How Streaming and Binging Has Changed Our Relationship With TV


Photo by Daniel Horacio Agostini and reused here with Creative Commons license.

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The final season of “Mad Men” is rolling out. “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has become a bonafide hit alongside its Netflix siblings “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black.” Fox’s “Empire” just became the first TV show in ages to gain a bigger audience from week to week during its premiere season. And, for the third time, Xfinity is running its hotly anticipated Watchathon event, which enables subscribers to sample unlimited quantities of new and old premium shows.

"As consumers, we have more choice than ever, and with choice comes complexity and confusion." -Dan Rayburn

A shift has been taking place over the past decade that’s made it easier for watchers to indulge in heapings upon heapings of shows at one time and to access these episodes on any device at any time they feel like it.

There are the major networks trying to convince the public to tune in to programming live and take part in what they’ve affectionately dubbed “appointment television,” or at least to DVR shows for later. And there are the Amazons and Netflixes that started off streaming networks’ shows and have moved on to creating and releasing their own.

What has this transformation done for the way people consume TV? Here are nine ways this shift is changing our relationship with TV, according to streaming and online video expert Dan Rayburn as well as existing research and studies on the topic.

1. Most people are supplementing cable subscriptions with streaming services, not picking one over the other. Rayburn, in fact, is quick to point out that straight-up cord-cutting — in which someone or a family gets rid of cable entirely — isn’t soaring or dramatically on the rise, the way some assume it is. In the past two years, the top pay TV providers have only lost about 0.2 percent of their customers, according to a report from Leichtman Research Group.

What’s more common is for viewers to tune in via a blend of streaming services and traditional programming. A study cited in the the January/February 2015 issue of Streaming Media Magazine showed nearly 60 percent of respondents had paid TV subscriptions, 66 percent subscribed to Netflix, 48 percent subscribed to Amazon Prime/Instant Video, and 38 percent subscribed to both.

“As consumers, we have more choice than ever, and with choice comes complexity and confusion,” Rayburn says.

So it becomes a time-consuming and ongoing battle to figure out what to watch where and when as well as what’s allowable and available. Does Hulu air ABC shows, and, if so, is it the day after a show has run on cable or not until later? Is this hockey game on ESPN, Dish, or somewhere else entirely?

In this head-spinning array, cable is actually the constant, he says.

“They’re not willing to get rid of the only service that makes it easy,” he says of cable. “There are still issues with streaming video — they don’t know what quality you’ll get, if it’s in standard definition or high definition, if it’s downloaded or a subscription is needed.”

So streaming services are treated as an add-on, and it’s not uncommon for families to have cable, Netflix and Hulu Plus, for instance. Or Rayburn says there are many instances when a cable subscriber cuts the cord, discovers that locating desirable shows via digital vehicles is a mighty challenge, and then reactivates a cable subscription to ease the burden.

All of this confusion, in a larger sense, isn’t enough to turn families off of TV at all; just to work harder to get all of the beloved shows and episodes, new and old, using a combination of different brands and sources. That’s probably why…

2. Basically every category of TV-watching is on the rise, just not in the traditional sense. According to Rayburn, what’s growing includes how frequently people watch, the amount of time spent watching, and the number of devices on which they watch. But this is the case across devices and the Web, not strict TV-viewing.

Nielsen’s latest Total Audience Report found that the average person watched about 141 hours of live TV per month in the third quarter of 2014, which is down from the year before. Similarly, on a daily basis, viewers are watching TV 12 minutes less than they were a year ago.

But when looked at in a broader way, viewership numbers are up. On computers, viewing of online video is steadily climbing. More viewers are also using DVRs or video on-demand to watch TV after its live airing, and online video streaming jumped 60 percent last year, according to Nielsen.

3. There’s no agreed-upon definition of binge-watching, but it’s happening in a big way. Netflix itself hired Harris Interactive to study what’s happening on its platform. Among the results, it was found that 61 percent admitted to binge-watching (tuning in to two or three episodes in one sitting) regularly. Most in the study considered the behavior positive, with 76 percent saying packing in multiple episodes was a welcome distraction and refuge from life, and 79 percent claiming that binging on shows makes them better.

