Thoughts on Binge-Watching: The New Way of Life?
A startling confession to begin: I’ve only watched one television series on actual television. That is, I access most television content through Netfix or other streaming services, which means that I am among the many binge-watchers of the new generation. If you’re wondering, the series I watch regularly on television is Mad Men, simply because I decided to watch the pilot when it premiered in 2007 and haven’t stopped since. I enjoy the anticipation of Mad Men. It is a nice feeling to know that regardless of how difficult or stressful a given week is, I always have an episode of Mad Men to look forward to on Sunday night.
With the exception of Mad Men, however, I am like most twenty-somethings who are interested in the arts. That is, I rely on technology to get my fix. Cynics of older generations can scoff all they want about how tech-obsessed my generation is, and about how alienated and dependent we have become, but I honestly think that they are just jealous because the internet is infinitely more interesting than a television set or telephone. Sorry haters, but technology today is so much cooler.
In all seriousness, the advent of new technologies has created a shift in the television viewing experience. This article will address this shift, with a specific focus on the recent phenomenon of binge-watching. Unlike most articles, however, I intend to pinpoint exactly where I see this shift, and I will ultimately argue that binge-watching in certain ways can benefit the viewer’s life.
Binge-watching refers to the process of watching numerous episodes of a television series (or, I suppose, films in a franchise) in one sitting. For instance, I’d recently watched the entire second season of Girls in one sitting on HBO Demand. There are several reasons why I did this. The first and most important reason is because I was not available to watch the episodes when they originally aired on HBO last winter. Being a student, I work and live on an abnormal schedule during a semester, and Sunday nights are often my busiest. The second reason is because I do not have HBO (either at my college residence or at my permanent household), and in order for me to catch up with the series, I needed to utilize someone else’s household who subscribes to HBO for an afternoon. This required much scheduling and planning. Finally, I have the time in between semesters to devote to a television series, and it is more reasonable for me to give five hours of a lazy summer afternoon and completely catch up with a series than to make time each week during hectic school hours.
A recent study suggests that binge-watching is a relatively safe and harmless reception practice. This study tells us, for example, that binge-watching will not cause us physical or mental harm, and, in fact, can be quite stimulating for the brain. It is necessary to highlight this study because we still live in a world where, despite the many technological advancements, there are people who believe that it is damaging to sit in front of a television screen or computer screen for hours and receive the kind of pleasure that can only come from visual entertainment. Perhaps there are extreme cases in which it is, or, on the contrary, even if it isn’t damaging, perhaps the case can be made that binge-watching limits the amount of pleasure a person can experience from other, more social activities like, say, going out with friends, which can create its own long-term side effects.
But I’m willing to posit that most people (like myself) who binge-watch only do so on their spare time, and as the study shows, they do not sacrifice other forms of pleasure for the unique pleasure that comes with binge-watching. So what it really comes down to, then, is a restructuring of time in a more convenient way. That is, instead of devoting hours a week to a given television series, binge-watchers far remove themselves from the world of those who patiently wait each week for an episode to originally air on television, and use these hours to do something completely different (in my case, studying or socializing with fellow students). Then, at a convenient later date (in my case, a semester break), binge-watchers catch up with the series in one or two sittings.
This is a significant distinction to make, because it seems as if there is a perception that binge-watchers do nothing with their lives but sit in front of their computers (or, if you’re like me, television sets that are connected to their computers) and watch endless episodes of shows that, after a while, become indistinguishable from one another. But as various binge-watchers demonstrate, they merely watch the shows that they were going to watch anyway at a time that is convenient to them. Sure, there are a few college students who may excessively binge-watch, and skip class or avoid studying to finish that final season of Lost, and there are probably others who watch more television series than they originally plan to precisely because there is access to so many via Netflix and other online streaming sites. I am willing to bet, however, that excessive binge-watchers are in the minority, and that most only binge-watch the shows they would have watched during their original runs if, in a perfect world, they had cable access and free time. For example, even though I binge-watch Breaking Bad, I don’t then go ahead and watch Scandal just because it is available to stream on Netflix. Thus, we consume the same amount of content, and what changes is how we are able to consume.
What this illuminates, I believe, is where exactly the shift in television viewing can be located. The technological and industrial changes over the years have allowed viewers to change the way they schedule their time. Gone are the days of scheduling our lives around television, as Lynn Spigel argues was often the case during the Postwar period in her book Make Room for TV: Television and Family Ideal in Postwar America. Now, due to these technological advancements and the convenience they afford, we can finally schedule television around our lives.
Although some articles oppose this, and, in many ways, raise thought-provoking and pertinent points, as they reveal binge-watching’s potential to destroy the experience of certain shows by causing episodes to blur, I want to make a case for binge-watching and the potential it has to benefit the viewer’s life.
