How Do You Like Your Cinema?
What You Said about What You Watch
When I conducted interviews with studio executives from HBO and October Films 25 years ago, one of the things they shared with me was that they received tons of scripts and videotapes from aspiring filmmakers, so much that it was impossible to review all the submissions. They suggested then that there is more cinema content available than places to display them. Less than ten years later, television and video technology exploded with the advent of DVDs, streaming channels, and movie websites. Today, we also have smart TVs, smartphones with advanced video functionality, and television on demand. The days of true appointment TV watching (having to be available when our favorite show airs) have long gone by the wayside.
Undoubtedly, this new technology has spoiled us. We can pretty much see any show we want, any day or time that is convenient for us, and even any time zone we are in. No longer do we have to suffer through periods where there seems to be nothing on television we like. There’s plenty in terms of quantity and variety – and we can watch it any time we want! Well, maybe.
While some of our favorite streaming series drop all the season’s episodes at once (potentially enabling what researchers call “binge watching”), others are released to us on a weekly basis throughout the season. We conducted a survey to learn how people like their streaming shows served to them. What we found was consistent with Statista’s finding that the younger we are, the stronger our sentiments on the subject.
We asked more than 400 adults to tell us how they like to watch their favorite television series. A quarter of them told us first that they like “Traditional” appointment TV shows. Such shows are typically episodic, consisting of 12–16-week seasons with one new episode per week. Think shows like Chicago P.D., Castle, West Wing, etcetera. Prior to Smart TVs and satellite technology like DirecTV and Dish, you had to record the show on your VCR/DVD or be in front of your television when the show aired.
Chart 1 - Respondents' Television Preferences
Sixteen percent of survey respondents indicated they prefer “Limited series” - short focused serials consisting of 3-10 episodes. Think Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Special Ops: Lioness. Although Limited series (or miniseries) sometimes evolve into multiple seasons, they are initially intended as a single story extended across several episodes.
Not surprisingly, more than half (57%), though, told us that they like a mix of both Traditional and Limited series. This is not surprising given the new technologies ushered in over the last 20 years that allow for easy recording of our favorite Traditional shows on the major networks (free TV) and streaming platforms that make them available to us the way a library does books. Pick what you want to see and pull it off the shelf (hit play) when you’re ready. While it sounds blissfully convenient, it still falls short of the utopia many of us want to achieve.
Limited Series TV Utopia
For those who indulge in Limited series, we asked how they like to receive their content. More than 70% of these respondents indicated they wanted all the episodes available to them at once. This result is not surprising given the technology available that allows for controlling not only what and how much we watch, but when. The respondents seem to suggest that since the controls are already in our hands, why unnecessarily suppress our appetites for a series we are enjoying. Releasing all the shows at once allows for the cinematic experience we prefer.
Chart 2 – Limited Series Appetite
Much of the remainder of the group (27%) indicated that one episode per week worked for them. This is especially interesting because it suggests that a fair number of people who like focused series are patient enough to let the story play out over time. This could also be tied to occupation or personal responsibilities that make them unavailable for series viewing more than a few hours a week. While they are living their cinematic utopia, the majority, however, are not. We wondered if there were some concerns about serving up all of a season’s episodes at once.
The Virtues and Risks of Limited Series TV Utopia
Television researchers correlate the availability of all a season’s episodes to us as lending itself to binge-watching, which they define as “viewing suspenseful dramatic, narrative content for a considerable amount of time: often more than three or four hours.” While binging has a negative connotation, it isn’t presented in the research as a one-dimensional concept. In fact, researchers distinguish between “problematic” and “non-harmful” binge-watching.
Problematic binge-watching is the use of television content to distract from everyday worries and feelings of loneliness. These, according to researchers, can lead to complacency and a reticence to persevere at important tasks – something my mother often referred to as malaise. In short, it has the potential to make us lazy and apathetic.
Non-harmful binge-watching, on the other hand, is the gratification we receive from becoming immersed in the story and characters on-screen, as well as “critical thinking and social conversations” we develop as a result of the television-viewing experience. Psychology Today also reports on a study that found that not all TV-watching is bad. They write, “Some TV shows are complex and will keep you mentally stimulated. If you have fun or revealing conversations with your friends and family about TV shows, that’s a big plus: Social connection is as good for you as exercise.” Even this, though, should not be in lieu of activities like reading, exercising, and stretching the brain with crossword or jigsaw puzzles. So, while reasonably, non-harmful binge-watching is preferred over problematic, the former can gradually morph into the latter if it becomes our only source of leisure, escape, or activity.
