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Forget Binge Watching: Great Television Happens When Networks Pace Shows


This is FRESH AIR. Sunday's conclusion of the HBO documentary series "The Jinx" has made major headlines, and not only for what was included in its final installments. Our TV critic David Bianculli thinks it was an important and dramatic moment of television. But he also thinks it was important the way it was shown, and he sees that as an opportunity to also talk about the popularity of the Fox series "Empire," the rise of several streaming TV services and how he feels we should be watching television.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In its first season on the Fox television network, the primetime series "Empire," a soap opera set in the glitzy world of a hip-hop record empire, has accomplished something no other TV series has done in decades. Every week since its premier, it's increased its audience. In an era of binge viewing and instant TV gratification, it's become the hottest show on television by urging viewers to wait with anticipation, then consume it immediately. Even the network promo for tonight's season finale stresses the suggested viewing habits as much as the guest stars.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Don't miss the two-hour season finale next Wednesday, because spoilers will be everywhere on Thursday.

TERRENCE HOWARD: (As Lucious Lyon) Witness as Lucious Lyon becomes a god.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Jennifer Hudson, Rita Ora, Patti LaBelle and Snoop Dogg guest-star in the jaw-dropping finale.

BIANCULLI: On broadcast TV, that's always been the model for weekly series - present one episode per week, like an even older-fashioned movie matinee serial. Tonight, the CW network presents a new series "iZombie," from "Veronica Mars" creator Rob Thomas. I've seen four episodes in advance, and their new take on the zombie craze is clever and entertaining, but it will take you a month of TV viewing to catch up with me.

On the other hand, I've been able to watch in advance only the first three installments of another of this week's new series, "Bloodline." It's a drama series from Netflix, starring Kyle Chandler from "Friday Night Lights," made by the creators of "Damages." It's about an influential but volatile family in Key West, Fla. I'm really intrigued by the way it starts, but any Netflix subscriber who tunes in this Friday and stays tuned can lap me in a few hours and watch the entire season at once. That's called binge viewing, and it's the way Amazon rolled out "Transparent" and Netflix rolled out "House Of Cards" and "Orange Is The New Black," and the way Netflix, next month, will roll out "Daredevil," the first of its many announced Marvel Comics projects.

Binge viewing is supposed to be the wave of the future, but I suspect, and I hope, that this is one wave where the tide is about to go out. More and more examples are popping up of streaming services that are rationing out their original programs in weekly doses, just like the broadcast networks. Beginning today, the Yahoo Screen online service begins showing new episodes of the former NBC sitcom, "Community," but only one episode per week. The same deliberately paced distribution pattern is used by PlayStation to roll out its new superhero drama series called "Powers," which premiered last week. Similarly, Acorn TV's streaming service began showing its new "Jamaica Inn" miniseries yesterday in weekly installments. Even Netflix, which pioneered binge viewing, is hedging its bets. In May, its new six-part genre series "Between" will be unveiled not all in one day, but over a period of six weeks.

To me, this is great news. The Fox publicists pushing "Empire" are onto something big. What we miss when we binge watch individually is a sense of shared experience and any sense of when to talk about something we've seen that we really, really liked. Last week's sudden death on AMCs "The Walking Dead" or the same night's sudden kiss on CBS's "The Good Wife" - those moments were exciting to watch and fun to discuss, more than they would have been if those shows' entire seasons had been presented in one big lump.

Those old movie matinees had it right with their serialized format, and embracing new technology doesn't mean abandoning old storytelling forms that work. Think of one of last year's most influential audio podcasts, the documentary series "Serial." Its very title revealed its secret weapon. And what "Serial" did for the podcast, HBO's "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst" just did even more effectively as a six-part TV documentary.

Andrew Jarecki's murder investigation nonfiction film was spread out over six weeks on HBO, and Sunday's finale ended with the most chilling TV moment I've seen in years - well, not seen, heard, because it was Durst, muttering to himself in a hotel bathroom, after completing another on-camera interview with Jarecki, who was recorded by the lapel microphone he was still wearing. Jarecki had confronted Durst, suspected in the murders of three different people, with some damning new physical evidence. And afterward in the bathroom, Durst talked to himself, not only about his nervous gasping and belching, but a lot more.


ROBERT DURST: And the burping. I'm having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.

BIANCULLI: That moment - that sentence - ended "The Jinx" and left me stunned. Durst was arrested the day before the finale was televised, and the show has made news since. My point is we should be talking about great television as it happens. And the only efficient way to do that is if it happens to enough of us at the same time, on schedule.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Tomorrow, I'll talk with Daniel Genis, who grew up around Soviet emigres who risked prison for a cause. Daniel Genis was sent to prison because he robbed people to get enough money to pay what he owed his heroin dealer. He was released after 10 years and is now writing a memoir about the 1046 books he read in prison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.