Betting on the binge: Netflix, House of Cards, and the future of appointment viewing

We rejoined Netflix, and I can’t stop watching.

I’ve already devoured two seasons of The Walking Dead, AMC’s zombie gore-fest. We’re plowing through Arrested Development, a show that somehow slipped under our radar back in its day. West Wing looms on the horizon, along with a half-dozen other series we never caught the first time around.

In other words, we’re binging—and loving it. It’s a pleasant way to veg. No weeklong wait between episodes. No commercial breaks. Dig into a show on your own terms, not on the schedule that helps the network win sweeps week.[1]

We love it, and so do millions of other viewers (especially the younger crowds marketers salivate over). For us, this is “TV”. Not hundred-dollar cable bills. Not frustrating slogs through weeks of reruns, waiting for a new episode. Just an easy-to-use, inexpensive service that encourages us to overindulge on our favorite shows.

Knowing how much its users love to binge, Netflix has gone all-in. House of Cards, an original series produced by the online service, never aired on a network. It was never released piecemeal, episode by episode, either. Instead, Netflix debuted Cards’ entire first season all at once: fourteen episodes—teed up for immediate binge viewing.

The binge is in, but the old model has its strengths, both for the networks and their viewers. For over half a century, the television industry emphasized “appointment viewing.” Popular shows were hyped as “must see TV”, and viewers rearranged their schedules to tune in, every week—“same bat time, same bat channel.”

This steady time slot approach helped make television a social phenomenon. Fans planned parties around each new episode’s premiere. Workers gathered around the water cooler to discuss the previous night’s shows. And as social media—particularly Twitter—ramped up, this communal conversation spilled out onto the web.

Viewers want to watch together. The desire is hard-wired into our brains. For most of human history, after all, we gathered around the campfire, huddled against the dark, and told each other stories. We still gather—only the flickering light comes from a talking box, and the stories get beamed in from afar.

Slowly but surely, the networks realized how important social viewing was to a show’s success. For a series to go viral, it needed rabid fans to share it with others. So the studios now do everything they can to encourage this conversation. Thus, we get hashtags superimposed over every broadcast.

This leaves Netflix in a precarious position, with irreconcilable agendas on all sides. Their subscribers want to binge freely and share the viewing experience with others. The networks—who still provide the vast majority of Netflix’s content—need a viable release model for the digital age and a way to promote their product.

It’s a tricky problem, but here’s one way Netflix could solve it: help users sync their viewing with each other. Make it easy for people half a world apart to watch the exact same thing at the exact same time. If one person pauses, the other does, too—automatically. And, as their mini-marathons roll along, friends would share their reactions, real-time, on Twitter and Facebook, thus recreating the hashtag effect in miniature.[2] Netflix itself might even organize some parties: “Jump into LOST with the rest of Netflix, starting this Friday at 9!”

The binge is no longer fringe. To satisfy its viewers, appease its content providers, and cement itself as the streaming king, Netflix should invite us to binge… together.

  1. In fact, if anything, the binge trend undermines TV ratings, since it encourages viewers not to watch the best shows as they air. Let the bandwagon pass you by and the seasons stack up. Then, once the show airs its finale, you’re free to enjoy the entire series. You can rocket through Battlestar Galactica in a long weekend. You can power through LOST in a fortnight. You can skip over the universally-reviled episodes to reach the fan favorites. If you can wait out a show’s broadcast run, TV works around your schedule, not the networks’ prime-time strategies.  ↩

  2. In fact, the XBOX Netflix app had something like this functionality in its “Party Mode,” until a firmware upgrade wiped this feature out  ↩