MBPT Spotlight: Why We Need To Rethink Millennial 'Binge Viewing'

In recent times, “binge viewing” has become a popular industry catchphrase to describe the shift of audiences away from live TV and toward back-to-back consumption of multiple episodes in one sitting.

To date, commentary around binge viewing has been largely from the broadcaster perspective, focusing on companies such as Netflix and dissecting what their new binge-friendly full-episode distribution approaches signal for future broadcast models. But what does the rise of binge viewing tell us about viewers and their emerging needs and behaviors? Is this really the end of traditional TV viewing as we know it?

As primary investigators of this new viewing behavior, Starcom MediaVest Group’s Human Experience Center, a global insight and innovation unit within SMG, undertook a qualitative study with its Creative Collective community to explore how and why global millennials were adopting and accelerating binge viewing behaviors, and how this is changing their expectations of content.

The HEC Binge Viewing Project helped us to rethink what this kind of viewing looks like from the perspective of millennials, and identified a number of unique new opportunities emerging from these new behaviors for brands and broadcasters to unlock.

Back to back viewing is not a new concept for millennials, but is fast becoming a viewing method of choice. For millennials, the phenomenon of sitting and consuming multiple TV episodes, seasons or even movie series is not a new concept. Millennials have grown up taking control of much of their viewing and scheduling it for themselves. Back-to-back viewing is perfectly suited to the on-demand, in-the-moment, entertainment-seeking lifestyle that millennials lead. Where live viewing feels slow, cumbersome and filled with ads, back-to-back viewing keeps them in control of how they use their time and get through the content they desire to watch.

What’s shifting is how often this type of viewing is becoming their norm over live TV, and how it is taking place—with DVD box sets and on-demand TV being replaced by Hulu, Amazon Prime and Netflix subscriptions, mobile content and illegal streaming. With binge style viewing more likely to take place on a laptop than a TV, and by themselves rather than in the company of others, millennials’ back-to-back viewing sessions are enjoyed on their own time, in their own space, when they want to enjoy the shows they love.

“Back to back” does not necessarily equal bingeing. One of the key findings of the HEC Binge Viewing project was around the characterizing of these viewing occasions as binge viewing. Indeed, in having millennials share what and how they were engaging in multi-episodic viewing, it became clear that the term bingeing does not accurately reflect or characterize how these viewing sessions are taking place at all.

Bingeing connotes excessive indulgence, and while the back to back viewing occasion may be long, millennials’ actual behavior is neither excessive nor indulgent. It is a deliberate and ongoing shift toward how they prefer to view and stay on top efficiently in a world of far greater, and far better quality programming.

These occasions are instead better reflected as a far more planned and systematic approach to keeping up in a world of content abundance. The “problem” with the entertainment world today is there is too much content—and millennials want to stay up to date with as much of it as possible. With an explosion of TV channels and programs to choose from globally, millennials are using back-to-back viewing tactics to help them simply get through and stay on top of the content they need to know.

Faced with more content than there is time to view live, back-to-back viewing is an active viewing preference that meets a number of needs. Back to back viewing helps millennials:

• Stay in touch with current “must watch” shows they need to know in order to stay part of the current social conversation

• Catch up with older “must watch” programs and series they have missed

• Revisit older favorite series over and over as “go-to” guaranteed entertainment when they have downtime

It’s not a “one size fits all” viewing session; it is customized and tailored by need. Millennial viewers are sophisticated in how they are making the most of their time to engage with their preferred content. Indeed, rather than characterize these occasions as bingeing more broadly, the HEC project identified three different types of back-to-back viewing occasions that better reflect the motivations and behaviors of millennial viewers at any given time:

The Full Marathon: This occasion typically involves watching one or more TV seasons or multiple movies in a row, over a condensed period of time, usually 1-2 days. The full marathon was less common in that it had to be planned in advance, and was often reserved for the weekend or school holidays.

The Half Marathon: This occasion typically involves consuming multiple episodes in one sitting, and is usually spontaneous, conducted whenever one has spare time. Content is chosen from the programming that has been set aside for just these moments.

The Relay: This occasion typically involves viewing multiple episodes of a series over consecutive nights or weeks. This is often loosely scheduled, replacing live viewing on weeknights.

Brands need to rethink their role in back to back occasions. One of the key reasons millennials have adopted more back to back viewing is the control it gives them over when and how they view, and increasingly allows them to enjoy immersing in the programs they love without the advertising that is part and parcel of live TV. Bingeing helps to put the occasion on their terms, and they are concerned that any role brands might play here could distract from this being an ad-free zone.

However, while advertising in its traditional 30-second form is less welcome, there are still valuable roles brands can play to help improve and enhance the binge occasion. The fact is, this behavior is not going away, and will only continue to grow as it is enabled by more content and better platforms and devices to access it on-demand, whenever and wherever they want.

So, what should brands and broadcasters do? Here are five opportunities to re-orient their efforts to be of service and value to a new generation of viewers:

Build for new behaviors. While on the face of it binge viewing is a means to avoid brands, there is real value in brands aligning with this growing viewing preference now. Work out how your brand can help promote and support their need to view back to back.

Keep them connected. One of the biggest drawbacks of binge occasions is they happen solo, yet viewing is enjoyed far more socially today through the digital world. Additional and complementary ways to keep viewers connected to the social buzz of the event is an unmet need.

Improve the occasion. Brands are invited to be a part of back-to-back viewing sessions if they truly add to and enhance the occasion in a genuine way—such as providing complementary products or adding social experiences.

Reduce the post-binge depression. Another real need that will only continue as these back-to-back occasions grow is the gap in time from series to series. Brands can help by being a conduit between the audience and the programming content—with or without the distributor. Helping them to gain access to secret content, never-before-seen scenes or episodes, or creating new content based on the back-stories of characters and plotlines that can help them make it through the downtime is prized.

Fuel their habit. Bingeing begets more bingeing. Help them know what to watch next by being a curator of content experiences, ensuring they know what to fill their Netflix queue with next (old or new) and keeping them in the know on what is coming up next are all valued opportunities for brands.

Emma Montgomery is HEC’s global product director of Starcom MediaVest Group’s Human Experience Center and also leads the media agency’s work on millennials. The Human Experience Center is SMG’s consumer insights division that offers clients deep understanding of global consumer buying and spending habits.