I understand that binge-watching ruins some of the excitement and anticipation that comes along with devoting one’s life to a television series, and I have certainly experienced this myself as I recently binge-watched Breaking Bad in order to catch up to the final season, wondering what it would have felt like to watch the episodes when they originally aired. The cliffhanger at the end of “Full Measure,” for example, isn’t as exciting when I don’t have to wait a year or two to watch “Box Cutter.” There is also a connection to a show that isn’t as deep if one binge-watches, because growing up with Mad Men allows me to have more of a personal investment in the series and the characters than I do in Breaking Bad, and even though I acknowledge the latter’s quality, I can’t quite feel the same connection to its characters. There is, after all, that magic of waiting a week to catch up with your favorite characters, only to leave them again for another week (or, if the season ends, longer). A show that probably took advantage of this the most is Sex and the City, which might not have been the success it was if Carrie and company didn’t evolve and grow in their love lives along with their viewers.
Having said all of that, I still want to offer a few thoughts on binge-watching and its potential to benefit the lives of viewers, even if it can, on occasion, produce inferior results as a viewing practice. That is, even if we binge-watch a series and don’t get the full experience that we might if we watch the episodes when they originally air, the experience we do get is good enough, and, more importantly, other areas of our lives become vastly improved. These improvements, I argue, would not exist if we watched television the traditional way.
Consider this scenario: A college student loves The Walking Dead, but the series, which airs on Sunday nights, conflicts with her volunteer hours at a hospital that she must complete if she wants to receive her nursing degree. However, she volunteers at the evening shift, and if she rushes, she can make it to her television set by the time the show begins. But she has a boyfriend and she barely spends enough time with him as it is, given that she has to take classes, study, and perform with the Glee Club. On the other nights of the week she has class and rehearsal, and since Friday and Saturday nights are reserved for going out with her friends, Sunday is the only possible night that she can spend quality alone time with her boyfriend. It would be easy to say that she should just watch the show with her boyfriend, but since they don’t see each other as often as she would like, she knows that her attention would inevitably be elsewhere. What on earth does she choose? The fictional zombies of The Walking Dead, or her actual relationship with her boyfriend? Make no mistake, this decision is harder than it seems.
This decision, as well, is more common than one might think, especially among college students, but also among parents with children to raise and career-driven singles with long work hours. In the past, this hard-working student would have two choices: to push aside her life and watch the episode, or to put her life first and miss out on the episode. Either decision, however, seems less exciting knowing the alternative. If she watches the episode, she might enjoy it, but she would also feel guilty for not spending time with her boyfriend, and she probably would spend the entirety of the episode wondering whether or not she made the right decision. By contrast, if she doesn’t watch the episode, she would wonder what she is missing on the show while she cuddles with her boyfriend. Each decision, in this circumstance, is a sacrifice, and as a result, full attention and appreciation cannot be devoted to one, because the mind is always going to contemplate the other.
Now, with the emergence of binge-watching, she can do both. She can devote her full energy and attention to her relationship and then, at a later date, she can devote her full energy and attention to The Walking Dead. This situation is a win-win.
This leads to my conclusion that binge-watching actually allows us to be more present in our lives, and, as a result, more productive personally and professionally, precisely because it eliminates the feelings of panic and “I’m going to miss out” that go along with traditional television viewing practices. Obviously this doesn’t apply to those who have no interest in television, or to those who do not have scheduling conflicts during prime time. But for those of us who can’t always make the time to sit in front of the television every night, we know that if we are unable to watch the final season of Breaking Bad when it airs in August, we can always binge-watch it at a convenient time in the future. Although this might make us one of the last to know, it is more beneficial to know last than to never know at all. At the very least, binge-watching enables us to schedule television viewing at our own convenience, and while this might seem like a minor achievement in the big scheme of things, it has the potential to restructure our lives in ways that we never pondered before.
The fact that binge-watching allows us to schedule our lives more productively should not be taken lightly. Those who watch television the traditional way know how frustrating it is to have something else to do during, say, the season premiere of Mad Men (I’ve often been in this position). Typically, if one couldn’t make it to watch a television series at the time it airs, one would have to miss out on that episode or, in some cases, wait for the re-run to air on the same channel. The re-run, of course, usually aired at an even more inconvenient time. Obviously this would be dealt with, and it certainly wasn’t the end of the world to have to skip Sex and the City for an important deadline or social gathering, but the downside to this was that a lot of people simply didn’t have the time to watch television. Their lives were too busy and scheduled, and it was not worth it for them to catch an episode here or an episode there. As a result, they carried on with their lives never knowing exactly what kind of pleasure a television series can offer. However, the emergence of VOD and iTunes, among other streaming services, has allowed pretty much anyone with internet access and a screen to experience the wonderful world of television.
