Binge TV: a small-screen revolution

By Mark Broatch In Entertainment

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Last August, Kevin Spacey delivered the annual MacTaggart lecture to an audience of TV professionals in Edinburgh. For more than 45 minutes, the actor and director – charming, surprising and occasionally chiding his audience – explained how TV was changing.

Not to the bad, as many couch critics might say – lowest-common-denominator audiences being force-fed competitive cooking shows, competitive survival shows and competitive dating shows – but to the good. The very, very good.

Television is in another golden age, he said, name checking, among others, The Sopranos, Homeland, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and House of Cards. Breaking Bad is regarded as the pinnacle of long-form serial TV, its nearly 70 episodes about a high-school teacher who turns to cooking hard drugs still spellbinding millions around the world. But it was House of Cards Spacey spoke of in most glowing terms, understandably, perhaps, given that he had produced and starred in it.

Several things are surprising about House of Cards. First, that this drama about a Machiavellian American congressman had been commissioned by the US online video streaming service Netflix, which previously had let its rapidly growing band of subscribers – now claimed to top 44 million in 40 countries – watch recent films and TV shows only from Hollywood and the big TV studios.

Another unusual aspect was that all 13 hour-long episodes of the series, which had a reported US$100 million budget, were released on one day, February 1 last year. Netflix let its subscribers watch them as they wanted: one or two at a time, or gorging on the whole series in one sitting.

Kevin Spacey: TV is being changed for the good by shows such as his House of Cards.

Kevin Spacey: TV is being changed for the good by shows such as his House of Cards.

This TV-watching habit, which has been dubbed binge TV, has been growing rapidly among loyal fans. Thanks to DVD box sets, digital TV recording systems such as MySky, online streaming services and software that subverts “geo-blocking” and, yes, illegal downloading, television fans around the world have been bingeing on quality series they’ve heard of via the internet or by word of mouth. What’s more, they’re viewing them on tablets, computers and mobile phones as well as on their widescreens. The future has finally arrived, and Kiwis, often early adopters, are embracing it.

In a skit on the alternative sketch comedy show Portlandia – itself a source of TV bingeing – the show’s main couple install themselves on the couch to overdose on the sub-cult sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica. She is reluctant at first, but soon she’s reacting with horror when discs end, shouting for “Just one more!”, forgetting to wash and pay the power bill, and eventually stalking the show’s writer to petition him to create one final programme.

Local TV bingers recognise the caricature. You forget where you are in a series, you lose track of characters and storylines so much that you write lists on slips of paper, yet you still find yourself inserting a new disc at 10.30pm on a weekday to find out what happens next.

This writer is late to bingeing, finding addiction with an early box set of the Danish series of The Killing, but can attest that the symptoms of addiction are real. The neuroscience suggests that watching television switches activity from the left brain hemisphere to the right, from logic to emotion, the body releasing pleasurable endorphins that keep us glued to the screen.


House of Cards was unusual in another way. It was taken to all the major US networks, said Spacey, and all were interested – but all wanted to do a pilot first. Spacey and co said no. They said its sophisticated, multilayered story would take a long time to tell, that its complex characters and relationships could only be revealed over time. “For us it was a 13-hour movie,” said head writer Beau Willimon. Netflix, which closely monitors what, when and how its customers watch, had run its data and the data said they would watch a long-form political drama.

Ted Sarandos. Getty Images

Compare how US network TV usually works, said Spacey. In 2012, US TV made 113 pilots. Only 35 went to air and 13 were renewed. Last year, 146 pilots were shot and 56 went to series. Those pilots might have cost US400 million, he said, making House of Cards very cost-effective for Netflix, which charges subscribers US$8 a month (£6 in the UK). And a critical success. House of Cards, which was based on a 1990 BBC series of the same name, was the first online-created show to win an Emmy, in fact taking out several, including for Andrew Davies’ writing and David Fincher’s directing. The Golden Globes then handed the award for best female actor in a drama TV series to Robin Wright, who plays Spacey’s scheming wife.

