Binge-watching box sets has changed the way television is made, but is something being lost?

Patience and loyalty to a TV series is the reason why good episodes come to those who wait

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The Independent Culture

Are you counting down the days until the next series of Orange Is the New Black drops so you can watch it in one weekend? Or do you decline after-work drinks every Tuesday to make sure you don’t miss Cookie’s next move in Empire?

Since the launch of Netflix in the UK in 2012, binge watching – getting through several episodes in one go – has been just one of the knock-on effects of the switch from linear to on-demand television. Last year, a survey by Deloitte showed that a quarter of viewers would prefer to watch several episodes of their favourite show in one sitting, with 25- to 34-year-olds particularly hooked.

Earlier this year, Peter Kay’s Car Share broke records when it became the BBC iPlayer’s biggest show to premiere as a box set. All six episodes were shown on the iPlayer, resulting in 2.8 million requests before its BBC1 debut. That’s just one example of how channels have capitalised on the binge-watching trend and it’s a tactic that NBC hopes will work for it as it releases all 13 episodes of the new David Duchovny drama, Aquarius, online, as well as showing it every week on television in the US.

But is the novelty of having a whole series handed to you on a plate beginning to wear off? Recently, some programme makers have voiced their dissent, with Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, saying that he prefers the “marination” of waiting for the next episode. “I think when you watch an entire season of a show in a day, you will definitely dream about it,” he says. “But it’s not the same as walking around the whole week saying, ‘God, Pete really pissed me off.’” Or, as the creator of the binge-watch hit Orange Is the New Black, Jenji Kohan, puts it: “I miss having people on the same page.”

The norm for on-demand services such as Netflix has been to release a whole series of original programming, such as House of Cards, at a time. But the Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul, was drip-fed to the UK after its stateside premiere and now a new episode of the sci-fi thriller Between is being released each week.

Amazon Studios, the home to the Golden Globe winner Transparent, already has a different strategy to release content. Each show is piloted online and then the studio takes into account the number of viewers and their comments when they’re deciding whether or not to green-light it. Releasing shows slowly creates more of a buzz around them, with less fear of spoilers: Amazon’s data shows that the noise on social media declines more drastically on shows that are binge-watched. Those fomo-merchants who have to be the first to watch a whole series and clog up your news feed with spoilers are one thing, but nothing beats sharing the emotions and debate together as a plot unfolds.

Appointment-to-view telly is often touted as being on the decline, with millennial “cord cutters” ignoring television sets in favour of smartphones and tablets. Netflix’s chief executive, Reed Hastings, made the claim that broadcast will be dead within 15 years. But in this golden age of television, with big-budget successes such as Game of Thrones hooking in an army of loyal viewers with epic tales, it’s clear that some shows are meant to be savoured. If Mad Men’s finale had come at the end of a multi-episode binge instead of a hotly anticipated last series, would fans have spent so long arguing about what was going to happen to Don Draper?

Then there’s the power of a cliffhanger – and the soapy plots of shows such as Empire and Scandal are ideal for that you’ll-have-to-wait-another-week feeling. A study by the University of Texas even claimed that binge watching is bad for you, as the more lonely and depressed you are, the more likely you are to immerse yourself in a box set and ignore real life. While it’s unlikely that letting the autoplay run to one too many episodes of Grace and Frankie will damage your health, perhaps it’s time to take a well-earned breather between each one. µ

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