Delayed gratification

People are hoarding TV episodes, so they can binge-watch them later

December 15, 2013
December 15, 2013

The new season of Scandal premiered on ABC two months ago, but Anna Holmes hasn’t started watching yet. She’s letting episodes of the soapy political drama pile up. “It’s more satisfying to watch them all at once,” she writes in an email.

Most people binge on old seasons of television shows that become available on DVD or online. But as binge-watching becomes more common, savvy watchers like Holmes are also hoarding episodes of shows currently airing on TV.

The practice was highlighted in a new study commissioned by streaming video service Netflix. It found that 37% of Americans who stream TV shows online also prefer to save newly aired episodes for later, using DVRs or sites like Hulu.

“There’s a sense that the number of great shows is limited, so people are hoarding them,” says Grant McCracken, an anthropologist hired by Netflix for the study.

McCracken calls the trend “in case of emergency, break glass.” He says people let episodes pile up to ensure they have enough when they are ready to watch several episodes at once: “It’s a testament to the pleasure of binge-watching that people would rather wait until later rather than watch each episode as it airs.”

Netflix, of course, has an interest in promoting this trend. It gave rise to binge-watching with a rich back catalog of TV shows that proved enjoyable to watch in large chunks rather than one episode at a time. More recently, Netflix has defied convention by releasing full seasons of its original shows, like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, all at once. Users, the company says, prefer it that way.

In that sense, the new study is simply Netflix’s way of arguing that it knows how people watch TV better than the rest of the industry—or, at least, that it’s ahead of the curve. Given the opportunity to binge on multiple episodes, people will do it. And now they are also creating those opportunities with new seasons of TV.

The downsides of episode hoarding are obvious: delayed gratification, spoilers, and a diminished “water cooler” effect since friends may watch at different times. But TV hoarders say those are trivial concerns compared to the benefits of watching on their own schedules and, in some cases, skipping commercials. Not to mention, as Holmes says, “I can watch them in bed on my iPad comfortably.”

Holmes, a writer in New York, says she plans to start watching her 10-episode stockpile of Scandal today.

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