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July 27, 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions: Why do we binge-watch?

Fess up: You know you're guilty of it, too.

By now, binge-watching is a cultural phenomenon in television — practically a badge of honor, to spend your late nights glued to the new season of "House of Cards" or any other piece of made-to-binge programming. But what's the deal? Why are we getting so much enjoyment out of killing so much time?

Here, Emil Steiner, a former journalist who has researched binge-watching for his doctorate at Temple University's School of Media and Communication, by analyzing articles and surveying TV watchers, teases out why we're so involved with our TV shows lately. 

Why do we binge-watch?

Well, what I found through my research was that there are basically — I've been able to isolate six motives for binge-watching. Reasons that people very commonly cite as their motivation for doing it. And they’re probably not that surprising to you — I can go through them if you like, but the first one, and most common, is the improved experience. The viewing experience is enhanced or improved. That's what people say that when they binge-watch — and what I mean by that is watching the same show for a prolonged period of time. Typically, two or three hours straight. Basically two to three episodes at least of a 60-minute drama. Four to six episodes of a half-hour show. And so, the improved or enhanced viewing experience, described by viewers as binge-watching, it makes the experience more real or immersive. Viewers have told me they feel closer to what the writers intended. So if a season is composed in the writers’ room as a unified block they then chop up into episodes, viewers describe the ability of binge-watching as improving that narrative immersion — they become closer to the story and what the writers intended. Very few people have said that’s not the motivation for that.

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Another is the sense of completion. Viewers, certain viewers — particularly ones who are very obsessive readers — they say when they start a show they want to finish it. They can’t put it down. They find the sense of completion to be a compelling force for them. And binge-watching facilitates that.

The third is cultural inclusion, a common one that sometimes people are a little embarrassed to talk about at first, but a lot of people binge-watch certain shows because they want to be able to talk about it to their social group, whether it be coworkers or their friends, family, things of that nature. To be part of the conversation with other people. Often times, it necessitates a rapid consumption of content. And that is also useful for filtering — you know, there’s so much content available that it’s often difficult for people to say ‘Do I watch this or that?’ And the idea of wanting to fit in with certain communities or conversations about shows often helps people make that decision. 

The fourth one would be convenience. This is motivation for binging. The ability to watch whatever, wherever, whenever. It’s convenient and you can carry it with you. You can binge-watch a season of 'House of Cards' and start at home, then maybe you’re at the Apple Store watching on a laptop there, then come home and finish it. The ability to stop and start the action and carry it with you and control the flow is a strong motivator.

Catching up is the fifth motivator. A new season is about to drop, and you want to be up to date. So you spend a week or so binge-watching the previous season. A lot of people do this with Netflix in particular because of their full-season release model. You can watch all 10 or 13 episodes at once. People cram in the season before to catch up. But it’s also the case with regular broadcast TV shows — for instance, when 'Breaking Bad' — I don’t know if you watch that show, but when Netflix began releasing earlier seasons of that, a lot of people started getting into it so people would binge-watch in anticipation of the next season on AMC. Which wouldn’t be all at once, but that way people are sort of right there, reading the chapter again so you’re ready to go with the next one.

And the sixth motivation is relaxation and nostalgia. And this is just the idea of having something on that you consume that relaxes or distracts you or reminds you of a time when you previously watched it. You typically see this motivation with lower attentiveness shows. One of the findings I had through this research was that viewers tend to watch through a continuum — I call it a viewer attentiveness spectrum. So certain types of shows require less attentiveness, whereas others, you have to pay attention. A half-hour comedy with a self-enclosed storyline tends to require less attentiveness; a reality 'show that repeats action that happened prior to a commercial break, less attentiveness. Sixty-minute dramas and mysteries like 'Lost' require a higher attentiveness in order to enjoy them. You can watch an old episode of 'Seinfeld' and get a lot of enjoyment out of it but you don’t have to pay attention to every word. Shows like that, you can enjoy those shows but they don’t require as much attentiveness as 'Game of Thrones,' where every detail is part of the pleasure of it. Relaxation and nostalgia, those types of shows that require less attentiveness.

Why do you think we all jumped on the bandwagon in the last few years? It’s not like we couldn’t binge with a DVD boxset.

