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  • 09.23.15

A New Netflix Study Reveals When Viewers Get “Hooked” On Their TV Shows

Which episodes lead to binge-watching? Netflix examines “when fandom began” for 25 different series.

A New Netflix Study Reveals When Viewers Get “Hooked” On Their TV Shows
[Photos: courtesy of Netflix]

For viewers, the benefits of having the entire season of a TV show dumped onto a streaming service like Netflix for binge consumption are obvious: Who doesn’t want to sink back into their sofa and watch episode after episode of their favorite show, emerging hours later–bleary-eyed, borderline catatonic–when work or family calls? But for people creating those shows, the appeal of the binge model is less obvious.

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Until now. Netflix, the data-saturated company that monitors your every click, pause, and rewind, has done a study to determine at what point people become “hooked” on shows. In other words, when, exactly, do people decide that they’re going to stick it out for the long haul for Orange Is the New Black or How I Met Your Mother?

The answers may surprise you. For one thing, according to the study–which pulled from Netflix accounts that started watching season one of selected series between January and July 2015 across 16 different markets, including the U.S., Brazil, and Australia–it’s never the pilot episode that seals the deal. Indeed, not one of the 25 series that were examined–which included Netflix original series and many that debuted on other networks–hooked its audience out of the gate. For How I Met Your Mother, it wasn’t until episode eight that viewers turned into die-hard fans. For Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it was episode four. And–who knew?–it only took two episodes for Bates Motel.

And how does Netflix define this turning point? According to the company, “70% of viewers who watched the hooked episode went on to complete season one.” Netflix could not identify what plot points sucked people in, only which episode.

This debunking of the importance of the pilot is yet another cannon Netflix is firing at the traditional television paradigm. The notion that it may take several episodes for a show to gain traction is anathema at networks, where the clock starts to tick as soon as a pilot airs, and pressure is on to cancel any series that isn’t immediately performing. Indeed, Netflix found that it wasn’t until episode six that Mad Men–the iconic show that put AMC on the original programming map–took off with viewers.

As Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos put it: “Given the precious nature of primetime slots on traditional TV, a series pilot is arguably the most important point in the life of the show. However, in our research of more than 20 shows across 16 markets, we found that no one was ever hooked on the pilot. This gives us confidence that giving our members all episodes at once is more aligned with how fans are made.”

Other interesting nuggets from the survey: The Dutch fall in love with shows faster than any other culture, generally one episode before other countries do; the Germans fell easy for Arrow; for the French it was How I Met Your Mother; Australians and New Zealanders need a little more convincing–they commit to shows one to two episodes later than the rest of the world with almost every show.

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Below is the breakdown of “when fandom began,” as Netflix put it, for some of the 25 shows. Warning: spoilers galore!

Bates Motel: Episode two, when Dylan arrives in White Pine Bay, pissing off Norman, who welcomes the prodigal son home in a very special way.

Better Call Saul: Episode four, which explores the backstory of fast-talking attorney Saul Goodman.

Breaking Bad: Episode two, when Walter and Jesse blow away Krazy 8, and Jesse’s ceiling collapses after they try to get rid of the body in an acid bath.

Daredevil: Episode five, when we see Matt’s experience of life–what he calls a “world on fire.”

Grace and Frankie: Episode four, when Grace and Frankie come face-to-face with their former husbands, who are now gay partners.

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House of Cards: Episode three, When Frank Underwood leaves D.C. to put out a fire in his home district in South Carolina. Fans may recall the “Peachoid.”

How I Met Your Mother: Episode eight, when Ted defends his turf after Lilly moves into his and Marshall’s apartment. To settle the feud they duel with swords.

Mad Men: Episode six, when Peggy emerges as a copywriting star, and Joan makes an impression with a red dress and her ability to work a two-way mirror.

Orange Is the New Black: Episode three, when Piper firmly rejects advances made by Crazy Eyes and moves into Miss Claudette’s cube.

Pretty Little Liars: Episode four, when Hannah realizes she isn’t her daddy’s only little girl anymore; Spencer receives some academic karma; and Emily conceals her feelings for Maya.

Blacklist: Episode six, when Liz learns that there may be something worse than finding out your husband is a spy.

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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Episode four, when Kimmy has an eye-opening experience after Jacqueline introduces her to a plastic surgeon.

About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety.

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