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Why Do We Binge Watch Shows?

Nasri Atallah By Nasri Atallah Published on November 12, 2015

It is 10.47pm on Sunday evening. There’s a fetid stench in the air. Unwashed bodies, oily pizza boxes, squandered opportunities. The groove in the couch is more pronounced than usual. The liquid crystals flowing inside the television are wheezing. The laptop sits next to you, hot, whirring and buzzing. Its brightness dimmed all the way down. You’re half-covered by a dank IKEA throw that isn’t long enough to cover your feet. You stare at your phone. The battery is low, but you know no one cares by this point. It is Sunday night, and somehow your weekend has evaporated, like mist in the night. Conflicting feelings of guilt, shame and completist satisfaction wash over you.

This sentiment - the phantom weekend - is familiar to many of us well-fed urbanites who can afford to waste two days binge-watching a piece of pop culture. At this point, no one really needs to have binge-watching explained to them, since you’re probably doing it right now, reading this on your phone while you catch up on 7 episodes of Peaky Blinders.

Even though we kind of all know what binge-watching is, there is surprisingly no real definition of it. Some social scientists have put the bar as low as a measly two episodes in a row, others at a more satisfyingly wasteful seven.

It seems like the word entered the vernacular - at least in the Think Piece-heavy chattering classes - at some point in 2013. Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon has roots that go significantly further back. The first manifestation of how our brains are hardwired to consume en masse, can be traced to the TV marathons of the 80s, when cable channels bought up entire seasons of network shows for syndication and dumped them into their sparse schedules. I have to admit, a marathons sounds healthier - a significantly less sinister - than a binge. The latter being normally associated with unsavoury relationships to alcohol, crack & cupcakes.

But these marathons were still interrupted by advertising and promos. Our malady in its current form probably started with the advent of the DVD box set and coincided with the release of shows like 24 in the format. Kiefer Sutherland growling at vaguely ethnic terrorists in real time was just the thing we needed to get hooked to uninterrupted viewing of an episodic TV show.

But DVD box-sets used to cost a crapton, and the perfect storm that creates so many phantom weekends was ushered in by video on demand and, more recently, streaming services like Netflix. Oh, it coincided with a period of time where television actually become worth watching.

It’s hard to mainline a procedural like Law & Order or CSI, because every episode is essentially identical to every other episode, structurally speaking. Of course, no one cares about that when it’s consumed as cultural popcorn, something you watch while you’re folding the laundry. But it becomes problematic when you start putting them back to back.

That’s where The Sopranos and The Wire come in, ushering in the era of so-called prestige television. Actors and - more importantly - writers have moved from other mediums into television. This means the shows are just simply better. They tell stories that are more engaging. They develop arcs that you feel invested in. Invested enough to forget to take the dogs out for their evening walk.

So, if you couple improved access with better screens (whether in your living room or in the palm of your hand) and a cinema experience that costs the GDP of a small Micronesian nation when you’ve factored in 3D, IMAX and popcorn, and you can understand why people stay home.

But besides coming about at a time when shows got better, binge-watching now actively drives how shows are created in the first place. Take House of Cards for example. Netflix hasn’t been shy about its use of algorithms to generate a viewing experience they knew ahead of time would hook you and I in like the docile lemmings that we are.

Is this good or bad? Who knows. It’s probably too soon to say. Clearly the dumping of entire seasons in one fell swoop has created a shift in how we consume culture individually, but also collectively. It has robbed us of the chance to have water cooler moments and put a dent in recap culture. In a spoiler-sensitive social media space, it’s almost impossible to discuss a show at the same pace as everyone is consuming it. It’s not a disaster. It is very much a First World Problem. But it does make cultural criticism a bit tougher, and gives rise to a new form of etiquette around cultural consumption.

The only thing that’s for sure is that networks, whether traditional or on demand, deliver what their audiences want. At the moment, audiences seem to want to watch enough episodes of Orange is the New Black in one night to start believing they live in a whimsical women’s prison.

Is there something deeper happening here though? Beyond crisp screens and good writing. Netflix’s vice president of discovery and personalization seems to think so. He says that many viewers are taking cues from friends and family members who boast about their "monomaniacal" TV sessions. That behavior then "spreads virally, and it's learned at a societal level.” That is either fascinating or sinister, depending on how you look at it.

Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken - commissioned by Netflix - found that 76 percent reported bingeing as a welcome refuge from their busy lives, and nearly 80% agreed that binge-watching a TV show was more enjoyable than watching single episodes. Despite our hectic, anxiety-inducing lifestyles, McCracken concluded that we're actually craving the long narratives that today's television series can provide. Instead of dealing with our life's stresses by zoning out, we'd rather become addicted to an entirely different world.

So, given all of this, what of that perennial claim of buzzkills the world over, that passive television consumption makes us dumb. Pop culture author and theorist Steven Johnson thinks it’s quite the opposite. We’ve moved away from simplified narratives towards "multiple threading", which improve the audience's cognitive skills. He suggests too that modern television has reduced the number of "flashing arrows", narrative clues to help the audience understand what’s going on, and require audiences to do more of the cognitive groundwork themselves.

As with most developments in culture and technology, the only thing to do is keep an eye on the trend, exercise some self-restraint and understand that it’s essentially all about choice. You can choose to watch the whole of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in a day, or you can go for a jog in the park. And it’s no one’s business really. 

Shows I'm Currently Bingeing On: The OA & 3% (both on Netflix)

British-Lebanese author and media entrepreneur. My writing has appeared in The Guardian, GQ and Brownbook amongst other places. Author of Our Man in Beirut (2012) and currently working on a ... Show More

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