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A recent poll conducted by the Harris organization revealed that 81% of respondents engage in “binge viewing” on a regular basis – that is, watching two or more episodes of a TV program in a single sitting.

The survey, conducted in mid-March on behalf of Comcast, included over 2,000 adults nationwide and 200 viewers in each of the top ten media markets. Dallas, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. had the highest number of binge viewers among respondents (88%), according to a story on the Home Media web site.

Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and Houston also placed well above 80%, with half of the Los Angeles respondents saying they “binge view” at least once a week. Typically, a viewer decides to check out a new series via pay TV on-demand or streaming from Netflix or Hulu, and settles down in a comfortable chair with food and drink.

I’ve engaged in binging in the past. After CBS began running older episodes of Dexter on late-night TV during the writer’s guild strike a few years back, I got hooked on the show and downloaded Season 2 in SD to my TiVo HD DVR. I followed that with a download of Season 3 in HD, and then began watching on a regular basis via Showtime.

My wife and I would knock off two or three episodes at a time, for that was as long as we could remain seated comfortably. (Dexter episodes, like other premium channel series, usually run about 50 – 52 minutes each without commercials.)

Binge viewing is actually nothing new. The major broadcast TV networks used to run miniseries programming on a regular basis, playing out all episodes of a program during the course of a week. Roots started it all back in 1977, but the difference then was the absence of DVRs – you couldn’t skip the commercials. Miniseries programming ran its course in the 1980s and was largely gone by the end of the 1990s.

To binge view, you need a Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon Prime account, and an Internet streaming connection (Roku, Apple TV, etc.) or a DVR connected to your pay TV service. And in recent years, we’ve seen DVRs become increasingly powerful: TiVo’s Roamio Plus system has six channels of recording and you can add TiVo Mini satellite terminals to record and watch in different rooms – each Mini takes over one of the DVRs and uses Wi-Fi to stream the program.

Many of us wonder (and rightly so) why we’d want to record six programs at once in the first place. With my circa-2006 TiVo, I can record two shows at once and if need be, use my TV’s antenna to watch a third. But there have been a few times when a third DVR would have been really handy.

Apparently, I’m a piker. Verizon just announced it will roll out a set-top box with the ability to record 12 shows at once, offering enough storage capacity for 200 hours of HD programming. (A good rule of thumb for determining DVR capacity is about 8 – 9 GB per hour for HD programs, so I’m guessing the solid state/hard drives used in the Verizon box, manufactured by Arris, have a maximum capacity of 2 terabytes.)

Memory is cheap. You can pick up 32 GB micro flash cards for about $16 these days and a quick check online shows 256 GB flash drives selling for less that $200 at Amazon. So that 2 TB drive doesn’t add an awful lot to the cost of the new Verizon set-top box. Until Verizon’s announcement, Cablevision customers had bragging rights for the “monster truck” of DVRs, with the ability to record ten channels at once.

Even so, you can pile up programs in a hurry this way, creating a formidable list of time-shifted programs that you may never get to. (We don’t always watch everything we record.) A study conducted by Motorola Mobility (now owned by Arris) one year ago revealed that at least 41% of the programs we record are never watched – yet we continue to schedule recordings and pile up TV shows in our DVRs and complain about not having enough recording space.

All of this begs the question: Why not just stream the programs when you want, and skip the recording process altogether? For binge viewing, this approach seems to make more sense, particularly since you can access a video stream from any platform – TV, phone, computer, or tablet.

The devil in the details is bandwidth. We never seem to have enough of it, and it is costly to expand. During my booth visits at the NAB Show next week, I’ll be paying particular attention to demonstrations of the new HEVC H.265 codec. H.265 promises to slices bit rates by half for any video content, meaning it should be possible to stream 1080p video at data rates in the range of 3 – 4 megabits per second (Mb/s), with 720p streams requiring as little as 1 – 2 Mb/s.

If H.265 really takes off (it’s already supported in some 2014 models of televisions), the balance could be tipped back towards streaming from cloud storage and away from DVRs – that is, if there is a way to retain the commercial-skipping feature that viewers love so much and which you can’t use with most Internet streams.

Perhaps the future model is an online cloud with a monthly subscription that lets you watch shows when you want, anywhere you want, commercial-free. (Oh wait, we’ve got that already – it’s called Netflix…)

Posted by Pete Putman, April 4, 2014 10:13 AM

About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.