The answer I found is sort of multi-faceted. There are a number of different reasons. But one of them is the technology — that certainly has played a really big role. When you talk to people, you find they’ve first experienced binge-watching with DVDs — sometimes VHS tapes, but mostly DVDs. And DVDs are still a way you can binge-watch. But the thing with the DVD is you have to get the DVD, and then when you’re watching it you can basically get three or four hours per DVD, give or take, at which point you have to get up and switch to the next one and start it up again. The streaming technology that came with Netflix, Amazon Prime, along with what they had before with VOD and DVRs, these allow the viewers to sit back and watch and stay within a story as long as they want. Going along with that portability and idea of taking it with you, there has been sort of happening simultaneously, this abundance of new shows being created trying to meet that demand. Now that they can watch in this fashion, they don’t have to wait each week for a new episode to air. Now they can watch as they like on-demand. Producers and writers are creating television shows to meet that — and those forces are coming together, the cultural and the technological, along with increased bandwidth and cheaper internet. It created a perfect storm for people to get so much content whenever they want it, wherever they want it. And it kind of symbiotically fed into itself. 

Now, additionally, Netflix and some other cable providers ... [Netflix] wanted to push more — the more people binge-watch, the more they binge-make, Netflix. It’s one of those things where they wanted to make binge-watching ‘cool.’ You see around 2012 and 2014, the term binge-watching being used more in the social conversation. Mentioned in commercials, talking about it, newspaper articles coming out ‘What is binge-watching?’ And the interesting thing about it is the term originates, supposedly, from the 1990s, from these fan communities that would geek out on TV shows and were so proud about the fact that they watched it all they jokingly called it binge-watching. But it didn’t creep into the cultural conversation the way it did in 2012 … [when] you can track the number of articles written. Into 2012, it’s about five articles that mention binge-watching or binge-viewing, and then it’s thousands and thousands. It’s one of those things at a cultural tipping point and then just blew up.

It's interesting that people think binge-watching is what writers intended. I don’t think that's true of a lot of shows made 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

The traditional 20th-century broadcast model of TV — it's about 23 minutes of actual content with three commercial breaks thrown into the half-hour block. At that time they were trying to draw the broadest possible audience; they would water down content, didn’t want to offend anybody. And the idea is the more eyeballs they get, the more they generate through commercials. And that began to change with paid cable in the ’90s and 2000s. HBO’s model of ‘Better than TV’ or “It’s not TV; it’s HBO,’ they push hard to identify themselves as a higher cultural power than the regular television industry – the ‘idiot box’ narrative perpetuated throughout the 20th century. So, as the television content began to improve, I think that also stoked the desire for getting that immersive experience, inside the writers’ head ...

Is binge-watching bad for you?

I don’t believe there’s a simple answer to that. I think the interesting thing with binge-watching, is it’s sort of a negotiation of control. You’re controlling the content and have the power to watch whenever you want, without worrying about commercials anymore. You have control over the content. And now you have to negotiate the control of 'How do I stop? When have I watched too much?’ And that negotiation is happening through the remote control. It’s a complicated dynamic of cultural behavior that I don’t think fits well into a binary of ‘good or bad.’ Obviously, if you’re losing your job because you can’t stop watching television, that’s probably not a good thing. But I think the fact that viewers now have that control and that producers and writers are creating what many consider to be much higher-caliber shows, is a good thing. 

It’s complicated. I think we hear the word ‘binge’ and you think being eating or drinking, a loss of control. And I think that plays into the narrative of the 20th century that watching television will rot your mind or turn you into a couch potato. But I think that’s beginning to change, and that’s the interesting thing. When I talk to people — one was like ‘How come there isn't binge-reading?’ You spend a weekend reading a book in long chunks, you go to work on Monday and say that’s how you spent the weekend, would you be embarrassed to tell coworkers that? But I feel like TV is somehow lowbrow, passive and culturally mindless. And I think those old stereotypes play into this notion that doing a lot of anything is bad, and TV particularly is considered a lazy, stupid activity. And I think one of the reasons I study binge-watching is behavior itself is changing, culturally, that interpretation of what television is and how we understand it. 

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