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'Mad Men' and the Scheduled DVR Binge

Cable channels are capitalizing on the benefits of scheduling good TV when nobody's watching.
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(Photo: AMC)

(Photo: AMC)

What are you doing this Sunday at 6 a.m.? If you said not watching Mad Men, we wouldn't be surprised. But you could be, which perhaps actually is surprising. Last month, AMC launched an effort to show every episode of its hit series before the second-half of the final season begins in the spring. As a result, every Sunday morning the network will screen a couple hours of Mad Men, starting from the beginning and running up to season seven’s part-one cliffhanger.

On the surface, this is an exercise in ridiculousness. Who's going to get up before the sun to watch Don Draper make poor decision after poor decision and the rest of the gang struggle through their well-dressed lives as well? Mad Men might be the type of show that makes you want to have a drink, but 6 a.m. is too early even for a Bloody Mary.

Mad Men might be the type of show that makes you want to have a drink, but 6 a.m. is too early even for a Bloody Mary.

Except AMC's showings aren't designed to be consumed at an hour when Draper is just getting to bed. The idea behind the effort is to appeal to the DVR generation. It’s an exercise in turning a popular series that airs at a specific moment into a watch-when-you-want bonanza worthy of Netflix or another on-demand service. Even the advertisements for the idea suggest you set your recording device. It's a network reaction to the death of appointment television, and it says a lot about how we consume media now.

Think about the target audience, which falls into three broad categories. The first, and probably largest, is the group of people who started watching Mad Men after the show started airing. Considering the growth in ratings, that's a big cohort. Now those fans have an opportunity to catch up on what they missed for free, while also getting stoked for the final episodes. The second subset is made up of the diehards who have been there throughout. Now they can re-watch it from the beginning without having to purchase it on iTunes or DVD. They can even just record a few favorite episodes to view over and over again. People who have never seen the show but are interested in testing it out fill out the third group. It's a little hard to picture them sitting down and watching six and a half seasons between now and the spring, but you never know. It's not like AMC had a whole lot running on Sunday at 6 a.m. anyway.

This is an audience used to time-shifting Mad Men, and binge-watching has some psychological backing. According to cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, 76 percent of people said the practice was a welcome reprieve from the chaos of their everyday lives. The survey, which was commissioned by Netflix (so buyers beware), also showed that eight in 10 people enjoyed watching more than one episode better than a single one.

Offering an entire series over a small chunk of time isn't an unprecedented strategy for the network. AMC had good success with a four-dayBreaking Bad marathon and a two-day version of The Walking Dead. These were more compact in scope, but they served the same function: a DVR recordable chunk of shows that didn't need to be seen at the appointed time.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon, however, comes from FXX's recent Simpsons marathon, which produced astounding results. The network screened more than 500 episodes back-to-back with 25 million unique viewers tuning in at some point and the average viewer watching 23 episodes. The ratings boost launched FXX from the 49th-ranked basic cable network for the 18- to 49-year-old demographic to the No. 1-ranked network for that period. That is astonishing success, and FXX is desperately attempting to continue capitalizing on the success with gimmicks like theme nights around new Simpsons episodes.

Each of these marathons are one-offs and each came into being due to an understandable reason. We probably won't see all the Mad Men episodes played again in one place–at least not for some time–just like it won't happen for Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, or The Simpsons. These types of blasts have a limited shelf life. If the premise is to allow people to DVR shows to watch whenever they want, there isn't a need to run the shows more than once in a marathon format. Plus, the novelty of a Simpsons marathon only has one shot to make a big impact. Network executives will run into diminishing returns very quickly.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't expect similar types of efforts for other programs, and I would bet it's not too long before a major network tries a similar gambit. Perhaps not a major marathon—airtime is too precious and too scheduled to justify an experiment. But the Mad Men model could very well apply. Consider a show like Sleepy Hollow or The Blacklist. Both shows have found a large following, but both have an audience that's much larger now than it was at the beginning of their run. Wouldn't it make sense to put old episodes on at 3 a.m. Sunday morning (or whenever) in an effort to both offer these viewers a chance to watch it all in order and potentially recruit new viewers who have been hearing positive things but don't want to shell out money for a first-season box set?

If I were a network executive, I'd certainly be considering the possibility. The television game is all about ratings. NBC's broadcast division boosted its revenue by $200 million in the third quarter of 2014 simply because of stronger ratings than in 2013. A marathon could help it improve ratings at the time when the shows air (and the time-shifted ratings as well) and then again when new fans flock to new episodes of the show they just fell in love with. When it comes to television in this new era, you have to think a little bit outside the box.