In that same survey, 37 percent of those polled said they prefer to save new TV series or seasons to stream at a later date. Their preferred way of consuming, consequently, is in one swoop. They’d rather wait once and then watch a show altogether than regularly wait between each episode.

Binge-watching, by the way, is not new. Rayburn points to how “The Simpsons” and other shows have long sold DVDs of full seasons. With the proliferation of mobile devices and Internet capabilities, it’s just far easier to do now.

4. New series are being developed with binge-watching in mind. Think “Bojack Horseman” whose animated, star-studded episodes came out at once and felt almost joined together. Cosmopolitan even came out with a list recently of shows that are better viewed in binge-style, either because they’re “easier to appreciate all at once” or “just too addictive.” Those that made the cut ranged from “The Real Housewives” to “The Amazing Race.”

Not all new TV programming is being released this way though. There are examples aplenty of companies rationing out episodes one at a time. For example, a new installment of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” pops up online via Crackle at the same time each week. Now that it’s in the domain of Yahoo, “Community,” too, is coming out week by week like how it did when NBC owned it.

Especially when it comes to the buzz and social media chatter around a show, doling it out in regular increments keeps the conversation going; conversely, when a show is thrust to the public in one burst, there might be bigger fanfare immediately, but the social explosion dies out quickly. Amazon’s data supports this belief, which is why it’s refusing to take an all-at-once release approach.

5. Viewers are becoming more discerning about quality.Slate, together with SurveyMonkey, examined TV viewing behavior last year. Quality, they discovered, matters. It’s not just Kevin Spacey’s cheeky asides to the camera as Frank Underwood, you might say, that lures in viewers but high-caliber cinematography or attention to details in the writing. A full 64 percent said high production value was the top reason to tune in and binge.

What they’re watching too, via digital means, tends to be longer and more intense — a one-hour drama versus one of the Kardashian reality shows.

6. Audiences are feeling an even bigger distaste for commercials. That same Slate/SurveyMonkey data gave some bad news to the advertising industry: a majority of respondents said, when they’re streaming shows, one of the aspects they enjoyed most was being able to mute or fast-forward through commercials, as opposed to waiting them out when watching a show live.

7. There’s an odd, conflicted mix of viewers paying more attention to shows, while multitasking more.

Chart by SurveyMonkey.


There’s some evidence that binge-watchers are more focused on the show itself. To that tune, 57 percent in the Slate/SurveyMonkey poll cited feeling “somewhat” or “much more focused” when binge-watching, and, similarly, 58 percent say they pay more attention to shows when they’re binge-watching.

But — and it’s not entirely clear how these two forces work together — they’re also doing a lot more at the same time, including tackling homework, knitting, checking Facebook, even breastfeeding.

8. The jury’s still out on whether it’s harmful to binge on shows. However, scientists are seeing a bit of a connection between excessive watching and depression. They’re not ready to say that binging causes any sort of mental ailment. But the most recent findings out of the University of Texas at Austin from last year associated people who binge on television with depression, loneliness, and an inability to control their behavior.

“… those who feel more depressed tend to watch more programs,” Yoon Hi Sung, a doctoral student and the lead researcher in the study, said in an NPR article.

Photo by Willem van de Kerkhof and used here with Creative Commons license.


9. Unlike random channel surfing via cable, streaming viewing is deliberate and planned. Fans carve out time to watch, and they take in a series of episodes largely in their living rooms, based on the Slate/SurveyMonkey poll. The experience is about settling in and getting comfy for hours of back-to-back viewing. In the study about 20 percent of respondents said they planned a binge fest. In the words of one user surveyed, “It’s an event instead of an accident.”

Luckily, there will be plenty of more opportunities to do just that going forward.

Dena Levitz is currently serving as the first journalism fellow for D.C.-based startup hub 1776. In that role, she’s spent the past six months traveling all over the globe interviewing startup founders and analyzing innovation ecosystems and entrepreneurship trends. Just prior to 1776, Dena was a member of the first cohort of the Media Entrepreneurship Masters program at American University. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a staff writer for the Augusta Chronicle covering crime and transportation and for the Washington Examiner reporting on D.C. schools. For three years she also worked as the manager of digital strategies for the Newspaper Association of America. As a freelancer, her byline has appeared in media outlets including CityLab by Atlantic Media, the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Eater, Bloomberg News, and Narratively.