As we grow old and life becomes more stressful, responsibilities and obligations hang over our heads, and we tread the difficult terrain of the modern world, the escape into a television series can benefit us in profound mental and spiritual ways. A great television series can provide us with pleasure, entertainment, and a much needed break from the so-called real world. It is something to look forward to and something to enjoy, and we all know how important that is, especially in today’s increasingly cruel and negative world. What we often forget is that traditionally only those who were available to watch television during prime time were able to experience its wonderment. But for those whose real world was perhaps a bit more real than everyone else’s, that is, those who didn’t have the privilege of being free to watch Friends or The West Wing, a great television series was always out of reach. It seems as if those who needed the pleasure of a television series the most were those who were unable to watch them. The advent of new technologies and the industrial shifts, however, has allowed even those with the most stressful, difficult, and hard-working lives to engage in this televisual experience. I see it everyday. The poor student who works the night shift cannot wait for the next afternoon so she can watch Grey’s Anatomy. The father who works all day and spends time with his family all night looks forward to Sunday morning where he can catch up on Boardwalk Empire. And the college student who studies and socializes throughout the semester plans for the semester break where he can catch up with Girls.
The reason why binge-watching works so well is because it heightens this escape and pleasure for an intense period of time. Instead of brushing the surface each week when watching the episode premiere at its original time, why not dive head first into the experience by watching many episodes at once? Although I’m aware that there are exceptions to every generalization, I would argue that this is how most of my twenty-something, technologically literate generation lives. When we do something, we–for lack of a better phrase–go hard. We watch television shows in one sitting and we write papers in one sitting and we party excessively and study for an absurd amount of time because we like the feeling of immersion into life. We like to completely lose ourselves in whatever it is we are doing precisely because it gives us an escape from the difficulties of life and the real world. Unlike other generations, however, technology has enabled us to do this because it allows us to schedule our time–for the most part–on our own terms. We can immerse ourselves into a project, for example, because we know that whatever else it is that we have to do will be waiting for us when we are done. The television show, the music album, the film, the book. Further, we can prioritize in a way that is entirely unprecedented. For instance, if we are faced with the option of watching an episode of Mad Men on Sunday night or attending a party, we can attend the party because we know that the episode of Mad Men will be waiting for us on demand, whereas the party will not. On the other hand, we can put the party on hold and finish that homework assignment because it is so simple to meet up with people these days via text message, whereas in the past one would just have to stay home and miss out, or, if they’re daring, go to the place and hope that their friends will still be there. So while binge-watching enables us to schedule our lives in more convenient and productive ways, it is only a small example of the benefits technology can have on our lives. It is pretty amazing to think that the world more or less runs on time and yet technology has, on some small level, enabled us to manage and in some ways control that time in ways that we wish.
Obviously there are exceptions, and scholars such as Douglas Rushkoff often discuss those who are connected to technology in unhealthy ways. While I see the optimistic side of it, where technology allows us to have our cake and eat it too, it seems as if Rushkoff believes that technology gives us our cake and makes us fat. For every binge-watcher who spends the next day completing a project or socializing with friends, Rushkoff sees a binge-watcher who spends the next day binge-watching, and the next day, and the next day. For every college student who texts her friends to see where they are at the party she couldn’t go to initially because she had to work, Rushkoff sees the college student who texts her friends while she is at work and then while she is at the party. I think that technology is too vast and we can certainly make room for both the optimism and the cynicism, and I understand that my take is relatively optimistic, even if I do try to address the reality of life that I see and experience on a daily basis. There are many realities and we should always make room for both, but at the same time, I don’t think it is unreasonable to claim that binge-watching has its benefits.
In addition, it is completely understandable to acknowledge that binge-watching does not necessarily benefit the television industry, and many networks and cable companies rally against it because it limits the profits they receive on their shows. However, whether they like it or not, binge-watching is a more convenient reception practice and viewers aren’t going to stop any time soon. There was a time when television attempted to manipulate viewers into thinking that their personal lives were less significant than the fictional lives of characters on their favorite shows. For a while, most viewers went along with this, tuning in each week to watch Seinfeld and Friends. Recent technology, though, has reminded us of one thing we almost forgot: we do have lives, and our lives are, in fact, more important than the lives of characters on our favorite shows. As Netflix, Hulu, and video on demand continue to proliferate, we are able to carry on with our lives, knowing all the while that we can can catch up with the lives of Walter White and other fictional characters at a time that fits into our schedules.
Rejoice binge-watchers, we are in control.
What do you think? Leave a comment.