The New Normal

01.08.14

Why We Binge-Watch Television

As a society, we’re more distracted than ever. So how is it that streaming hours of complicated TV dramas at a time is becoming our preferred method of watching television?

We correspond with each other in 140-character bursts. We consume news in sound bites and blog posts. We’re, by all accounts, an increasingly distracted society, with the attention span of a house fly sipping on Red Bull in a room lit by a strobe light while dubstep plays. Knowing that, it makes absolutely no sense that we are also a society that enjoys binge-watching TV.

But we do. Oh, for the love of Walter White, we do.

According to a new study by Harris Interactive on behalf of Netflix, 61 percent of us binge-watch TV regularly, which is to say that we watch at least 2-3 episodes of a single series in one sitting. Or, some of us (many of us), devour 14 in a row with breaks just for bathroom and answering the door for the delivery man. Almost three-quarters of us view binge watching as a positive experience, and nearly 80 percent say that feasting on a show actually makes it better.

Given how many times we’ve heard people use the word “binge-watch” this past year and how many times we’ve alarmed our friends by disappearing from society for a week to marathon a show, it shouldn’t be surprising that the practice is quickly becoming the new normal when it comes to consuming television. But it is remarkable that such a highly fragmented world is actively seeking out—and even preferring—longer form, more complex storytelling at the same time we want everything else in life easy and breezy.

It shouldn’t compute. So why does it?

All of the elements of a perfect storm brewed at the same time, explains Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist who worked on the study. More accurately, it’s a storm cycle: TV has gotten better, making viewers smarter, making TV even more complex, making binge-watching more fun. And because we’re living in a world where too many things are constantly competing for our attention, developing a habit of binge-watching is like seeking shelter in the calm eye of that storm.

“I was illuminated to hear people say, ‘Look, it’s precisely because there’s so much distraction that this is a special pleasure,’” McCracken says of the 1,500 streamers he interviewed as part of the study. While TV marathons have always been events, the rise of binge-watching is a byproduct of necessary and sufficient conditions that have only surfaced in recent years, with the easy availability of streaming, season DVDs, and TiVos compounded with the rise in quality of the shows available.

Plus, there’s the undeniably fun appropriation of the word “binge.”

“You hear that people are slightly embarrassed to spend four or five hours watching TV, that there’s something reckless or indulgent or ill-advised about it,” McCracken says. “That was the origin of the research project: to find out if ‘binge’ is the right metaphor, and if not then what is.”

As it turns out, the entire connotation of “binge”—a word tinged with the shame of eating an entire roll of cookie dough—has changed into something prideful and brag-worthy. “Finally some people get that there’s something ironic about the term,” McCracken says. “People aren’t watching Dukes of Hazard. They’re watching great TV, not bad TV.”

Indeed, the successive-episode viewing couldn’t be as popular as it is—especially, again, in the age where people discuss everything and anything on social media and attempting to avoid a major plot spoiler online is a fool’s errand—if the series being binged weren’t as creatively evolved and dramatically complex as Breaking Bad, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, and other popular binging series are.

the entire connotation of 'binge'—a word tinged with the shame of eating an entire roll of cookie dough—has changed into something prideful and brag-worthy.

“Remember on Dallas when somebody shot J.R.?” says McCracken. “If you found out who did it after the fact, what would be the point of going back and watching that season? But with something like The Wire, even if a friend accidentally let a key character’s death slip it doesn’t’ really destroy the point of watching the show.” There’s so much more to pick apart, dissect, and become emotionally and intellectually engaged with that watching it, despite the unintended spoiler, is still enjoyable.

The late-in-its-run success of Breaking Bad is the perfect example of that. The show’s final season premiered to double the series’ previous ratings high and almost four times the ratings for the show’s debut in 2008. The five years in between saw hordes of people finally caving to the “you have to watch Breaking Bad!” pressure of their colleagues, thanks to the availability of the entire series for streaming on Netflix.

“I think Netflix kept us on the air,” Vince Gillian, Breaking Bad’s creator, said after his show won the Emmy for Best Drama Series in September. “Not only are we standing up here [with the Emmy], I don’t think our show would have lasted beyond Season Two. It’s a new era in television and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.”

Netflix is notorious for keeping its data locked away in that same bunker where the UFOs and the still-alive Elvis Presley are kept, but the company does confirm that binging is more popular than ever with its subscribers. "Our viewing data shows that the majority of streamers would actually prefer to have a whole season of a show available to watch at their own pace,” said Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix.

The habits even shape its original programming choices, including House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. “Netflix has pioneered audience choice in programming and has helped free consumers from the limitations of linear television. Our own original series are created for multi-episodic viewing, lining up the content with new norms of viewer control for the first time." 

The result, not just because of strides in original programming from Netflix but because of the “binging” now becoming a legitimate alternative to most first-run broadcast airings, is that we are rejecting, in at least one crucial aspect of our lives—entertainment—the idea of instant gratification. It’s what McCracken calls the “in case of emergency, break glass” phenomenon. And we all can identify with it.

There’s a new series that you’re excited about. You can’t wait to try it out. “Then there’s a small tension,” McCracken says. “Do you watch it right away or do you set it aside for some eventuality like a terrible flu or a terrible snow storm?” Anyone who just snuggled under a blanket with Olivia Pope during Snowstorm Hercules to watch an entire season of Scandal and gasped because OMG HE’S HER FATHER!? knows exactly what he means. “You have a great show on hand. You’re protected in event of emergency. And then there’s something delicious about having a great show on standby, in reserve.”

Binging, as we used to do it, was a hindsight act of embarrassment, an action realized only after its completion when staring at an empty Doritos bag. Now we’re planning to do it. In a world moving faster than ever and our focus more split than ever, who would have thought that it would be the medium of television, once called “a vast wasteland” by former FCC Chairman Newton Minow, that would finally slow us down.