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Binge-viewing is transforming the television experience

Services like Netflix and Hulu let fans watch multiple episodes or even entire seasons of shows all at once, giving life to new series such as 'House of Cards.'

February 01, 2013|By Dawn C. Chmielewski, Los Angeles Times
  • A scene from Netflix's political thriller "House of Cards," which stars actor Kevin Spacey as a ruthless, scheming House majority whip. In a departure from television tradition, the entire season of “House of Cards” will be available at once.
A scene from Netflix's political thriller "House of Cards,"… (Melinda Sue Gordon / Netflix )

When Thomas Toth contracted pneumonia, he became inseparable from the cool, stylish Don Draper.

Toth watched all five seasons of the AMC series "Mad Men" from his sickbed in a two-week viewing binge . He became so captivated by its fictional admen that he began sporting skinny ties and drinking Old-Fashioned cocktails.

"The nuances of the story lines are getting so complicated — they're introducing characters in Episode 2 and that character comes back in Episode 6 — I can digest things a lot quicker and easier when I binge on them," the 44-year-old Denver resident said.

Toth has lots of company. Services such as Netflix and Hulu, as well as digital video recorders, have transformed the TV viewing experience by enabling viewers to devour multiple episodes or even entire seasons of "The Wire" or "Downton Abbey" in marathon viewing sessions.

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Now Netflix is making a massive bet that it can satisfy the addiction that it helped create. At 12:01 a.m. Friday the service debuted its first original series, a political drama called "House of Cards" that stars actor Kevin Spacey as a ruthless, scheming House majority whip.

In a departure from television tradition, the entire season of "House of Cards" — all 13 episodes, nearly 13 hours of tense Capitol Hill drama — will be available at once, with the click of a button.

Millions of Americans are binge-viewing serialized dramas and comedies, including those that can no longer be found on the network prime-time schedule. Hits like the espionage thriller "24" and cult favorites such as "Arrested Development," which both ran on the Fox network, have found new life on Netflix, as have past seasons of FX's "American Horror Story" and ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars."

The phenomenon is so pervasive that a majority of Americans ages 8 to 66 say they've engaged in this sort of copious TV consumption, according to a study conducted by media consultant Frank N. Magid Associates Inc.

"We're finding that people who binge-view once binge-view again," Magid Executive Vice President Jack MacKenzie said. "It's the 'you can't eat just one' kind of thing."

This instant-gratification approach flouts network scheduling traditions.

Hollywood has always fed audiences a diet of, "Wait a week and we'll give you new episodes, then wait a season, we'll give you another season," Netflix Chief Content Office Ted Sarandos said.

"The Internet is attuning people to get what they want when they want it," Sarandos said. "'House of Cards' is literally the first show for the on-demand generation."

Netflix committed a reported $100 million for two seasons of "House of Cards," based on a strong script and the pedigree of the creative team of director David Fincher ("The Social Network" and "Fight Club") and writer Beau Willimon, who received an Oscar nomination for the 2011 political drama "The Ides of March."

"We wanted to go all-in," Sarandos said. "It's important to signal … that we're moving into this space in a meaningful, big way. So we did it loud."

If successful, the gambit could begin to unwind 60 years of serialized television convention — especially if others begin to emulate Netflix's approach. So far, broadcast and cable programmers have shown no inclination to release multiple episodes simultaneously.

"I don't think one show changes the television industry," said Richard Greenfield, media analyst with BTIG. But "if this become replicated multiple times over by Netflix and others, absolutely."

The instant-availability formula dispenses with cliffhangers designed to prevent the audience from fleeing during commercial breaks and woo them back for next week's installment. There is no need for comprehensive recaps of the previous week's episode because Netflix assumes that viewers won't miss a beat.

The absence of ads means that each episode has more time for story lines and relationships — as much as 15 more minutes of story per television hour.

"We've been impacting how people watch and when they watch," Sarandos said. "But 'House of Cards' is the first thing on Netflix that's ever been actually crafted to be watched in multiple episodes. So there's no catch-up. There's no exposition. There's no 'previously on' or 'next on.'"

Modi Wiczyk, co-chief executive of Media Rights Capital, the independent studio that financed and produced "House of Cards," said Netflix won the right to distribute the series because it gave the creators total artistic freedom.

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Its two-season, 26-episode commitment created a huge canvas for storytelling and gave the creators a shot at being a network-defining show, in the mold of HBO's "The Sopranos" or FX's "The Shield."

"This is going to be part of the continuation of this story of the change in how people consume content," Wiczyk said.

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