A world where everything can be binge-watched may soon be upon us

You might not have to wait for re-runs to watch old episodes of 30 Rock any more.
You might not have to wait for re-runs to watch old episodes of 30 Rock any more.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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“Binge-watching” is arguably the standout cultural phenomenon of 2013 for TV viewers. Not only did it underpin some of the most influential and stunningly successful shows of the past 12 months, like Breaking Bad, but the term was even shortlisted for the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year.

But binge-watching—which means watching lots of episodes of a show at once, either via an on-demand streaming service like Netflix or after saving the broadcasts on a digital video recorder (DVR)—also threatens the economics of television. This is because it diverts eyeballs away from original TV broadcasts, and thus undermines the two key sources of income: advertising, and royalties from re-runs, or syndication.

But there might be a solution. It comes from Comcast, America’s biggest cable company and the owner of broadcast giant NBC. The company has developed new technology enabling the latest commercials to be inserted into old episodes of shows viewed on its on-demand service. It has developed the technology in cooperation with ratings company Nielsen, and the ultimate aim, Variety reports, is to develop a way to measure video-on-demand audiences. Currently, advertisers only pay for TV audiences based on ratings for a show within three days of its original airing date, but with video-on-demand now available in 60% of homes, the true number of viewers is probably higher.

On-demand viewing through the cable set-top box has advantages over a DVR—you don’t have to remember to record the show, or worry about having enough memory to store it. But there’s no way to skip or fast-forward through commercials. This might be annoying for viewers, but is a plus for advertisers, so there could be an economic case for more and more shows to be made available on demand.

There are already healthy business models for binge-viewing—be they subscription-based (as with Netflix, which has consistently rejected ads), ad based (such as Hulu) or pay-as-you-go (Amazon Instant Video, or iTunes). But Comcast’s advertising technology could offer a way for cable companies to get in on the act. If so, it could remove the networks’ objections to making shows available for on-demand viewing.

Shows on Fox and CW (the network owned by CBS and Warner Bros.) aren’t available to Comcast subscribers to view on-demand until eight days after they are originally aired. And even for those shows that are available on-demand, cable companies at the moment generally only store recent episodes, rather than full series. If a viable advertising model for video-on-demand takes hold, expect this to change quickly, making binge-watching of almost anything possible.