Felix Quinonez Jr.
Binge watching has become such a defining part of our collective viewing experience that it’s easy to forget that it’s a relatively new phenomenon. The practice gained popularity only within the last few years thanks to the rise of Netflix and other streaming services.
The term, binge-watch entered our collective societal vocabulary around 2013 and since then it has become so culturally ingrained that in 2015 the Collins English Dictionary chose “binge-watch” as the word of the year.
It’s actually not too surprising that binge watching has become so popular, so quickly since people love instant gratification. And for a lot of people it’s becoming the standard way to watch their favorite shows. Some people actually wait until the season is over so they can binge watch it, instead of watching it gradually as it airs.
There is no doubt that streaming services like Netflix played a big role in changing our viewing habits. Prior to that, we either had to watch the shows on the networks’ schedules. And if we discovered a show after the fact, catching a whole series in syndication would be a very long process. Another option would have been to buy the series on home video. But that would be costly. And a lot of people would hesitate to buy a box set of a show they never saw.
But these days, we have the entire libraries of most shows readily on hand. Because of this, people can finally watch shows they’ve always been meaning to check out. It’s also a great way to catch up on a show everyone is talking about between seasons and be up to speed before it returns to the air.
Binge watching has also reshaped how we measure a show’s commercial success. These days, ratings are not the only barometer of how well a show is doing. In 2013, Breaking Bad won the Emmy for “Best Drama.” And when the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan accepted the award, he was very forthcoming about the impact Netflix had on the show’s success. He has expressed his belief that without Netflix, Breaking Bad wouldn’t have gone past season two. And he also said that, “It’s a new era in television, and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.”
In the past, a show like Crazy Ex Girlfriend that barely averaged over 1 million viewers in its first season, and even less in the second, probably would have been cancelled at the first chance the network got. It would have been yet another critically adored series that didn’t make it past the first season because it failed to find an audience. But instead, because of its strong performance on Netflix, the show got to live on. And it was recently renewed for a third season which fans and critics can enjoy this coming fall.
But as is usually the case, there are two sides to every story. And as much as we love binge watching, there are some downsides to this phenomenon that is quickly changing our cultural viewing experience.
The fact is, we’re very social creatures and like with most things, we enjoy experiencing our TV shows with friends and family. But the act of binge watching tends to somewhat diminish the communal aspects of watching TV shows. It’s not that people can’t binge watch the same show but, rarely do people binge watch at the exact same pace.
It’s different than when people watch the same show over a regular season. Watching a TV show as it airs inspires a discussion after every episode. There’s opportunity to speculate about what’s going to happen next. But with binge watching you don’t really get to obsess and dissect an episode before going on to the next one. And the joy of seeing who guesses what will happen next is something that gets lost when everyone is binge watching on their own.
The sense of suspense is another casualty of binge watching. With the old way of watching TV shows, audiences are forced to wait until the next episode to find out what happens next. When you binge watch, there is no wait. Of course that is in some ways a great advantage. But there is also something special to finding out the outcome of a cliffhanger after having waited a week.
And at the end of the day, the fact is that binging allows you to go to the next episode too soon. Having some time between each episode gives you room to think about and absorb what you just saw. But instantly going to the next episode takes that away. In fact it can make the episodes blur together a bit. The wait between seasons can seem even tougher to deal with after you become accustomed to binge watching.
Another problem that arises from binge watching is the fact that, sometimes, it can make it harder to get emotionally invested since you are devoting less time. For example, I watched Lost after it had already ended. When the show debuted, I completely misunderstood what it was about. I thought it was just a simple survival show about people who crash landed on an island. And when I finally caught on that it was a lot more than that, it already felt like I was late to the party.
Eventually I discovered it when the whole series was uploaded on Netflix. Like everyone else, I fell in love with the first season. To this day, I believe that Season one of Lost is about as close to perfection as any TV show has gotten. And as anyone who has seen Lost can attest, that love soon turned to frustration, anger and pretty much the whole spectrum of emotions as I watched its six seasons.
But I watched the entire show over the span of one summer. It was definitely a roller coaster but nothing like what audiences who watched it during its original run, over six years, enjoyed (endured?) I still remember being in college and hearing friends talk about it every week or going to bars to watch Lost with other fanatics.
And when it finally concluded, people loved it or hated it. But regardless of how they felt, they were very intense about it. On the other hand when I finally reached the ending, after having just seen a few episodes directly before it, there was something very anti-climactic about it. I actually kind of liked the ending. It wasn’t very original and it certainly didn’t make up for the disappointing seasons. It also didn’t reach the soaring emotional and narrative heights of the first season but it was sweet and moving. But it still left me thinking, “that’s it?” And part of that has to do with the fact that I remember how people reacted when the series originally ended. And after finally seeing it for myself, I found it hard to believe how it could inspire such dramatic reactions of any kind.
But the people, who saw Lost as it aired, had been following it for six years. For the fans that liked the ending, it was a cathartic event. And the ones who didn’t, well they wanted to riot and burn things down. I, on the other hand, saw it on my laptop during one summer and it was a very compressed and ultimately subdued version of the experience.
It’s hard to argue with the fact that there is something undeniably satisfying about having all of our shows readily available to us. But by condensing our viewing habits we are losing some of the payoff, which can only come from waiting and anticipating. And this ultimately results in a less rewarding viewing experience.