Patience has not been a virtue in television management, Spacey said. They want to find hits quickly. Yet Breaking Bad was a slow starter before going from cable channel AMC to Netflix. Cable heavyweight HBO’s The Sopranos took four seasons to find its audience, NBC’s Seinfeld five. AMC’s Mad Men showed that positive buzz and quality of audience were as important as sheer numbers when building a programme “brand”.

Netflix, which began life as a DVD distribution business, was the first of the growing number of video-streaming services to get into the content-production business. House of Cards, the first season of which TV3 announced would be in its 2014 shows, was Netflix’s first big step into making shows. The entire second series will be released online on February 14 – and a third series is likely.

Why produce content at all? Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s colourful head of content, told the Guardian: “Until a couple of years ago, a network would make every pilot for a series into a one-off show. I started getting worried, thinking nobody’s going to make series any more, and so we wouldn’t be able to buy them a season after they’ve been broadcast. So we said maybe we should develop that muscle ourselves.” Sarandos has a US$2 billion annual content budget, and spends up to 10% on developing original shows (HBO spends four times as much).

Netflix has a swag of original content coming this year, including new series of the acclaimed women’s prison drama Orange is the New Black, a Breaking Bad spin-off and a sci-fi series from the sibling creators of The Matrix. It was the company that revived Arrested Development and the US version of The Killing. Most of the content cash was spent on TV because, argues Sarandos, movies are becoming more global and so less intimate. “I think television is going in the opposite direction – richer characterisation, denser storylines – and so much more like reading a novel.”

Netflix, which reportedly looked at the New Zealand market before moving on, is far from the only large non-traditional media company creating new television. Amazon and Sony are among those looking at creating original shows, as is Hulu, Yahoo and apparently even Microsoft’s Xbox. Its claimed 70 million customers are to get new shows delivered to their consoles, including an action series produced by Steven Spielberg.

Cable providers worldwide are also increasingly streaming their own content online. Here, the free-to-air channels and Sky – which holds the rights to many of the top shows – have been dipping their toes in, giving viewers a window to watch content online after broadcast, and TVNZ has even run a few critically acclaimed shows solely online.

Jesse Pinkman and Walter White in Breaking Bad.


The 1950s were an early golden age for TV, according to Spacey’s mentor, the actor Jack Lemmon, who said because it was a new medium you could try anything. “There was a sense of total abandon.” Something of that try-anything freedom appears to be returning to the medium, suggested Spacey.

The seeds of the current new golden age were to some degree sown 30 years ago. Ahead of its 1981 launch, US network giant NBC sent an internal memo to Steven Bochco about his new cop show Hill Street Blues. Test screen audiences saw it as “depressing, violent and confusing”. Too much was crammed in and characters were flawed and not capable of doing their jobs. In other words, said Spacey, it was a blueprint for what made Hill Street Blues an historic programme, and paved the way for all those shows audiences now binge on.

Spacey told his audience of TV executives in Edinburgh that the industry doesn’t do nearly enough to foster the next generation of talent – whomever they may be – or make good programmes. “I wonder if you are – as I am – disappointed that this medium doesn’t reach for the highest of excellence as much as it should, or could?”

Then he said something to warm the hearts of artists everywhere. “I believe culture is not a luxury item, it is a necessity. Storytelling helps us understand each other, translate the issues of our times …” And: in business and art, in the long run, “the risk-takers are rewarded”.

Audiences desperately want stories, Spacey said. To kids watching Avatar on an iPad or YouTube on a TV or Game of Thrones on their laptop, “it’s all content, it’s all story”.

And they will binge on it, he said, talk about it, tweet, blog and Facebook about it with a passion a blockbuster movie could only dream of. We know what works, he said: empowering artists. For the first season, Netflix didn’t even give “notes” – changes that those paying the bills demand from directors and writers.

