All this week, we’re taking a look at the past, present, and future of Peak TV, the current, overabundant TV golden age in which we live.
Peak TV has given us hundreds of original new shows to choose from and a variety of networks, channels and streaming platforms on which to watch them. With even more scripted series coming to TV this fall, talk has turned to how to choose the best shows — but maybe that choice isn’t the issue at all. Maybe the problem isn’t showing interest in a show but recognizing when it’s time to make a commitment to it — or to throw it back into the pop culture void.
How long do you give a show before you give up on it? How long does it take to hook a new viewer?
Neither question will probably ever yield scientific answers — we can try to boil TV watching down to ratings and numbers all we like but, in the end, the way people watch TV is subjective and unique to their tastes, backgrounds, and habits.
But if numbers are good for anything, it’s making predictions. Last year, Netflix conducted a study trying to measure the amount of time it took users to become hooked on a certain show. Pulling data from 20 shows — both original Netflix series and outside properties — Netflix studied data from accounts of subscribers who started watching season one of selected series between January and July 2015 in 16 countries. Their goal was to identify the episode in each show when 70 percent of viewers decided to stick with said series. What they found was that viewers aren’t sticking with a new series based on the strength of its pilot episode. In fact, for most people, getting into a show takes some time.
For instance, fans of the AMC hit Breaking Bad didn’t start to really care about Walter White’s burgeoning kingpin status until the series’ second episode, when Jesse Pinkman dissolved the body of a drug dealer in his bathtub. In the case of Arrow, one of the CW’s most successful comic book series, fans weren’t completely committed to Oliver Queen’s tale of vigilante justice until all the way into episode eight.
That’s pretty revealing information when you consider the nature of primetime television. It used to be that a series was only as good as its pilot. TV execs weren’t interested in ordering entire seasons of shows — think 20 or so episodes — without any assurance they would perform in the ratings. That meant everything hinged on a premiere episode. How could a series hook a viewer in less than an hour? Now, thanks to the surge of streaming platforms and the current binge-watching culture that has come to redefine the TV landscape, the emphasis on a series’ pilot isn’t valued as highly.
“The way that shows are structured has changed because of bingeing,” Mary Murphy, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism explains. Murphy says that over the course of her 30 years in the business, writing for publications like Esquire and TV Guide, she’s seen the format of a TV series change — especially in terms of streaming platform content.
“The experimentation of the six-, eight-, and 13-episode order is completely different from what I’ve seen on network television,” Murphy says. “The diversity of shows is higher, the content has changed and the pacing has really changed. If you’re bingeing a show, you don’t need the kind of ‘gotcha’ moment or cliffhanger in every episode if you’re working with an eight-episode season.”
That seems to be the consensus of TV viewers as well. Hop on any “What should I watch next” thread on Reddit or surf through fandoms on Tumblr and you’ll hear a lot of pleas to stick with certain series until later episodes. A lot of first-time watchers didn’t start enjoying Breaking Bad until the end of the first season and fans of Game of Thrones — those who weren’t book lovers first — didn’t start obsessing over White Walkers and dragons until the show’s sophomore season.
These shows weren’t created with the intention of being binge-watched, but they have something in common with original series from streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu. Whether it’s House of Cards or Arrow, Orange Is the New Black or Mad Men, shows have started to commit to more character building. Instead of hooking a viewer with climatic action every week — which was necessary when appointment viewing was the only way people watched TV — shows can now take their time, investing in storytelling and building worlds before delivering those shocking twists that were once relied upon to reel fans back in every episode. Streaming has given new life to shows following that kind of slow-burn format by giving them the ability to be binge-watched. Breaking Bad may have never reached its fifth season or gained the following it had without Netflix.
So how do we decide when it’s time to stick with or let go of a series if first impressions aren’t enough? Well, if any of the shows in the Netflix study are on your list to watch, you have a bit of a guide there. For most people though, the changes in the way television shows are formatted, and in the way in which they’re viewed, means you don’t have to commit an entire weekend to deciding if you actually like a show.
A good rule of thumb is to give any series at least three episodes before chucking it into the “Do Not Watch” pile. Since most new shows run on shorter seasons, they tend to get into the meaty part of their storytelling much sooner. If you haven’t been hooked by the third, fourth or fifth episode, give the good ol’ internet a whirl. Contrary to popular belief, TV watching is an inherently social activity. We decide which shows to watch, in which order to watch them based largely on our own desires but also on the recommendations of friends and fellow TV fans. In other words, if social media or your favorite TV critic tells you Stranger Things doesn’t get good until episode four, you’ll probably wait until episode four before giving it the boot. (That’s just an example. You won’t give Stranger Things the boot because Stranger Things is brilliant.)
Ultimately though, deciding to give up or stick with a show should come down to one thing: How much gratification you’re getting from watching it. There’s no shame in not liking Game of Thrones — medieval fantasy epics aren’t for everyone — and it’s okay if Scandal isn’t for you. Give a show an amount of time you wouldn’t feel bad about wasting and no more. If it doesn’t click, try another, and another and maybe another after that. We’re living in the age of Peak TV after all. There’s plenty to choose from.