'Binge Viewing' Won't Starve Linear TV

Gluttonous Sessions Can Even Boost Scheduled Broadcasts

By Published on .

Binge viewing isn't something to fear.

After Netflix released the first season of "House of Cards" in its entirety Feb. 1, the concept of "binge viewing" -- watching multiple episodes of a series in a single sitting -- became a very hot topic. My team and I are tasked with addressing these trends because it always leads to the same question: Is this going to kill linear TV viewing?

The short answer is no. And here's why.

DVRs were supposed to kill linear TV, and in spite of the fact that penetration continues to increase, overall time-shifting activity has remained constant. Nielsen's most recent Cross Platform Report demonstrated that 87% of broadcast viewing is still done live.

Broadband video was also supposed to kill linear TV, but the average PC-streaming session is still only a few minutes in length. To be fair, we are starting to see evidence that young adults are spending less time watching TV than they were a few years ago, but it's hardly a mass exodus. And it's definitely not because they don't care about TV.

In fact, SocialGuide reports that in the month of January alone, there were nearly 100 million tweets related to TV programming, all generated within three hours of each telecast, if not during the telecast itself.

Viewers want to see what will happen next and comment on it in real time.

Nowhere is this more evident than with live tentpole events like the Super Bowl, the Grammys and the Academy Awards, which generate millions of tweets as they happen.

Social media is the ultimate virtual watercooler, and spoilers are a very real risk if you are not in the know.

Kevin Spacey in
Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards"
I can think of several occasions in which binge viewing actually led to my watching more live TV. ABC's "Lost" (my favorite series of all time) is perhaps the best example. My wife and I binged our way through three seasons and were caught up by the time season four began. At that point, we were so hooked that waiting even a few hours to watch the latest episode wasn't an option.

There's solid evidence that I'm not alone. British import "Downton Abbey" didn't start to catch on here in the States until after it had already started airing on PBS. Netflix's streaming service allowed latecomers to catch up, and by the time season two premiered, ratings went up significantly. The season-three premiere grew even more, and most recently, the season-three finale was the highest-rated telecast for the PBS run of the show.

Netflix's approach to "House of Cards" is interesting and will probably become more important as the major streaming players attempt to differentiate themselves with original content and exclusive deals for existing programming.

But the fact remains that these are subscription services, which will always limit uptake. Consider HBO, which launched in 1972 and is still only purchased by about a quarter of TV homes today -- 40 years later.

So yes, there is a certain satisfaction to be had by spending a rainy day indoors geeking out on your latest TV addiction. You may even feel a twinge of regret once you are caught up and have to watch in real time.

But this is the age of total mediation, and odds are another feeling will win out in the end: the fear of missing out.

Brian Hughes is senior VP-audience analysis practice lead at Magna Global.

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