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Has Netflix Changed How Americans Watch TV?

By Daniel B. Kline - Mar 27, 2016 at 7:42AM

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A new report reveals how major a shift has taken place in the nation's viewing habits.

Not all that many years ago, people watched television programs at the time they aired.

Back when the only other option was using clunky and limited VCRs to tape shows for later viewing, binge-watching sounded like something that might require medical attention. Now, however, even the basic idea that shows "air" at a specific time seems like something which only applies to Luddites or elderly people who still actually have VHS machines.

First, DVRs became widespread, allowing people to easily time-shift large numbers of programs to whenever they wanted to watch them. Next came binge-watching, a concept introduced by Netflix (NFLX 2.78%) and embraced by rivals including Amazon (AMZN 1.47%), and some traditional broadcast outlets in certain cases, became more common. Exactly how common might surprise you: Watching multiple episodes of a show in a single sitting has become something more Americans do than don't, according to a new study.

Netflix releases all of its shows all at once. Source: Netflix

What does the study say?
When Netflix first started releasing full seasons of its shows all at once, the practice was novel, flying directly in the face of traditional television conventions. Under the old model, new episodes were doled out one each week, because that created appointment viewing. In theory, even once DVRs had become the norm, people watched hit shows live and talked about them at work the next day. 

That was good for advertisers, because people who watch live are pretty much forced to see the commercials. Netflix, however, does not care about (or sell) advertising, so when it began creating original series, it only had to serve its subscribers. Releasing full seasons of shows all at once did that, letting people watch at whatever pace they wanted.

It's hard to know if the streaming giant knew in advance that people would watch multiple episodes at once, but that's what happened. Now, binge-watching has become the norm with 70% of consumers in the United States doing it, according to a new study from consulting firm Deloitte. The research, which Variety reported showed that Americans are "gulping down an average of five episodes per marathon session."

Clearly, even though binge-watching has hit all age groups, this is a phenomenon being driven by younger folks. The Deloitte report, which was conducted in the fall of 2015 backed that up in a number of ways:

  • Miillennials aged 14-25 value streaming-video subscriptions to services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and Hulu Plus more than pay TV.
  • Consumers 14-25 now spend more time watching online-video services than live TV.

"Overall, about 31% of those surveyed said they binge TV shows on a weekly basis, and 36% of those aged 19-25 say they binge weekly," Variety reported. Dramas are more heavily binge-watched than other types of programming, followed by comedies, then reality shows.

It's going to change more
Once reserved to streaming services binge watching has become something traditional networks are at least willing to try. NBC released the full season of Aquarius online all at once while TBS did the same with comedy Angie Tribeca. In both cases, the networks also aired the show in the traditional one episode a week fashion.

What's very clear is that the idea of appointment viewing has mostly gone away aside from sporting events and awards shows. Going forward it seems that the current network schedule could eventually become a thing of the past or at least a legacy offering which does not reflect how most people watch.

Netflix has broken the mold and changed the model. People watch television differently and it seems likely consumers will push for more full-season, same-day releases which will force not just Amazon and Hulu to comply, but also traditional broadcasters.

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