Danish television has shown what is possible for smaller countries with smaller budgets, in the past few decades producing a string of critically and popularly acclaimed drama, most recently three series of police procedural The Killing and political drama Borgen and two series of the Danish-Swedish co-production crime thriller The Bridge. All with a population only a million more than New Zealand.

Denmark does have the considerable advantage of an annual TV licence fee of more than €300 ($500) paid by its citizens and a market of 300 million European viewers on its doorstep. Camilla Hammerich, producer of Borgen, says the rules are simple. Commissioners insist on original drama dealing with issues in contemporary society: no remakes, no adaptations. The main requirement is material for the popular 8pm slot on Sundays. Writers have the final say. “We give them a lot of space and time to develop their story. The vision of the writer is the centre of attention, we call it ‘one vision’ – meaning everyone works towards fulfilling this one vision, and very few executives are in a position to make final decisions.” This model was pretty much taken wholesale from HBO.

Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Getty Images

Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Getty Images


New Zealand television has few such advantages. No large population, no big markets nearby. Our TV licence fee was scrapped in 1999 and neither our national broadcasters nor pay TV company – operations like Maori Television aside – have strong obligations to produce quality local programmes.

Because the free-to-air model relies on advertising as its main funding source, it is at risk of losing revenue to other outlets, especially the internet. NZ on Air, now funded directly by the Government, helps pay for supposedly non-commercial material, but when the likes of The X Factor and The GC get taxpayer cash, that category appears to be boundless. Also, the model is distant from the Danish recipe for success. Famously, New Zealand TV failed to do a deal with the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, whose cult show eventually went to HBO. That perhaps half of the country’s households subscribe to Sky TV is arguably partly an unvoiced opinion on our free-to-air programming offerings.

Yet Sky faces economic and relevancy risks, too. Nachi Moghe, an analyst for research firm Morningstar, recently noted that Sky had an “unassailable position” in New Zealand as a pay-TV provider with a subscription base of 856,000 or around half of New Zealand households. But he warned that Sky faced risks from the Commerce Commission because of the lack of regulation over potentially monopolising programme rights and that it was open to competition from digital streaming services.

As new Film Commission head Dave Gibson told Radio NZ last month, video on demand use is still tiny here. In the US, it grew from 11% to 35% of delayed TV viewing between 2009 and 2013. Last year technology writer Chris Keall wrote: “QuickFlix and Ezyflix have thin (if growing) libraries, and while Netflix took a look at launching in NZ, it went away again (the company cited our data caps, but it could easily also have referenced Sky TV’s multi-year look on a lot of the juiciest pay TV content).”

Geoff Lealand, associate professor of Screen and Media Studies at the University of Waikato, who hates the term binge TV as it is “redolent of excess, bloating, obesity”, nevertheless sees many positives in the wider re-emergence of quality long-form TV drama. US and Scandinavian series have brought new vigour and respectability to television, he says, and to television criticism. “It has given more power to the viewer and loosened the grip of contrary television schedulers. It has given us more freedom to avoid the intrusion of commercial messages. It has made television more mobile. It has encouraged new fan groupings and shared experiences.”


Spacey said in his lecture that TV has learnt what the music industry did not. “Give people what they want – when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price – and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. Well, some will still steal it, but I believe this new model can take a bite out of piracy.”

Paul Brislen, chief executive of telecoms user group Tuanz, is a strong advocate of choice and echoes Spacey’s call. He says New Zealand television in particular has been “awful” in keeping shows off air for more than a year at times and then wondering why the viewership isn’t there when they do screen. “Control of when a customer consumes a product has shifted entirely towards the customer and those networks that don’t understand that will simply fail in the marketplace.”

Wrote Keall: “I respect copyright; old-world restrictions on distribution not so much.”

