not subscribe to premium cable, or even basic cable. Some don't even own a TV -- holy Homer Simpson! -- instead viewing shows on their laptops or PCs. Yet this new group has the devotion of the recently converted.
And movers and shakers in the television industry can't help but take notice. "It is kind of a new behavior," said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix Inc., which supplies many television DVD junkies with their product. About 20% of the 1.4 million discs Netflix ships daily to some of its 5.2 million subscribers are television-content DVDs, he said.
Sarandos too has succumbed to binge-watching, especially with "Entourage." "Without this kind of watching, 'Entourage' would have been off my radar," he said.
Judith McCourt, director of research at Santa Ana-based Home Media Retailing, has been tracking the TV/DVD market since the first television shows were released on DVD in 1997 (among them "Beavis and Butt-head") and the first-season sets came out in 2000 ("The X-Files," followed by "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos"). She said the sale of TV shows on DVD continues to show double-digit-percentage rate growth -- and will approach $3 billion this year -- even as the DVD market as a whole has flattened.