When Sky bought up the rights to dozens of top quality American dramas in 2010, they explained that the prestigious new channel was part of their long-term plan to recruit a new group of viewers. The media giant wisely refused to place a specific time-frame on their project, but despite this, it will have concerned them to learn that Mad Men is currently averaging an audience of less than 80,000 per episode.
When you compare that figure the average audience BBC4 attracted for the show a couple of years back, you realise that around 300,000 fans have decided not to subscribe, but to either get their hands on the episodes over the net, or as is increasingly common, wait for the box-set to be released.
One of my colleagues actually subscribes to Sky, but is recording the show so that he can watch them all in one go once the series has finished. That way he can enjoy the whole season over the course of a weekend, rather than rationing himself to one a week and forgetting small plot details along the way. In a similar way, as good as Homeland has been, I found it frustrating to have to wait a week between episodes and often wished that I had followed his example. Spoilers aren’t as difficult to escape as many suggest and as anyone who’s lost days at a time to box-sets will know, you often get more from high quality drama when you immerse yourself in it over a short period of time.
One solution this perceived drag is to do what BBC4 have been doing with this year’s Scandinavian dramas. As Borgen did in January, The Bridge is currently being shown two episodes at a time on Saturday nights, giving viewers more to get their teeth into and making the run-time shorter. Other terrestrial channels have also experimented with playing out four or five part miniseries within the space of a single week (ITV’s The Jury being a recent example) in a move that has proved popular with viewers.
Yet while this is economically viable if you’ve snapped up the rights to a Danish drama relatively cheaply, if you’ve put together a sweeping series – as HBO usually do – such tactics are uneconomical. Spending half a year and countless millions on a season of Game of Thrones, only to broadcast it in less than a month is the advertising equivalent of shooting your load far too early.
In the end, it comes down to how you like to watch your television (do you prefer to ration or binge?) and whether you have the patience to wait for the series to become available on disc, yet the popularity of box-sets is illustrated by the fact that Sky Atlantic has yet to push the number of pay-per-view subscribers far beyond the 10 million mark. “So what if they have The Sopranos back-catalogue? So do I..” many will be saying and they’re clearly prepared to wait for shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones to arrive in the shops as well.
There is also no bigger argument for the power of the box-set than The Wire, a series that has become increasingly fashionable over the last few years. While it regularly tops ‘Best Drama’ lists, many fans will admit that it isn’t the easiest show to get into and requires a bit of effort, indeed some go as far as recommending the use of subtitles for the first season. As such, most people only really enjoyed it once they got their hands on a whole series and powered their way into it, because hanging around for a month for it to get good was just too much of a drag. This begs the question; would it have received half the attention if people hadn’t been able to watch it in their own time?
So do you watch your favourite shows week-by-week? Or would you simply rather wait for the box-set?