Don't be distracted by Netflix binge data

Next time, how about some data that actually tells us something?

Last week, Netflix revealed the results of a study tracking the speed at which subscribers viewed the first seasons of more than 100 television series.

We now know that series like "Breaking Bad," "Grace & Frankie," and "Marco Polo" are what the streaming service refers to as "devoured." The first season for each of these series was typically consumed in four days and viewed for approximately two-and-one-half hours in each sitting. Shows like "Bloodline," "House of Cards" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" were "savored," or consumed in in about six days (and roughly one hour and 45 minutes per sitting). In between devoured and savored was fare like "Orange Is the New Black" and "Marvel’s Jessica Jones."

Since these streaming services are basically a business of pure speculation — there are still no audience metrics available to the public — any data released by Netflix is certainly both devoured and savored. But, now that we have had time to digest these binge-watching findings, do we really care that a season of drama "Marco Polo" is consumed faster than "House of Cards" or "Bloodline"?  

I think all this brouhaha about binge-watching (honestly…what really is the big deal?) is a distraction from what is the bigger issue. And I worry, at some point, that the rapid rise of Netflix and all these digital streamers will result in a rapid fall once the subscribers max out and the seemingly endless well for all these new productions dries up.

Netflix, of course, generates revenue through the monthly membership fees for its content streaming services and DVD-by-mail services, under a model where the viewer can customize his or her own schedule. The attraction is the often stellar quality of the product and the freedom to watch whatever series you choose at your own pace. So, to binge, which is Netflix’s calling card, is like reading multiple chapters of a book. You just can’t get enough of something due to the intensity.  

As critics like myself argue, the merits of binge watching (I, myself, viewed all 13 episodes of season one of the revival of "Full House," now "Fuller House," on Netflix in one day!), the real debate should focus on where exactly our medium is heading.

While traditional television viewing does slowly continue to deteriorate (traditional viewing this season to-date is down in the vicinity of another 5% in total viewers), media buyer ZenithOptimedia predicts that U.S. advertising spending on television will still rise by 2% (to $68.1 billion) in 2016. Part of that increase is attributed to the Summer Olympics and an election year. Estimated results in 2017 are expected to drop 1%, and 0.8% in 2018.  In other words, there is still life left in the old "dinosaur."  

Digital consumption, by contrast, feels innovative, smart and cool, and defenders of the format are all but certain that the viewers of tomorrow will fully abandon the once traditional way of consuming content in favor of the model presented by Netflix and the other digital streamers. Netflix alone had a reported 65 million subscribers at the end of second quarter 2015 (with 42 million in the United States), and it has become a magnet for the new generation of "must see" TV. With the number of U.S. digital TV viewers expected to reach 145.3 million in 2017, up from the 106.2 million in 2012, viewers could eventually turn to online streaming their first source for good.  

We won’t know for years who ultimately prevails. But to plan for the future, these network programmers need to step up their game in the quality department. Nothing seems to look all that promising in the new series department for next fall (and there was really nothing worth nothing this season). That is all the more reason to think digital will take over. And an outlet like Netflix may at some point have to slow down and offer some data that really tells us something. At some point, binge-watching will no longer be the "in" thing.

Until then, I will continue to enjoy the wide array of all these programming options either the old-fashioned way or via binge-watching. When it comes to those Tanners on "Fuller House," you can’t watch just one episode!

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