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Originally published January 31, 2013 at 7:49 PM | Page modified January 31, 2013 at 11:15 PM

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Binge-viewing phenomenon changing network-TV offerings

Binge-viewing, empowered by DVD box sets and Netflix subscriptions, has become such a popular way for Americans to watch TV that it is beginning to influence the ways the stories are told — particularly one-hour dramas — and how they are distributed.

The New York Times

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Television producers have turned bingeing, hoarding and overeating into successful prime-time shows for years, but now they are turning their attention to another example of overindulgence: TV watching.

Binge-viewing, empowered by DVD box sets and Netflix subscriptions, has become such a popular way for Americans to watch TV that it is beginning to influence the ways the stories are told — particularly one-hour dramas — and how they are distributed.

Some people, peer-pressured to watch “Mad Men” or “Game of Thrones,” catch up on previous seasons to see what all the fuss is about before a new season begins. Others plan weekend marathons of classics such as “The West Wing” and “The Wire.” Like other U.S. pastimes, things can get competitive: People have been known to brag about finishing a 12-hour season of “Homeland” in one sitting.

On Friday, Netflix will release a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting: “House of Cards,” a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TVs, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day,” the producer Beau Willimon said.

“House of Cards” — based on a 1990 British miniseries, starring Ian Richardson — dispenses with some traditions that are so common on network TV, such as flashbacks. There is less reason to remind viewers what happened in previous episodes, the producers say, because so many viewers will have just seen it. If they don’t remember, Google is just a click away. The show “assumes you know what’s happening all the time, whereas television has to assume that a big chunk of the audience is always just tuning in,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.

The producer Glen Mazzara took a similar approach to AMC’s “The Walking Dead” this year. In the second half of the season, which will start in mid-February after a two-month break, “We decided to pick up the action right away — to just jump right in,” Mazzara said. Fans of the show, he said, have little tolerance for recaps, since many will have just watched a marathon of the first half to prepare for the second.

That fans even have a choice is a testament to the fundamental changes under way in the television business. Digital-video recorders, video-on-demand and streaming websites have given viewers command of what they watch and when, not unlike the way supermarkets gave food shoppers a panoply of new choices. In both cases, some consumers love to binge.

While the vast majority of TV is still watched live, not recorded, the ratings for some series — such as FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” — double after a week of recorded viewing is counted. A first-of-its-kind Nielsen study last fall found that a handful of shows gain an extra 5 percent after another three weeks.

Nielsen does not routinely count viewers who wait more than a week to watch an episode, nor does it count most of the viewers who watch online, so it’s hard to estimate the true amount of bingeing.

But the networks are adapting to the generational shift from on-a-schedule to on-demand viewing. When Fox introduced its biggest bet of the season, “The Following,” last week, it bought ads saying “Set your DVR now!” And sure enough, episode No. 2 this week outrated the premiere, suggesting the ad campaign had worked.

In recognition of these changes, some networks are pushing to expand the metrics that determine advertising rates — from the current three-day ratings to a seven-day rating that would better account for on-demand habits.

Binge-viewing has been around at least since the advent of videotapes, when companies started to sell box sets of shows. But it has come of age because of the digital catalogs on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other websites.

Some media executives like to call the behavior “marathoning,” since bingeing can have negative connotations. Either way, the behavior “extends the life of a show,” said Anthony Bay, vice president of digital video for Amazon.

Nonetheless, the traditional TV cliffhanger is far from dead. The producers of shows — even the five beginning on Netflix this year — know they have to satisfy multiple types of audiences. Said David Fincher, the acclaimed film director working with Willimon on “House of Cards” for Netflix: “I want to make sure that people who set the book down on the night stand are able to connect the dots, but I also want the people who are rabidly turning pages to go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got all that.’ ”

In some corners of Hollywood there is deep skepticism about Netflix’s all-at-once release of “House of Cards.” Willimon acknowledged the advantages to stretching out a season — it’s a format viewers are used to, there’s more time for marketing — but said that as a storyteller (he’s best known for the play, “Farragut North,” which inspired the film “The Ides of March”) he prefers the “House of Cards” approach.

As TV becomes less beholden to the schedule and more acclimated to the Web, he said, “it might even dispense with episodes altogether. You might just get eight straight hours or 10 straight hours, and you decide where to pause.”

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