The Impact Of Binge-Watching

What do “The Big Bang Theory,” “Family Guy,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Criminal Minds” have in common?  Viewers spent more time watching these shows in prime time last season than any other scripted series on television.

Because different networks have significantly different programming strategies and financial models, you can make the case that comparing the more than 1,000 rerun episodes of “Big Bang” aired by TBS last season to the 20 episodes of ABC’s “Scandal,” to the roughly 100 episodes of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (including repeats), is like comparing apples to oranges to tangerines.  But off-network series repeats (and some original cable series) air so frequently not simply to offset their high cost, but also because people are continuing to watch them.

Ironically, Netflix, the viewing source that gave binge-watching its name, probably has less instances of binge-viewing than any top-10 cable network with stacked programming.  I would think viewers spend more time every month watching “Modern Family” on USA, “Full House” on Nick at Nite, “Criminal Minds” on ION, and “South Park” on Comedy Central than they do watching any single series on Netflix (although Netflix in total probably has more instances of binge-viewing than all of them combined).



So what does this mean for advertisers?

It’s not just that people are continuing to watch these shows.  Their audiences are extremely loyal, and often not that easy to reach elsewhere.  For example, “Big Bang” on TBS reached only about 30% of all adults 25-54 last season, but was still the most-viewed scripted series on television among that demo.  ION’s “Criminal Minds” only reached about 15% of all adults 25-54 during the same period, yet was the fourth most watched scripted series on television.  That represents an extraordinary amount of repeated viewing to a single show among a small group of extremely loyal and attentive viewers.

Doing some simple math shows that between October and July, while the average time spent viewing TBS’s “Big Bang Theory” among all adults 25-54 in the U.S. was about 4 hours, 30 minutes and about 2 hours, 15 minutes for ION’s "Criminal Minds," the time spent viewing among actual adult 25-54 viewers of these shows was roughly 16 hours apiece.  Nielsen doesn’t readily provide this data by program, but it’s easy to calculate.

The significance of this goes well beyond just the amount of time people spend binge-watching these shows.  It's even more telling that these folks watch fewer channels overall, and less other programming.  Most binge-viewing of original scripted series on broadcast and cable is done via DVR, with significant commercial avoidance, but binge viewing of off-network repeats is largely live. These are two substantially different categories of binge viewers, with the former likely being more typical of Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime binge viewers.

Advertisers need to ask, who are these folks who spend so much time watching “Modern Family” on USA over and over again?  Do they watch much other stuff?  If so, what? Can they be reached elsewhere?  Are they worth reaching?  Are they substantially different from other viewers in the same demos?  These questions are not difficult to research, and the answers would probably surprise a lot of people.

10 comments about "The Impact Of Binge-Watching".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, October 26, 2016 at 2:35 p.m.

    If everything is so rosy, then why is broadcast network viewing this fall down year-to-date by double-digit percentages? It was reported  in the morning news:

  2. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, October 26, 2016 at 3:21 p.m.

    Hi Dougas - I don't think I said everything was rosy.

  3. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, October 26, 2016 at 3:37 p.m.

    I guess not, sorry for misreading you.

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 26, 2016 at 5:31 p.m.

    Steve, the original and rather fanciful definition of "binge watching" was, in effect, that the series episodes were viewed one after the other in the same sitting. This was later cut back to watching at least three episodes back to back when it became obvious to those promoting the concept of binge viewing as the new "norm" for TV that this happens so rarely in a typical person's life that, in volumetric terms, it is fairly insignificant. In this context, your comments about time spent with a series over, I assume, a full primetime season, are interesting but leave me puzzled. We, too,  have done some work in this area, using program cumes and while it is true that the total season's reach of a popular primetime series may, indeed, be 30% even though the average minute rating is only 4-5% this is a far cry from the corresponding situation in the pre-cable, pre-rating fragmentation era. Then, a typical primetime hit series, with an average minute rating of 15%,would cume to around 60% over a full season. Comparing the average minute vs. the total reach stats, this meant that viewers were considerably more loyal to their favorite primetime---and other ----shows in ancient times then they are now.

    I guess that what I'm saying is that viewer loyalty to a weekly series, carried over for a full 26- week program cycle----or longer, counting reruns---is not the same thing as "binge viewing" which, under whatever definition one uses, refers to watching one episode after another all at once.

  5. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, October 26, 2016 at 6:06 p.m.

    Ed, I was referring mostly to cable off-network shows like Big Bang Theory on TBS and Criminal Minds in ION. They air the show all night and people watch them all night. That a Criminal Minds reaches only 15% of all A18-49 in a full season with only a 0.3 average rating and is still the in the top 10 based on time spent viewing represents an extraordinary amount of binge viewing among a small group of viewers. 

  6. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 26, 2016 at 6:28 p.m.

    Steve, not to be argumentative, taking your example of an off-network cable show with an average minute rating of .3 and a season cume of 15%, I would assume that this represents a show with relatively little viewer loyalty, not the opposite. For, example, say that .1% of the adults represented the hard core "binge viewers" of the series out of its total reach of 15%.If this segment saw every installment---unlikely---that was offered, it might generate perhaps 10 % of the total viewing tonnage, however, more moderate, once in a while viewers would provide the majority of the exposures. In my experience the greater the differential between average minute ratings and total program reach, the lower the loyalty and this usually means that it has relatively fewer hard core fans---which is why its average minute rating is so low.

  7. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report replied, October 26, 2016 at 6:48 p.m.

    That' OK Ed, I enjoy a good argument. I've done a good deal of research on this subject. The fact that a show has a low reach and very low average rating and yet has more time spent viewing than almost any show on television by definition means that a small segment of viewers are watching the show over and over again.

  8. John Grono from GAP Research, October 30, 2016 at 6:49 a.m.

    Simple rules of arithmetic are that a programme that did a 0.3 rating would need to be seen 50 times by COMPLETELY different people to cume to 15%.   if it was a weekly show that is virtually impossible.   if it was a daily broadcast (i.e. 365 times a year) then the average frequency of viewing would be a very low 7.3.   Something is not adding up.

  9. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 30, 2016 at 7:31 a.m.

    John, I believe that a typical cable series of the sort Steve is describing, runs each episode many times per week in different time slots---hence, its large total season, all-episode cume. I still believe that this has nothing to do with "binge viewing" , as commonly defined, and I disagree with Steve's premise----in this particular case.

  10. John Grono from GAP Research replied, October 30, 2016 at 8:07 a.m.

    Ed, I think that given the quoted data and such a programming schedule would support your conclusion.

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