SMITH BRAIN TRUST -- Binge-watching television — taking in a season or more of "Mad Men," "Silicon Valley" or "Scandal" in a couple of days — has become a much-discussed new pastime, made tempting by streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, with their vast stores of shows. Content providers often seem to cater to bingers, as when Netflix uploads a season of "House of Cards" all at once.
But the rise of binge watching poses risks for streaming services, according to new research from the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. "From a business perspective, binge-watching is not necessarily behavior that content-providers want to encourage," says Wendy W. Moe, a professor of marketing at Smith.
For one thing, binge-watchers are significantly less likely to engage with advertisements than non-bingers. And if binge watching causes people to disengage from ads, that threatens to undermine the business model of streaming sites that serve ads to viewers.
Moe's research, conducted with David A. Scheweidel, of Emory University, also probes the psychology of binging. Binging, the authors find, feeds on itself: The more episodes of one series a viewer watches, the more he or she is likely to continue watching. In contrast, people who sample different shows during a viewing session will turn off the TV sooner.
Binge-viewers also react differently than non-bingers to season finales and series finales: Bingers tend to take a break from TV watching — at least by their heavy-consumption standards — as if they needed a rest from intense immersion. Non-bingers are more likely to stick with their usual TV-watching patterns, even when they conclude a season or series.
Moe and Schweidel examined the behavior of 10,067 registered Hulu viewers from late Feb. 2009 through June 2009. The data set included 11,757 viewing sessions, with 3.87 episodes viewed session. A minority of viewers did some very heavy binging: 25 percent of people in the sample watched 10 or more episodes per session.
Hulu serves its viewers ads, and the researchers measured engagement with those ads by monitoring clicks. Bingers were in general less likely to click on ads than people in non-binge-watching sessions, and that tendency became more pronounced as seasons or series neared their (presumably climactic) conclusions. Bingers clicked on a mere .45 percent of ads during binge sessions that included a series finale, for example, roughly half their typical rate. Non bingers tended to click on ads at a rate of 1 percent to 1.1 percent, regardless of the circumstance.
If binge watching threatens ad-supported sites, services that don't serve ads, like Netflix, which relies on a subscription model, face a different challenge. When bingers take a post-binge break, Netflix executives "want to be sure viewers don't drop off completely at that point," Moe says.
Throughout, the article draws on general addiction theory for insights into TV-watchers' behavior. That doesn't mean that binging on TV episodes is dangerous in the way binging on alcohol is, but the behavior may not be entirely benign, either. "Binge watching may be like video-game addiction — meaning that maybe it leads you to not pay attention to things in your life that you should be paying attention to," Moe says.
Another parallel with other kinds of addictive activities? "You may not start off thinking you are going to binge-watch a series, but then you find yourself doing just that," Moe says.
"Binge Watching," by David A. Schweidel and Wendy W. Moe, is a working paper.