Lealand suspects a company with programme-buying pockets as deep as Netflix’s could offer serious competition in this country, but he has no truck with those who download. “I have had a number of tense arguments with people over summer who justified their illegal downloading of series such as Game of Thrones because they ‘can’t wait for it to come on television’. Of course, there is always a financial cost too – either buying expensive box sets or subscribing to [Sky channel] SoHo.”

He also worries about bingeing on shows not designed for such viewing. “There are long-established patterns of viewing which militate against binge viewing. Not all drama series are structured to encourage continuous, serial-like viewing. Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are, but more episodic drama like Six Feet Under and The Sopranos didn’t. You need time to pause, savour and reflect between episodes.” He accepts, however, that he may be fighting a losing battle. “Maybe seriality is becoming the dominant narrative style.”

Sarandos suggests that traditional TV had not been delivering what viewers really want, telling the Guardian: “The television business is based on managed dissatisfaction. You’re watching a great television show you’re really wrapped up in? You might get 50 minutes of watching a week and then 18,000 minutes of waiting until the next episode comes along. I’d rather make it all about the joy.” He has little time for the traditional suspense techniques of series television, and new, long series tend to do away with lengthy recaps, teasers and sometimes even exposition. “Those cliffhangers usually have such a little pay-off in the next episode. They’re cheap tricks.”



But is bingeing a passing trend? The BBC put its thriller drama Mayday on up against ITV’s crime drama Broadchurch, screening Mayday for five consecutive nights while Broadchurch ran over successive weeks. Broadchurch monstered Mayday, its 11 million viewers suggesting that deferred gratification is still hugely popular. Also, while on-demand viewing has grown hugely, the vast majority of UK TV audiences still watch the traditional way – live and for more than four hours a day. In 2010 it was estimated that Kiwis typically watch between three and four hours of television a day.

Other industry-watchers wonder if online video streaming is itself a bubble. Subscription services such as Netflix have no advertising but are often subject to high subscriber turnover or “churn”. Alongside, as Netflix has gained in power and financial clout, some studios and broadband providers have tried to stymie its growth.

Also, bingeing is not entirely new. One industry boss admitted doing much the same with Brideshead Revisited on VHS in 1981, and “secret clubs” of 1990s TV series such as The X-Files ensured much swapping of episodes.

Mainstream TV will also be learning from streaming services’ successes. John York, a former BBC production head, has said terrestrial TV is generally “hostage” to mass audiences – so it is difficult to have an unpleasant protagonist. What Breaking Bad – a show whose success was only achieved by the ability of streaming services to let people catch up, according to creator Vince Gilligan – proved is that protagonists can be awful but we can still love them, because they act cathartically as vehicles for the anger we all sometimes feel, York said.

And mainstream providers will get better at another strength of streaming services: algorithmic modelling. Says Sarandos: “I’ve had the experience where I bought a book about cancer for a friend whose mother had it, and for the next six months that’s all I got [offered]: cancer books. The failing of those systems is they don’t have enough inputs to give you a decent output. We do. That’s how we make our money.” And why shows like House of Cards are a lesser gamble.


But there are possibilities for New Zealand to follow the likes of Denmark and Sweden if we are more generous to and supportive of local writers, directors and actors, says Lealand. He notes the Film Commission’s Gibson’s suggestion that new tax incentives will help.

From April the Government is raising the baseline screen incentive for international film and television production to 20%. Alongside, local productions, including TV productions over $4 million, are potentially in line for rebates of up to 40%, based on their budgets and a points system of cultural and economic factors.

These changes, together with the exchange rate and the nation’s cheaper skilled production workforce, would reinforce New Zealand’s attractions as a centre of significant international production, Gibson said. He told Radio NZ last month: “The level of Government support for this industry is pretty damned fine.”

Nevertheless, challenges remained. Gibson said it was “really hard” to work in the $15-50 million range. He was keen on more co-productions, particularly with Australia and Asia. In Europe, co-productions across countries are common. He also planned to “get people on planes” more often, improve the skills and experience of writers and producers, and help low-budget films find distribution and their right audiences. He noted that Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement self-funded the shoot for their vampire mockumentary, shown at last month’s Sundance festival, and only got Film Commission money to finish it.

