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Is Netflix Damaging Its Own Shows?

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Forgive me, for I have binged.

I have used the two Internet-based video services to which I subscribe -- Netflix and Amazon Instant Video -- to watch multiple episodes of a TV series in one sitting.

Thus have I watched The Americans, Call the Midwife, Scandal, Top of the Lake, Louie, Homeland, The Killing, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and episodes and bits of episodes of series since purged from memory.

Unlike some media analysts who see deep psychological implications (i.e. personality deficiencies) in the practice of binge watching, I do not. Which is not to claim I'm free from any number of deficiencies, only that watching Scandal isn't evidence of it. Then again, watching Scandal doesn't exactly suggest a healthy psyche, either.

Nor am I among the new-media enthusiasts who so crave the crumbling of old-media oligopolies that they see binge watching as a sign of the end of days for the likes of CBS, Fox, Comcast, Disney, et al. This is delusional, of course; the old-boy masters of the media universe have merged and consolidated their way to more power than ever.

Mostly, binge watching is a handy way to revisit old shows and catch up on missed episodes of ongoing ones. But it has a destructive dimension when it comes to new series, especially as deployed by the principal promoter of binge: Netflix.

Netflix exploits the binge impulse like a crack dealer, sucking you in when you finish one episode by automatically starting the next episode if you don't halt the process within a few seconds. You can disable this default feature, but good luck finding where to do it. ("Your Account," "Your Profile," "Playback Settings." You're welcome.)

Netflix's biggest binge gimmick, though, is how it schedules seasons of its high profile original productions: It releases all the episodes simultaneously. So the launch of the 13-episode second season of Orange is the New Black at 12:01 a.m. on June 6, wasn't just the first episode; it was all 13. If you'd been so inclined, you could seen them all by lunch.

How many people actually do this sort of thing? A Netflix press release last winter hyped binge watching as "the new normal." The company, of course, stands to gain enormously from public acceptance of such an idea, which could help convince more people to become paying subscribers. That, in turn, would elevate Netflix's credibility, validate its approach to programming and justify the billions of dollars it has tied up in TV-episode rights licenses.

But Netflix steadfastly refuses to disclose actual viewing data, so its wintertime announcement cited, instead, a new survey of the binge-viewing phenomenon. Fun with numbers was more like it.

First, the survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, was paid for by Netflix. Second, the survey was conducted only online, leaving out anyone who wasn't online during the survey period and everyone who doesn't have Internet access. Third, although 3,000 people were surveyed, Netflix calculated its results based only on half that: the 1,500 who said they watch online streaming feeds of TV shows on a weekly basis.

Having thus narrowed the sample to people tilted toward Netflix's business model, the company then crafted a conveniently malleable -- and laughably imprecise -- definition of binge viewing: "watching two or three episodes [of a series] at least every few weeks."

Surprise, surprise: Substantial majorities of this carefully selected group turned out to be engaged in and enthusiastic about binge watching.

From a longer perspective, binge viewing is neither new nor novel. Slate.com TV critic Willa Paskin bravely has recalled watching The Real World marathons on MTV, which were telecast, I think, back in the late 1800s. And the advent of whole series packaged in boxed sets -- first as VHS cassettes, then as DVD/Blu-ray discs -- freed collectors to gorge themselves at will, rather than at the promotional whims of cable programmers desperate to fill time.

But has there ever really been much binge watching of boxed sets? I mean, I've had all the DVD boxed sets of The Sopranos for years, and I've never watched even one of the 86 episodes inside -- all of which I saw during the series' seven-season Sunday night run on HBO.

Yet there I was last week, head-bobbing in and out of consciousness on the couch, when I punched up Amazon Prime and saw the first season of The Sopranos beckoning to me. I thumbed a couple of buttons on the remote, and there he was: Tony Soprano, sitting in silent agitation, waiting for his first session with psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi.

My surrender to temptation is of no real consequence. Binge watching is just a personal choice, and if some businesses figure out how to make piles of money creating and facilitating these little addictions, it seems harmless enough from the viewers' side of their various screens.

But the way Netflix is doing it might not be so harmless for new series. The problem is that releasing all episodes of a season at the same time makes it impossible for people to talk to each other about the show in any substantive way, which is pretty much the definition of word of mouth. As my friend and former colleague, Dave Bianculli, put it in a column for his website, TVWorthWatching.com, "It doesn't keep the pop-culture conversation going."

He's right. I've lost count of the number of conversations about shows -- in person, via social media, private messages, in e-mail, whatever -- that we had to shut down because everybody hadn't the seen the same number of episodes, and nobody wanted to spoil things for the others.

Netflix may revel in the media coverage of its simultaneous full-season releases, but what then? The gimmick facilitates binge viewing at the cost of week-to-week viewer chatter and reviewer recaps, second looks and analyses, the kinds of things that allowed slow-starters like Seinfeld, Breaking Bad and, yes, The Sopranos to get traction, build followings and become long-lived, much loved franchises.

The Nielsen Company's May 2014 report on television usage -- i.e. real numbers -- found that the average U.S. home now receives 189.1 channels of various kinds of television, but tunes in only 17.5 of them on average.

The latter are mostly over-the-air networks and their local affiliates. In the real world, people spend about 170 hours per month watching traditional television, live or time-shifted. They spend only about 6 ½ monthly hours using multimedia devices that carry Netflix, Amazon and scads of other Internet video services, although streaming video directly on a computer adds another 7 ½ hours.

If Netflix wants its original series to survive and thrive amid this clutter, it better consider what has real value: meaningless self-generated hype or genuine viewer buzz.

A version of this commentary originally appeared, in print and online, in the St. Louis Jewish Light.