Monday, September 23, 2013

Binge Viewing is the New Black

The Binge Viewer is the new couch potato.

Forget the image of the sloth getting fatter on the sofa, the BV is an altogether more glamorous concept. A highly motivated, high energy, enthusiastic viewer, who doesn’t just love and watch TV but needs to share his/her views with others who have enjoyed the same experience. Where the couch potato was a loner, the BV is out to show just how much they are capable of consuming without tiring, and to out-rival all viewer competitors in that consumption. The BV is a greedy creature, but can chew TV up and spit it out at an alarming rate.
Binge viewing is the new black, and the two words that anyone who’s anyone in the TV industry is using now. Although, according to reports, 90% of people still watch TV in real time, increasing numbers of us are taking advantage of entire series being made available in one great feast, and gorging ourselves over hours, days, and even weeks.
The box set has been around for a long time. It was the thing people bought before Catch Up and On Demand, when they wanted a permanent memento of shows that had already been aired. Some bought box sets because they had missed key episodes and wanted to experience the narrative from start to finish.
But the trouble with box sets is that they are what they say on the tin: boxes. Having only just recently dispensed with my video library (what were those bricks all about, eh?) and replaced them with DVDs in boxes, I now find myself consigning them to the scrapheap too, in favour of storing everything online and running it, through a feed on my laptop, to my 50 inch TV screen. The pain in the neck is having to keep getting up if I wish to pause viewing, as my sofa is on the other side of the room from the equipment, but I’m sure there’s a geek working on that even as I write (the magic tool might even already be out there).
Box sets were undoubtedly the first generation of binge products; but now, a new generation of bingers is on the block, and Netflix is leading the way.
Netflix was the word on everyone’s lips at both this year’s Edinburgh Television Festival and the Cambridge Convention. Kevin Spacey, whose House of Cards was an original series made for Netflix, delivered the MacTaggart lecture at the former, while Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, spoke at the latter. Sarandos said that he hopes spending on original programming to rise to 20% in the coming years (it is currently under ten).
I was one of many (Sarandos will not reveal numbers of viewers) who watched Kevin Spacey in Netflix’s first original series House of Cards. Based on Andrew Davies’s original UK 1990 series (based on the Michael Dobbs novel), starring Ian Richardson as ruthless politician Francis Urquhart (changed to Underwood for the US version), it is a feast of massive proportion. I watched the first eight episodes on my laptop from my bed one Saturday and the remainder via the feed to the TV the day after.
Binge viewing is a bizarre experience. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, go anywhere, or do anything else. I couldn’t even be bothered to cook. The production consumed me, not only for its extraordinary quality and Spacey’s breathtakingly brilliant performance (the man can do no wrong in my book), but because I lived within my own little bubble throughout, feeling protected from the the horrid things going on in the real world.
It could be said that the box set can deliver the same, but there is something very different about opening a box, putting on a DVD, and the experience of watching online, which has a greater fluidity. I have just finished watching another Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black, set in a women’s prison, and no sooner does one episode finish than a caption comes up saying “Your next episode will start in 10 seconds.” And so you’re hooked. What the heck, you think, now that it’s started, I might as well watch another one. Finally, I got to sleep at 5am, having found it impossible to tear myself away.
It is the sharing experience, however, that makes binge viewing online different from the old box set viewing. I can count on one hand the people I know who bought box sets, but the former has caught something unique: it is obviously not the shared experience as TV in real time, but it is shared in the medium that brings the message: the internet, the web we feel that links us all together, and it is this that creates the sensation of being part of a global viewing audience. Traditional viewers continue to talk about big shows such as The X Factor the morning after the night before; but the discussions about House of Cards are ongoing.
Someone once said at a television festival that we watch television as we die – alone. That, however, is what I love about binge viewing. I love to binge alone and I have a huge appetite. But then I like to meet other people to talk about what I had and how much I enjoyed it. Then, I’m onto the next feast to start the process all over again.
Kevin Spacey said at Edinburgh that we are entering a golden age of television, and he credited the viewers as the people who now hold the real power. We do. Increasingly, we can have what we want, when we want it. And not having to move from the sofa to open a box makes it all the more pleasurable.

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