One Episode at a Time, Please: Is a Binge Backlash Brewing?

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    Finally. [LINK]

    Netflix made the binge a hallmark of streaming television in the 2010s, differentiating itself from the slow-motion world of weekly television series by indulging its audience with a seemingly bottomless pit of content. Why not gorge an eight-episode series in one night, the thinking goes, since there will be 10 others waiting in your queue to keep your eyeballs sated? The binge release soon became a kind of default mode for other streamers as well. That is quickly changing, though, as new players enter the arena, and viewers rediscover the lost art of anticipation.

    HBO Max, Hulu, Paramount+, and Apple TV+ have all been experimenting with versions of a linear release format, dropping episodes weekly or in parcels. But it is Disney+ that has most successfully revived the concept of appointment viewing with series like WandaVision and The Mandalorian.

    “You work on something for a year and then it’s over in a weekend for people,” Josh Schwartz, the cocreator of Gossip Girl, The O.C., and Runaways, recently told me. “And people don’t quite know where one episode ends and another one begins. There does feel like something is lost in that model…. People are just consuming it as this kind of block of something.”

    I think we’re all in vaguely the similar age range where we remember the concept of “appointment TV”, and either talking to friends in person or on the phone or online about a single episode, and the implications and ramifications thereof, for the next six days until the next new one came out. With a really mythologically dense, carefully planned out show like Babylon 5 or Lost, the theorizing was kind of a fun creative exercise in and of itself.

    I remember being super jazzed when those first few Star Trek Discovery episodes rolled out one by one instead of dropping in a Netflix-style season dump. It’s interesting to note that the newer streaming entities – CBS/Paramount+, Disney+, Apple TV+ – have brought back “day and date” episodic shows rather than just dumping them in a pile. So maybe there’s some wisdom lurking in the old broadcast ecosystem yet.

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    It makes sense from the content providers point of view since it keeps the buzz about the show going a lot longer. How long is the Buzz for a show that allows audience to binge watch? A week? Two, tops? One episode at a time, even in this age of only 8-10 shows a season, keeps the buzz going at least two months.

    Ever binge re-watched one of those one-at-a-time shows after the season is over? Feel let down? Is it because you knew what was going to happen or because the tension of you knowing you have to wait for another episode is not there? Often that tension and investment is more than the show deserves (and many times the show writers know this). Many times, the resolution in the next episode was not deserving the anticipation it got when the previous episode ended.

    Case in point: Lost. So much of that show’s popularity was based on the secrets it had and the anticipation the audience had when they got to see the next episode. Now that we all know its secrets, we realize that anticipation was not deserved. No doubt many folks, when the series first ran, declared “I waited a week for this? Ugh.” I think that was a big reason so many fans dropped the show when the second season came out. The payoff was not worth the wait. If Lost was first available for binge watching, I think the show would have been much less popular. It might have been dropped after the first season.

    This is my experience with Lost: I didn’t watch the show at all the first few season because I heard the phrase “conspiracy theory” mentioned in its presence. I hate conspiracy theory shows (big reason I never watched – and still haven’t watched – the X-files). But then, since there was still quite a bit of Buzz about the show (my Mom even watched the show, although she never understood it), I decided to watch it. In late 2008 I opened an account with NetFlix – yes that is why I have NetFlix – and “binge watched” the show. I got two DVDs at a time, so the “binge” lasted 8-10 episodes at a time while I waited for the next two DVDs to show up. Even then, I had some anticipation waiting for the next DVD to show up in my mail. It took months to finish the first four seasons of Lost, but I barely finished just before the start of Season 5. From that point on I had to wait a week between episodes just like every other schmuck. Despite that, I really liked season 5 and thought it was perhaps the best season of the series. That may have been entirely because I had to wait a week between episodes. Season 6 of course sucked and showed me the Emperor had no clothes and I had little anticipation and just wanted to get to the end already.

    Three years pass and I discover Lost is on NetFlix streaming I began to wonder, was the show worth the hype? Was the story line any good now that I can watch it all at once instead of having to wait a week between episodes or, worse, months between seasons? So, in August of 2013, I started binge watching Lost. I took an 18-month break after midway through season 2 but, in May of 2015 I went back and finished watching the rest of the show so I could answer my questions.

    Well, we all know the answer to all of the questions. A big resounding NO. Especially season six. Yuck. I think one thing binge watching does is expose the flaws of the overall story (if it has a story). Continuity errors show up like ugly red zits on a white girl. It becomes clear that the writers had no idea what they were doing and were making up shit as they went along. That may help them end an episode, but it hurts the series. Binge watching demonstrates that writers and producers must use a different strategy in their long story arcs if they want viewers to binge watch the show. Not just binge watchers but viewers with long memories, especially review writers who will remember the sins of earlier seasons (they also take notes to remember details later).

    Anyway, this goes to show that perhaps the show producers know that it is a lot harder to write quality shows that are binge watched instead of watched serially and they want to go back to the good old days with their lazy writing habits. Keeping track of your characters and myriad storylines is hard (I guess).

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    For me, the problem with “binge viewing” has been…. finding several undisturbed hours to watch a series on end. That has not been my life for over a decade now.

    Nowadays, there are multiple streaming services available. I personally subscribe to Amazon Prime, HBO Max (free with my broadband), Hulu (1 year promo), and Criterion Channel. (Not that I watch them at the moment.) But, there are also folks who will subscribe to a particular streaming service for a particular series, then cancel the service. From a business perspective, that means I’m only getting one month of subscription fees, and less if they are on a promo.

    “All parts should go together without forcing. You must remember that the parts you are reassembling were disassembled by you. Therefore, if you can’t get them together again, there must be a reason. By all means, do not use a hammer.” —IBM Manual, 1925

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    I am not a binge-watcher; at least I don’t feel I am as it seems to apply to other people. My idea of binge-watching is to watch one episode per evening, as my brother and I have been doing for the last year and a half, starting with Babylon 5/Crusade, then Star Trek (original, animated, movies), Next Generation, and currently, Voyager. I am happy to digest it one episode at a time, one per day. (We’re doing an episode of Cheers and an episode of Voyager every evening.) Normally, I just can’t do more than one episode at a time (except on rare occasions, perhaps, particularly in the case of two-parters). The thought of watching many multiple episodes for hours at a time is not appealing to me. I like the idea of pacing yourself, savoring each episode and giving it time to breathe, allowing yourself to unpack what you’ve watched and to ruminate upon it.

    In the olden days, you’d get one new episode per week for like four or five weeks, then repeats of those episodes, then a few more new ones, then repeats, then a few more new ones, repeats, etc. I really like the current model of one new episode per week with the new shows like Discovery, The Orville, and the MCU shows. One new episode per week for the entire season, no mid-season breaks or repeats, just a constant, steady flow. It’s the perfect, happy medium between the old paradigm and the new bingeing paradigm.

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