Why Limited over Traditional series?
For survey respondents who indicated they preferred Limited over Traditional series, we asked them why. What they told us can be grouped into five categories: succinctness of story, quality of show, enjoyment, completeness of story, and self-control issues. Several examples of each are listed in the chart below.
Chart 3 – Appeal of Limited Series
Respondents who prefer Limited series cite substantive elements of the presentation to support their preference for such shows. The series are shorter, which makes the stories tighter and leads to both presenting conflicts and resolving problems quickly. Importantly, they cite Limited series as having a resolution, which indicates the significance of this to their television viewing experience.
Fewer than a handful indicate that they struggle with control issues, noting tendencies toward problematic binging and making conscious efforts to avoid doing so. Think of the recent Paramount+ series, Special Ops: Lioness, with Zoe Saldana, Nicole Kidman, and Michael Kelly. The eight-episode serial was quite complex, layering in several storylines of military action, politics, undercover complications, and the leader’s (Saldana’s character) family life challenges. The complete, suspenseful story with an all-star cast packed a powerful punch, and still left you wanting to see it again – and again and again. It takes a conscious effort to avoid this. Engaging in other social and physical outlets helps us manage this.
Why Traditional series over Limited?
We also asked those who preferred Traditional over Limited series about the appeal of such shows, which, to be fair, do not all fit the definition of focused content. Mixed with suspenseful narratives like Chicago P.D., Grey’s Anatomy, and NCIS are the ultra-popular reality and talent shows like The Bachelor, Survivor, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent. What respondents had to say about watching Traditional series can be categorized into six groups: breadth and length of series, enjoyment, time for investment in the show, anticipation/suspense, lifestyle, and familiarity. Several examples of each are noted in the chart below.
Chart 4 – Appeal of Traditional Series
Most interesting about the responses is the emphasis placed on the investment of time to immerse themselves in the story and characters of Traditional series. Limited series are too “short term” to develop these elements of a show, so getting one episode at a time is the perfect cadence for them, and in some cases, it suits their lifestyles quite well. Consider the series, Chicago P.D., soon to be entering its 11th season. Could Sergeant Voight’s tough but loyal persona be appreciated in an eight-episode Limited series? Probably not. Generally, fans of the show (of which I am one) come to love him because the series, over time, allows for getting to know his depth and breadth of character. Also, unlike a Limited series, the Traditional series are reliable. Viewers are confident they will “stick around for more seasons.” Interestingly, though, a fair number of respondents indicate that they watch Traditional series simply because they grew up on this type of television viewing. Some habits are hard to break – or we simply have no need or interest in tampering with something that works for us.
Are Demographics a Factor in Television Preferences?
Our data shows that a wide range of people (ages 30-60) enjoy viewing Traditional series, while those younger and 45-60 prefer Limited series. That is, while 64% of Traditional series viewers consist of people ages 30-60, just under a third of Limited series viewers are 18-29 years of age and more than 1/3rd are 45-60. By far, Traditional series is least preferred by 18-29 year-olds, where they comprise only 20% of Traditional series viewers.
Chart 5 – Preference for Limited and Traditional Series by Age Group
Data from Pew Research shows that few 18-29 year-olds are married with children. They are also either in college or in the nascent stages of their careers/occupations. It is not surprising, then, that 80% of our respondents reported earning less than $100,000 a year. At this age, some are in college, many are still supported by their parents, and most have few obligations, all situations that allow them to have some disposable income. This life stage, then, affords young people relative luxuries like streaming channels such as Netflix, Hulu, MAX, Showtime, Paramount+, and others, where Limited series are found in abundance. On these channels, the volume and breadth of content are wide and stream around the clock. So, for young people with energy, streaming channels are Limited series utopia on Earth.
Other than those over 60, Limited series are least preferred by 30-44 year-olds, where they make up only a quarter of respondents who indicated they indulge in them. Many people in this age group are starting families and simultaneously gaining some traction in their careers/occupations. Although 40% of this group reported making $100,000 or more per year, research indicates they are careful about their spending and focused on shoring up the family’s savings for emergencies and college funds as opposed to paying for premium channels, where Limited series are typically available.
