• More than 61% of South African viewers admit to binge-watching.

  • House of Cards accelerated binge-watching as a way of consuming media.

  • Binge-watching has changed how series are conceptualised, designed and written.

  • The average young American binge-watches five hours in a single sitting.

  • In South Africa, internet connectivity is a key issue.

Can you think of an entertainment phenomenon that’s made as big an impact on pop culture in the past few years as binge-watching? Go back just a few years to 2015 and it was barely recognised as a concept in South Africa, but now 61% of SA viewers admit to regularly binge-watching online TV shows on streaming platforms like Showmax, DStv Now and Netflix. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact that streaming services simply weren’t available legally in South Africa. It’s hard to believe that Showmax is just three years old and Netflix only launched locally in 2016.

Binge-watching is so pervasive that Collins English Dictionary chose it as the Word of the Year in 2015, and then it got added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2017. But where did it all begin? Let’s go back - way, way back - to the 1990s and everyone’s favourite, Friends.

1990s – The first hints of binge

The word “binge-watch” started to emerge in the circles of television fandom during the late 1990s, according to the Oxford Dictionary. The 90s delivered some of TV’s all-time great series — from Friends to The Simpsons, Seinfeld to Sex and the City — but if you wanted to binge-watch a show, you had to record it every week on VHS.

2000s – Kiefer saves the world

Jack Bauer bursting onto screens in 2001 in the series 24 changed TV for good, for two reasons: one, the lead character was a movie star who’d moved to a TV series, something that was just “not done” in Hollywood at the time. Kiefer Sutherland’s huge success as the character Bauer seemed to encourage a wave of movies stars to move to the small-screen (and today, that’s where most Hollywood A-listers are making their mark, from Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies to Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey).

Two, the episodes had a different structure to any show that came before: they advanced the plot each week. Until then, episodes of a series were relatively self-contained, meaning that if you missed one, no problem. But with 24, if you missed an episode, it left a big hole in the story.

This is why 24 is now seen as the show that heralded the start of the golden era of binge-watching.

2013 – Binge-watching sets a new standard

The launch of the Netflix’s first original series catapulted binge-watching into the mainstream. When House of Cards premiered on Netflix in 2013, all 13 episodes were made available immediately. This was a deliberate move by Netflix to change the way people consumed media and it has followed the whole season release model ever since.

At the time, South Africans had to wait for a fresh episode of House of Cards every week on linear TV, but Netflix subscribers could consume the series in a single sitting. Dana Brunetti, executive producer of House of Cards, said in an interview, "When [Netflix] came and said they wanted to release all 13 episodes in one shot, we're like, 'That's great,' because we had already approached it like a big, long feature movie." And Brunetti believes that the award-winning series was part of the rapid growth of binge-watching: “I think we helped accelerate it."

The release was a huge success and streaming services globally often follow this approach, including Showmax, which launched its first 10-episode original, Tali’s Wedding Diary, in one shot. While not all series are released in a batch (Hulu released one episode per week of The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, to keep viewers coming back), all series will ultimately be available to binge back-to-back like the classic DVD boxset.

This has radically changed the way that series are written: “You can appreciate so much more, you can catch so much more and you can understand the inner workings of these stories if you view them in more concentrated chunks," Robert Thompson, Director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture, previously told TechRadar. Another way streaming changed the writing of TV shows was in its absence of ads. Previously, writers would have to accommodate breaks every few minutes, and provide mini recaps within the episode, affecting the momentum and making it harder to develop characters and complex plotlines. When writing for internet TV these days, writers can not only write episodes to follow on immediately from one another, but also provide a continuous flow of action in each episode.  

2014-2016 - Streaming arrives in South Africa

While many tech-savvy South Africans have likely subscribed to international streaming services using VPNs and other less-than-legal means, Netflix and Amazon Prime only officially became available in 2016. The very first streaming service in South Africa, VIDI, launched in 2014, but didn’t manage to crack the market and closed in 2016. In August 2015, Naspers’ Showmax launched, and remains the only streaming service in South Africa to offer an extensive local catalogue as well as being the home of HBO streaming in the country.

2017 - Binge-watching hits critical mass in the US

According to a study by Deloitte, nearly half of American consumers subscribe to streaming media services, and the average American aged 14-33 binge-watches series for five hours straight - that’s about six episodes in a row.

And streaming platforms are actively designed for the binge. Common features across streaming services  include continuous play, where the next episode in a series automatically starts playing, and the option to skip intros and closing credits. These built-in features are made to suck viewers into devouring just one more episode… and this trend isn’t likely to slow down any time soon.

2018 - Internet connectivity is key

It’s impossible to talk about binge-watching without mentioning the growth in internet availability. According to a study by World Wide Worx, South Africa is in the middle of an internet boom, with online users projected to have passed 22,5 million by the end of last year. Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of researchers World Wide Worx said, "One can see massive appetite for faster internet access at the top of the market and cheap internet access at the bottom of the market. We see that in the fact that the rollout of fibre-to-the-home was followed very shortly by the decline of ADSL connections in South Africa. With the appetite for fast internet access – especially to use services like Netflix and Showmax – ADSL isn’t good enough for people anymore if they have access to fiber," he says.

With a population of 55,9 million, as of June 2016, there is still massive growth to come in South Africa – and binge-watching isn’t going anywhere.

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This post is sponsored by Showmax and produced by Business Insider Studio for Business Insider.