Netflix and On-Demand Aren't Killing 'Water-Cooler TV'—They're Saving It

Breaking Bad's finale was a reminder that communal TV experiences aren't over, and data suggests that technologies blamed for hurting shared viewing have actually helped it. 
Ursula Coyote / AMC

Just a few months ago, the concept of water-cooler television—where weekly episodes become communal, must-see live events that dominate workplace conversations—had become something of an anachronism, at least to those working behind the scenes.

In The New York Times’ August showrunner roundtable, Netflix’s House of Cards creator Beau Willimon declared the end of the singular, common viewing experience, which he argued had been replaced by smaller, “concentric circles” of conversation that better reflected how time-shifting technologies and on-demand options have fragmented audiences. (The rise of second-screen viewing, where audiences live-tweet Scandal, Pretty Little Liars, and more on mobile devices during the show, was said to be the new home for the collective experience.) Later that month, The Guardian excerpted a lecture from Cards' Kevin Spacey that touted the success of the Netflix original series as "kill[ing] the watercooler moment." 

Similarly, in his July review of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Time’s James Poniewozik wrote that while social media can create communal, participatory events—take this summer’s short-lived Sharknado craze, for example—Netflix-style distribution “upends the principle of water-cooler TV: that we see the same things at the same time. The most dedicated Breaking Bad fan will not know Walter White’s fate before you do. Whereas a Netflix season is like a dark maze; we may enter around the same time, but we exit, blinking, separately.”

Breaking Bad is an important exception to highlight. While appointment television and traditional viewing habits have yet to become a minority practice, AMC’s meth-making anti-hero drama, which wrapped last night, has helped restore faith in the concept of water-cooler television in the past few weeks. In a recent story that ran somewhat counter to what showrunners were saying in August, the Times reported on viewers who were binge-watching their way through past seasons of Breaking Bad specifically to take part in last night’s series finale as it happened. Salon’s Lindsay Abrams credited the availability of past seasons of Breaking Bad on Netflix, more so than social media tie-ins, with getting cable-less millennials to tune in live for once. And show creator Vince Gilligan also credited Netflix with transforming the first season’s measly, cancellation-worthy audience into the 10.3 million people who watched the series’ final episode—the most-watched episode in the history of the entire series.

Even with click-of-a-button access to prior seasons, of course, Breaking Bad is simply quality television programming. The show wouldn’t have been able to change the habits of on-demand viewers without its masterful storytelling. But new data suggests that Breaking Bad binge-watchers’ growing interest in watching the show as it happens, commercial breaks and all, isn’t unique to Walter White and company: Instead, the technologies that often get blamed for bringing about the end of water-cooler TV are actually encouraging all kinds of viewers to take part in television as it happens.

Two years ago, cable provider Comcast partnered with Nielsen to study how on-demand programming affects viewers' watching habits. What they found, according to Comcast’s Matt Strauss, the senior vice president of digital and emerging platforms, is that catching up on past seasons through on-demand services may be an important part of making the modern iteration of water-cooler television happen in the first place.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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