Statista recently conducted a survey and found that the most popular streaming channels were, in order, Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, and Hulu. Disney+ is likely one of the few premium channels 30-44 year-olds subscribe to because of its abundance of children’s programs. Amazon Prime is likely another because of its shopping benefits like free delivery. Few Limited series are available on Amazon Prime, however (Jack Ryan is one of few exceptions), as the channel primarily streams movies and reruns of Traditional series.
Forty-five to 60-year-olds make up the largest segment of Limited series viewers at 35%. They are also the highest earners, where 2/3rd of this group reported having annual incomes of $100,000 or more. They are also homeowners with families that include children who are in college or nearing high school graduation. Now settled into their careers and making a comfortable living, people in this age group can better afford multiple streaming channels. This includes periodically adjusting the household’s streaming channel configuration with the ages of their children – and to their own cinematic tastes.
Finally, more than half the people who reported making less than $50,000 per year are over 60 years of age. This is a sad commentary that speaks to the struggles of our older adults, many of whom have spent four or more decades working to be comfortable in their retirement. Unfortunately, it also suggests that this group has little money to commit to streaming channels for indulging in Limited series that they just might enjoy. In our data, this group makes up just 8% of those who watch Limited series.
To sum, yes, demographics do indeed play a role in our television viewing preferences. Access to advanced television technologies influences the type of content we watch. Our cinematic tastes vary by age. But the extent to which we can indulge these tastes is constrained by our ability to pay for it combined with our own financial priorities. Understanding this, we have to wonder if the content we watch is a matter of preference or a reflection of what we have learned to enjoy because it is all that has been available to us.
How do we explain what we watch?
When we consider demographics, it raises the question: How much of what we watch can be attributed to cinematic taste versus conditioning and family budget considerations?
Money is typically a consideration in most decisions as the overwhelming majority of us don’t have it like that. But I can’t help but feel for the large segment of society that is unable to engage in the content choices across the many streaming platforms to even see if there’s something there that resonates with them. Perhaps streaming companies can consider demographic factors like age, income, and even disability in developing a sliding fee scale to enhance content accessibility. In any event, while we have come to accept constraints around content access as the norm, we also have to acknowledge that these constraints shape our choices around the content we watch.
Responding to questions around attribution are rarely, if ever, simple. Appreciating the complexity of the one posed here, though, allows us to at least ponder the degree to which our content choices are due to cinematic taste or conditioning. It is beyond the scope of this paper to delve further into this. Suffice it to say that undoubtedly, a bit of both plays into our preferences.
Comedian, Chris Rock, performed a bit in his Bigger and Blacker show, about arriving home from work and hearing a litany of complaints from his wife about people she had encountered throughout her day – family, friends, co-workers, etc. Tired and wanting his dinner to re-energize, he shouted, “Can’t I just get my big piece of CHICKEN?!”
Similarly, and according to the data, most people who prefer Limited series want all their episodes at once. For them, these shows are succinct and of high quality. They are also rich, with well-developed characters, and stories that are complete. Watching them exemplifies the non-harmful binge-watching described by researchers that relates the gratification we receive from becoming immersed in the story and characters, and critically thinking through and talking about the content afterwards. None of our respondents mentioned engaging in conversation with family, friends, or colleagues about the shows. But we can reasonably assume that they do, given that we all generally talk to others about things we enjoy. Why then delay their gratification by releasing one show per week to those who are ready for more? Not doing so reminds me a bit of the famed Pavlov dog experiment - there is a fear that these viewers will engage in problematic binge-watching.
This is not an issue for those who prefer Traditional series. They enjoy the breadth and length of the shows, and the fact that they are available only once per week suits them fine. They like how the plots develop over time, and they get to know the characters over time. Seeing the shows once per week gives them something to look forward to. It even feels familiar to them as many of them grew up watching television this way. By contrast, you can even say that people who prefer Traditional series are relatively patient.
Regarding Limited series specifically, perhaps wanting all episodes at once primes these viewers to be impatient. To want everything everywhere and all at once (yes, this was intended). But the existing research doesn’t point to this as problematic. Indeed, our data suggests that those who prefer Limited series show no signs of having an unhealthy appetite for such content. So, come on streaming channels! Can you just give these viewers their big piece of CHICKEN?!
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