In-Season Binge Viewing

All you’ve been hearing about for the past several weeks from your friends, family, and coworkers is how amazing that show you were planning on skipping is and that you “have to watch it.” So, of course you cave and join the bandwagon … but there’s just one small problem. You want to start watching from the first episode, but it’s nowhere to be found. You can watch episode 3, 4, and 5, but then you’d miss out on important character backstories. Sound familiar?

Why, oh why, does this happen? TV networks and pay-TV distributors typically have rights only to the last five episodes of a show that aired on TV, which is also called the “rolling five” in the industry. If viewers want to watch previous full seasons of a series, they can do so via streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, but for current seasons, if you don’t catch what you’re missing within the span of those five episodes, you’re usually out of luck.

Viewers who want to binge on the most current season have to wait until it becomes available in its entirety by way of a streaming provider (unless they purchase individual episodes through services like iTunes or Amazon on Demand). And at that point, networks as well as their advertisers are denied the opportunity to capitalize on these hungry viewers because they don’t want to start watching halfway through a season.

Enter the battle of binge-viewing and in-season stacking rights – rights to all episodes during a current season. According to a report from Variety:

SVOD services want to bid those rights away from networks and distributors, which are loath to pay much extra for those rights given that they feel entitled to those episodes from their current affiliate deals.

Companies like Netflix and Hulu say that if networks expose all of their current-season content, it makes SVOD content less valuable. Lionsgate Television Group Chairman Kevin Beggs said that the current “challenge is financial” and that the “value of Netflix down the line is going to be reduced if there’s play in the first season.” This reduces the value of the content that services like Netflix and Hulu are willing to pay premium dollars for, which in turn will affect studios who want to maximize their revenues while their content is within the SVOD window.

Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told The Wall Street Journal that, “The less exploited shows are through on-demand services, the more valuable they are to us,” adding that cable operators are trying to stay relevant by “marginalizing” services like Netflix.

Coming from a consumer/audience perspective, I want to live in a media world where I can watch any episode of any show from any season at any time I want, and on any device I happen to be using at the time (without having to access content illegally). Binge-viewing is becoming a well-known practice, especially with the proliferation of video and video streaming services making more of an effort to diversify their content. (According to a Nielsen study, 88% of Netflix users participate in binge-viewing.) I was even binge-viewing before I even realized what it was and before it became an industry term. I watched the first few seasons of Sons of Anarchy on Netflix a few years ago, and thankfully, I caught up to the show when the first few episodes were still available as part of the rolling five. But since this is purely a financial battle between SVOD services and networks and their distribution partners, we can only wait and see who will win out and if audiences will truly be kept in mind.

[photo courtesy of IFC]