During the seventies I watched TV programs as and when they were broadcast. This was not through choice but because that was the only means available. Therefore the advent of the VCR in the eighties was a very liberating experience. However although I was free from having to watch at a specific time, I still tended to view recorded programs on a weekly basis, rather than allow them to accumulate. All the technology was doing was freeing me from the broadcasters schedule and allowing me to create my own.
TV audiences had a very different relationship with the shows they watched during the seventies and eighties. Families often watched together and the previous night’s viewing was usually the topic of discussion at work or school the following day. If you missed an episode of your favourite show then you would have to wait months or even a year before it was re-run. The advent of the VCR improved this situation significantly but the esoteric nature of setting the timer still meant that this was not a full proof system.
Nowadays unless you are technophobic or a militant Luddite, it is far easier to access the shows that you want and watch them at your leisure than watch live. VOD, DVRs, the ubiquity of the “plus one” channel and even the old school DVD boxset ensure that you can keep abreast of your favourite TV shows. This shift in availability has led to the phenomenon of binge-viewing; something that I personally have resisted until recently but have now fully embraced.
There are three major reasons why I have adopted this viewing habit for some of the shows that I currently watch. Firstly, my life like many others peoples, no longer follows a traditional nine to five schedule. My working pattern is irregular and my online activities, especially those associated with the blog and podcast, span multiple different time zones. Therefore I do not like being tied to third party schedules. Secondly, TV shows are a lot more complex these days; frequently have long term story arcs. Watching episodes back to back provides a greater understanding of the plot. Thirdly, binge viewing can be an efficient means to catch up with shows that straddle multiple seasons. At present I can blitz out season two of The Blacklist and be ready for new content when season three starts in October.
The way we consume TV content is also having an impact upon the way the material is created. VOD providers have market research that suggests that viewers like slightly shorter seasons. Sometimes twenty plus episodes can be too much, where a season consisting of eight or thirteen episodes is sufficient to tell an in-depth tale. Recent examples of this are True Detective and Penny Dreadful on cable and Under the Dome and Hannibal on Network TV. All maintain a standard of writing and storytelling yet do not outstay their welcome with weak or superfluous episodes.
Binge-viewing is not relevant to all genres of TV programs. Many sporting events are still best viewed live. On most days, rolling news is often cyclical, so watching for hours will provide only a finite amount of information. Also binge viewing may not appeal to all age groups. My own parents who are in their eighties are still very much creatures of habit and like to adhere to the networks schedules. If it’s Tuesday then it’s Pork Chops for dinner and NCIS at 9:00 PM. The notion of watching an entire season will invoke judgemental comments about over indulgence and a lack of self-control.
However I think the future of TV lies with content delivery upon demand. Perhaps Kevin Spacey summed it up best in 2013, while speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival:
“The audience wants control. They want freedom. If they want to binge then we should let them binge. Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it.
For years, particularly with the advent of the Internet, people have been griping about lessening attention spans. But if someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn’t that show an incredible attention span? The audience has spoken: They want stories. They’re dying for them. All we have to do is give it to them.”