Internet

21st century TV: If you stream it, we will binge

Sep. 19, 2013 at 2:13 PM ET

Aaron Paul (left) and Bryan Cranston in the binge-worthy "Breaking Bad."
Frank Ockenfels / AMC
Aaron Paul (left) and Bryan Cranston in the binge-worthy "Breaking Bad."

"Breaking Bad" didn't turn us into binge-watching TV addicts, and neither did mobile devices, or even the Internet. Just ask anyone who bought the Special Edition "Twin Peaks" Box Set on VHS in 1993. Many a lost weekend were spent in the Dark Lodge, absorbing all 29 episodes, when David Lynch's six-tape set of noir surrealism hit the Blockbuster shelves.

Yet as with many things, advances in technology have only made it easier to crawl inside the TV viewing hole, allowing us to spend more time in an alternate universe of someone else's fiction. 

Videotapes gave way to DVDs, and DVDs gave way to video on demand. Cable television forced us to chose whether we'll spend Memorial Day watching ABC Family's "Special Harry Potter Event" or TNT's "Law & Order: A Very Elliot Stabler Weekend." And Netflix is in the business of building buzz-worthy original shows and making the entire seasons available via streaming right at the premiere. We're left with little choice but to lose whole days to "House of Cards," "Arrested Development," and "Orange is the New Black," lest we see spoilers in the Twittersphere.

Now, like the scale you don't want to step on after Thanksgiving weekend, the ratings firm Nielsen is giving us the numbers: Just how much do we gorge on streaming services ... and turn off our real lives?

"Viewers are streaming video at a breakneck pace — demonstrating incredible binge appetites for programming available anytime and virtually anywhere on services such as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime," all of which continue to see an increase in subscribers, Nielsen states in a new report.  

These are viewers who want what they want when they want it. According to the binge-viewing numbers, 88 percent of Netflix users and 70 percent of Hulu Plus will stream three or more episodes of the same TV show in one day. (That's not to say this massive population is watching multiple shows daily, but when they do tune in, they do it with commitment.)

This is the instant gratification Netflix is already banking on — if you stream it, they will watch. Almost half of the 800 Netflix streaming customers surveyed by Nielsen said they tune in to watch the Netflix's growing catalog of original shows. Exactly how many of Netflix's more than 29 million streaming subscribers tune in to watch the original programming, Netflix won't share.

The company does crow about how the premiere of the critically acclaimed "Orange is the New Black" received more viewers in its first week than the also-critically-acclaimed "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development." But as Peter Kafka of All Things D pointed out in July — before word-of-mouth made the Kevin Spacey original series must-see TV — "maybe 'House of Cards' had almost no viewers, so beating those numbers is no big deal."

What we can extrapolate from the Nielsen numbers is that Netflix and its competitors debuting the "box set," an entire season, all at once, is not a bad game plan for winning loyalty, and may even be edging out the HBO model of trickling content, one quality drip at a time. When people watch these streaming shows, they glue themselves to the couch and watch them in out-sized chunks. But you can't blame Netflix, or even Amazon or Hulu. It is what you wanted, right?

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah abut the Internet. Tell her to get a real job on Twitter and/or Facebook.

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