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SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2013 at 8 P.M. ET/5 P.M. PT ON CBS
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The new frontier of television watching
We look at TV-watching trends and their impact on the industry

By Michaela Sinclair
Special to MSN TV

Watching television continues to be America's favorite pastime, with adults averaging upwards of four and a half hours of it per day. But with the rise of recent technologies, traditional television-watching habits have been challenged, revolutionizing the way that we consume TV. As we evolve from channel surfers to binge-watchers, this affects how programs are being created and how networks and advertisers have adapted.

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Years ago, we were tethered to our televisions and at the mercy of broadcast networks and their scheduled lineups. Watching TV was a Friday night ritual for families during ABC's "TGIF" programming block, or on Thursdays for young professionals during NBC's "Must See TV" night. In college, I would huddle around my neighbor's 17-inch television in her dorm room to watch "Felicity" on Tuesdays. Every Tuesday, come hell or high water, we had a standing date with Felicity, Ben and Noel.

But then something magical happened, something I would even consider life-changing. VCRs and DVD players were replaced by DVRs, TiVos and Roku boxes. Cheap streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu became powerhouses with the rise of broadband and faster Internet connections. Suddenly we didn't have to be selective about what we watched but when we watched it.

The decline of "appointment television"

Television schedules no longer dictated my social schedule. I could go out for drinks on Thursday night, knowing that my precious episode of "Grey's Anatomy" was being safely recorded on the DVR and waiting for me when I got home. It no longer matters to us which shows air on which days -- especially not when we have VOD (video on demand). Essentially, the days of "appointment television" are over and being overruled by what television executives are calling "time shifting," which means programs are being self-scheduled and viewed at the consumer's convenience.

Television watching has become an increasingly personalized experience with literally hundreds of options at our fingertips. Streaming services and on-demand features allow us to relish our favorite shows like a Shakira song: "wherever, whenever." It's 3 a.m. and a new mom is breastfeeding? She can catch up on "Dexter" on her iPad. It's 3 p.m. and a teenager is riding home on the subway? She can watch reruns of "Gossip Girl" on her smartphone.

The "binge-watching" phenomenon

With streaming services and the ability to hoard multiple episodes of multiple shows on your DVR (or DVRs -- plural!), television viewers are no longer channel surfing but strategically practicing a new ritual: devoting hours of time (and days) to "binge-watch" their favorite series. (Heck, I've hoarded episodes of "Hoarders" on my DVR for consumption on Sundays. It motivates me to clean.) Even TV producers and writers are binge-viewing. David Miner, producer of "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation" famously shed 25 pounds while watching three seasons of "Breaking Bad" and jogging on his treadmill.

Binge-watching, or "marathon-watching" as Netflix executive Todd Yellin prefers because it sounds more "celebratory," means viewers are purposefully self-administering a huge dose of any given show. If you missed a whole season of "Game of Thrones," you can marathon-watch all of it in one weekend and catch up before the next season's premiere. This practice has actually helped boost ratings for "Mad Men," introduced new viewers to "Lost," and even given "Arrested Development" a second life on Netflix and an extended fan base.

Enhancing the storytelling method with Internet television

TV producers are taking note of the binge-watching phenomenon and indulging audiences possessed with this new viewing trend. Not only has Netflix created and released a new season of the aforementioned "Arrested Development," it kept the binge-watcher in mind so that each episode is centralized around one character and occurs simultaneously with the others.

Knowing they have a captive and focused audience with marathon viewers, series creators now have the luxury of enhancing heavily serialized scripts with richer character development and more elaborate storylines. And because they don't have to consider pacing a show around commercial breaks anymore, cliffhangers and teasers have become moot. Netflix's political thriller "House of Cards" starring Kevin Spacey recently made Emmy history with nine nominations, including best drama series, the first (and most likely not the last) time an online program has been recognized. Its much buzzed-about prison dramedy "Orange Is the New Black" was renewed for a second season before the pilot even aired.

The impact of advertising on live television

Due to the increasing popularity of streaming services, some households are opting out of the traditional broadcast or cable services. Known as "cord cutters," those without broadcast, cable or satellite signals save hundreds of dollars every year streaming programming through their smart TVs, game consoles, Roku boxes and/or Apple TVs.

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Cord cutters and a reported 90 percent of 18- to 39-year-olds who self-schedule their television watching (according to a recent study from the Harris Poll) have television networks, media buyers and advertisers in a conundrum. During television's glory days before DVRs and VOD, networks counted on audiences to tune in for the "Seinfeld" finale. High ratings and viewership translated to more money from advertisers. Why else would Doritos pay millions of dollars for a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl? With live TV watching on the decline, TV ratings are languishing, DVD sales are sinking and TV advertising is slowly descending as even advertisers are favoring streaming services instead.

Here comes social TV!

Even though sporting events can now be streamed over the Internet, networks can still rely on people to tune in for live sports. And while there's no communal feeling in binge-watching alone, co-workers are still talking about the rose ceremony on "Bachelor" while standing around the water cooler at the office the next day. This need for interaction has remained constant and hasn't gone unnoticed.

Television audiences, especially of the younger demographics, are increasingly multitasking on mobile devices while watching their favorite shows. Networks have reacted by integrating social media elements during live shows to strengthen viewership. "The Voice" attracted more viewers when the judges' tweets were posted on the bottom of the screen. Many are using apps as a "second screen" to complement a show. For example, "Project Runway" asks its viewers to rate the designers' outfits online during the show. And who can ignore the hashtags that have been popping up all over television? Even C-SPAN is streaming tweets from U.S. senators during the quorum call.

Whether these television-watching trends will become the norm is still debatable, especially with ever-changing technology. There's already backlash from some television critics who have disparaged binge-watchers for guzzling episode after episode rather than savoring them one by one. But if marathon viewing means Netflix continues to produce Emmy-worthy shows, does this mean people will eventually turn their backs on Honey Boo Boo and the Kardashians? We can only hope.

How have your TV-watching habits changed? Tell us at MSN TV on Facebook and Twitter.

66Comments
Sep 5, 2013 5:43AM
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The TV Networks have ruined it for themselves by showing too many commercials! A 30 minute show now has about 18 minutes of content surrounded by 12 minutes of commercials. Has anyone noticed towards the end they will show 5 minutes of commercials followed by 30 seconds of the actual show followed by another 3 minutes of commercials? I for one am tired of being assaulted with so many commercials. 
Sep 15, 2013 12:12PM
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Well I DVR most anything I like to watch so I can fast forward through the commercials!
Sep 5, 2013 8:22AM
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I never had a cord to cut. I've never had cable. My parents didn't get it until I moved out and when I moved out I couldn't afford it. Then when I got a little more money I had to choose between high speed internet and cable. Internet won. Now I could afford both but with what I can find online, netflix, what I can rent at the library, and broadcast TV who needs it?
Sep 5, 2013 3:35AM
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I am discovering TV shows  that started 10 seasons ago and love it.  I like watching them on my schedule, maybe two or three at a time, like CSI Miami and Game of Thrones.  I do miss, however, the family time when all of us gathered around the TV to watch a movie or some special event like the Oscars.  Don't think those times will ever come back.
Sep 15, 2013 12:23PM
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What is there to watch on tv?

I never have and never will watch sports of any kind ( BORING!)

Reality shows? There's more reality in a Bugs Bunny cartoon (which I love to watch along with the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show)

Most of the rest is crap.

 

There is so many things to see and do in this world without wasting time in front of a TV screen, or computer, if that's how you get your TV.

If nothing else, I'll climb on my Harley and go for a putt.

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