Television producers have turned bingeing, hoarding and overeating into successful prime-time shows for years, but now they are turning their attention to another example of overindulgence TV watching.
Some people, peer-pressured to watch Mad Men or Game of Thrones, catch up on previous seasons to see what all the fuss is about before a new season begins. Others plan weekend marathons of classics like The West Wing and The Wire. Like other American pastimes, things can get competitive: People have been known to brag about finishing a whole 12-hour season of Homeland in one sitting.
On Friday, Netflix will release a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting: House of Cards, a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TV, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day, the producer Beau Willimon said with a laugh.
House of Cards dispenses with some of the traditions that are so common on network TV, like flashbacks. There is less reason to remind viewers what happened in previous episodes, the producers say, because so many viewers will have just seen it. And if they dont remember, Google is just a click away.
The show assumes you know whats happening all the time, whereas television has to assume that a big chunk of the audience is always just tuning in, said Ted Sarandos, Netflixs chief content officer.
NO RECAPS, PLEASE
The producer Glen Mazzara took a similar approach to AMCs The Walking Dead this year. In the second half of the season, which will start in mid-February after a two-month break, we decided to pick up the action right away to just jump right in, Mazzara said. Fans of the show, he said, have little tolerance for recaps, since many of them will have just watched a marathon of the first half to prepare for the second.
That the fans even have a choice in the matter is a testament to the fundamental changes under way in the television business. Digital video recorders, video-on-demand capabilities and streaming websites have given viewers command of what they watch and when, not unlike the way the invention of supermarkets gave food shoppers a panoply of new choices. In both cases, some consumers love to binge.
EVEN NIELSEN IS MAKING CHANGES
While the vast majority of TV is still watched live, not recorded, the ratings for some series like FXs Sons of Anarchy double after a week of recorded viewing is counted. A first-of-its-kind Nielsen study last fall found that a handful of shows gain an extra 5 percent after another three weeks.
Nielsen does not routinely count viewers who wait more than a week to watch an episode, nor does it count most of the viewers who watch online, so its hard to estimate the true amount of bingeing.
Some hoarders wait years: Mazzara, for instance, said hes waiting to watch HBOs Girls until the whole series is over, several years from now. This stockpiling phenomenon has become so common that some network executives worry that its hurting new shows because they cancel the shows before would-be viewers get around to watching them.
Nonetheless, the traditional TV cliffhanger is far from dead. The producers of shows even the five beginning on Netflix this year know they have to satisfy multiple types of audiences. Said David Fincher, the director who is working with Willimon on House of Cards, I want to make sure that people who set the book down ... are able to connect the dots, but I also want the people who are rabidly turning pages to go, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got all that.
There is skepticism in Hollywood about Netflixs all-at-once release of House of Cards. Willimon acknowledged the advantages to stretching out a season its a format viewers are used to, theres more time for marketing but said that as a storyteller (hes best known for the play Farragut North, which inspired the film The Ides of March)he prefers the House of Cards approach.
As television becomes less beholden to the schedule and more acclimated to the Web, he said, it might even dispense with episodes altogether. You might just get eight straight hours or 10 straight hours, and you decide where to pause.