Some local TV makers have already set their sights on the quality global market. Pukeko Pictures, a Wellington company whose founders include Lord of the Rings Oscar-winner Richard Taylor, has to date made internationally saleable children’s TV shows, including The Wotwots and Jane and the Dragon, and is working on a new version of the 1960s TV show Thunderbirds. The company believes it can take advantage of the country’s film-making skills for TV series. It says it has two new prime-time adult dramas aimed at a global market in early development and has signed a deal with FreemantleMedia, part of European media giant RTL Group.

Such ambitions are worth pursuing. The New Zealand Screen Association, formerly the New Zealand Federation Against Copyright Theft, claims the industry already contributes about $3.28 billion to the New Zealand economy each year and provides the equivalent of more than 21,000 full-time jobs.

For their part, local broadcasters would be wise to join this new golden age of television. Suggests Brislen: “TVNZ, TV3 and Sky are uniquely placed in the New Zealand psyche and could make the transition away from a traditional network model towards a customer-centric provider of television – an aggregator of content – if they were willing to do so.”

Lealand suggests change is happening, but more is needed: “The flood of quality overseas drama has also probably influenced local TV production. I think some of this has rubbed off on New Zealand writers, with series such The Almighty Johnsons and Harry. I just wish TVNZ and TV3 had more faith in such quality programming and abandoned their increasingly dubious faith in ratings.”

20 series to feast on

  1. Game of Thrones, fourth season to screen this year
  2. Breaking Bad, five series
  3. Girls, third series, ongoing
  4. The Wire, five series
  5. Sherlock, third season and counting
  6. The Bridge, Denmark, currently second series
  7. The Killing, Denmark, third and final series
  8. Borgen, Denmark, third and final series
  9. The Sopranos, six series
  10. Extras, fourth series commissioned
  11. Vampire Diaries, five series
  12. The Walking Dead, five series
  13. Veep, third series on way
  14. House of Cards, second series and others likely
  15. The Simpsons, 25 series
  16. Doctor Who, 26 series
  17. In Treatment, 3 series
  18. Elementary, two series and counting
  19. The Newsroom, third and final series this year
  20. Homeland, US, three seasons and counting

A word about piracy

Of course, downloading films and TV shows is illegal, having been specifically targeted by recent changes to our copyright law. Watching streamed services online, whether paid or unpaid, and sidestepping geoblocking are questionable and may break the terms and conditions of the provider. The Listener does not endorse any of them.

But the practice appears common. For example, ISP Orcon website has a step-by-step guide on how to watch Netflix in New Zealand. Orcon chief executive Greg McAlister subscribes to Netflix US, he told the National Business Review.

But the video streaming – and Sky TV – models reinforce the line of choice advocates: that people will pay for the right service. Further proof is that Netflix now accounts for more internet traffic than peer-to-peer file-sharing services, according to tech magazine Wired.

Technology has made the online lure hard to resist. As Netflix’s Sarandos says: “The internet is a great international distribution tool, but it’s also a marketing tool. So if you’re going to market something to people and then not give it to them, you’re asking for trouble. You’re asking for piracy.”

Piracy is not regarded as evil by everyone, however. In remarks widely condemned by copyright defenders, Jeff Bewkes, chief executive of Time Warner, which owns HBO, said its uber-hit show Game of Thrones had been a major builder of the brand. But he said the likelihood that Game of Thrones had been the most pirated show in the world in 2012 had been “a tremendous word-of-mouth thing” as well. “Now that’s better than an Emmy.”

Game of Thrones author George RR Martin called it a “compliment” – though one he’d rather not receive. Bewkes did say that piracy would be a bigger problem if people were downloading rather than subscribing to HBO, though there was little evidence of that to date.

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