Watching Out for Binge Watching

Your innocent habit of watching dozens of show on end is profoundly changing the television landscape.

By Jacoby Bancroft, University of Nevada at Reno


Another Thursday night, another chance to partake in America’s new favorite pastime: binge-watching Netflix.

The online streaming giant captivates you, holding your attention as you ignore friends, procrastinate on homework and sink deeper into a lethargic state of peaceful content. The episode you’re enjoying ends, and as the credits start to roll, your eyes flicker toward the clock.

main-01You’re shocked to discover it’s near the witching hour, and any hope of going to bed at a reasonable time has long since passed. Your mind groggily berates you for letting this binge-watch go on far too long, and you convince yourself it’s time to call it a night. You tell yourself you can make do with the few precious hours of sleep you can salvage and reach for the off switch…

But it’s too late.

Netflix, as if sensing your hesitation, has started the next episode automatically. Resistance is futile, and your mind settles into a smoky haze of happy delirium. The last thing you hear as you drift into the binge-watching abyss is your brain telling you there’s time for another episode, just one more episode

Netflix has become as synonymous with college kids as ramen. The vast library of cheap, instantly accessible movies and television shows attracts college students quicker than a Astronomy level 100 class.

In just a short time, the streaming giant has wormed its way into our culture and become an integral part of the college kid persona. College is a binge-watcher’s paradise, and together, Netflix and college students have formed a mutually beneficial relationship. Netflix gains a rabidly loyal customer base, and college kids gain access to an infinite collection of content just begging to be binged.

Though Netflix stands the tallest, the world of online streaming continues to grow at an alarming rate. Amazon Instant Video, Hulu and Yahoo among others are fighting hard to make a splash in the online swimming pool, but they’re all struggling to be heard. These competitors produce less original content than Netflix, but they all help build up and encourage the binge-watching culture that we’ve come to expect.

But it’s more than just a quirky phenomenon: binge-watching has become a force of change in the television landscape.

Television shows ten years from now are going to look very different thanks to this generations’ growing affection for the binge-watching model.

Binge-watching takes place when you watch multiple episodes of television in quick succession. It’s when you marathon a solid block of Friends episodes (Bing-watching) because you’re curious to see how six middle-class Americans can afford living in such spacious apartments in New York City—Phoebe barely has a job!

It’s when you power through House of Cards because you need to see what dastardly diabolical deed Frank Underwood will do next (or won’t do, given how season three completely neutered his character). It’s when you turn on an episode of BoJack Horseman to see if a show about a talking horse and his dim-witted best friend could possibly be worth watching, and then find yourself seven episodes in before you realize you’re hooked.

Having every episode right at your fingertips makes the concept of stopping after only one episode an incredibly daunting task, one that seems almost pointless. This generation of college students, who began higher education right as Netflix Instant Streaming began amassing its power, doesn’t want to wait to find out what happens next. In the past, waiting a week to discover the fate of your favorite characters was the norm. Now, that same intermission feels like an excruciating delay.

This level of impatience can be attributed to Netflix, the company that almost single-handedly brought the term “binge-watching” into everyday parlance. Their hefty collection of old television shows, combined with their business model of releasing all episodes of their original programming at once, continues to have enormous influence on the minds of young adults worldwide.

Netflix changed binge-watching from a special treat reserved for relaxing weekends, to the new standard in watching television. And although binge watching is working to eclipse the old, outdated process of long-form television viewing, it’s not the right way to go. Audiences are embracing binge-watching more than ever before, but they’re also destroying the essence of what makes television special in the first place.

Blurred Lines

Here comes a bold claim: television shows are better than movies. Even though movies are endowed with higher production budgets and can attract a higher caliber of acting talent, I would take a well-made TV show over a well-made movie any day of the week. And you should too.

By their very nature, television shows have to be more character-driven than movies, which means the audience needs to be able to relate to the characters and understand their actions. In other words, you should never watch something just for the plot. You should watch because you’re interested in how the characters will react to the plot.

What does this have to do with binge watching? A lot actually. By catering to a more binge-friendly audience, Netflix creates seasons of television that play out more like really long movies instead of episodic pieces of entertainment. In doing so, Netflix emphasizes plot-based storytelling more than character development.

Television has the edge when it comes to developing characters because of the time element. It’s easier to get attached to characters after you’ve spent a few seasons with them, but now the television industry is starting to look like the film industry. This means television that’s unconcerned with getting you invested in the characters, instead choosing to focus on one big story.

main-02Now, individual episodes no longer stand apart, so they have to be judged by their success as a whole. For many series, this is more harmful than helpful. Take, for example, the third season of Kevin Spacey’s Netflix drama House of Cards. It’s a show that fully embraces the binge-watching model and feels more like a thirteen-hour movie rather than a thirteen-episode season. Imagine what sitting down and watching a thirteen-hour movie would feel like. By the end, you look like the guys who opened the Ark of the Covenant prematurely at the end of Indiana Jones. I know I did after binge-watching the third season of House of Cards, evaporated face and all.

Maybe if House of Cards had focused on making individual episodes better rather than telling one big story, season three wouldn’t have felt like such a letdown. A few moments stood out and reminded me of how good the show could be, but a few bright spots in a sea of murky blandness does not excuse the fact that the movie-like structure killed any momentum the show tried to build.

When you watch a movie, you don’t watch it in fifteen-minute intervals. You get a better experience by sitting down and watching it in its entirety. House of Cards was specifically made to be binge watched, but it’s a double-edged sword. It’s really only fulfilling if you think of it as one long movie watched all at the same time, but watching it all at once is a test of endurance that saps away enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, the binge-watch model forces television shows to imitate movies when they should be doing the opposite. When the two genres blend too closely, it negatively affects both. If television gets to the point where everything is like one long movie, why would people go to the theaters to see movies at all? And why would people watch television when they could see something similar on a bigger screen? They must be kept distinct from each other—emphasizing their differences, not obscuring them—or the quality of both will suffer.

The Death of the Cliffhanger

 As much as waiting a to find out what happens next in your favorite show feels like pulling teeth, it’s important to let things resonate. Moments hit harder when you have time to process them, but Netflix approaches the idea of waiting as if it were an outdated concept, one that needed to be removed as soon as possible.

main-03Take for instance Netflix’s new superhero hit Daredevil. I won’t spoil anything, but one of the episodes ends with a cliffhanger of someone discovering that Matt Murdock likes to secretly dress in black and beat the snot out of criminals in his free time.

It’s a big moment for the show, but it doesn’t create as big of an impact as it should, because viewers have the chance to see the resolution immediately afterward by starting the next episode. It’s clear that Netflix wants to use cliffhangers to get you to click on the next episode, and thus continue the cycle of binge watching forever, but it robs the audience any chance to take a step back and admire what’s happening. The cliffhanger used to be a tool that could get people talking to one another about their favorite television shows, but the binge watching model has almost eliminated that ability.

Binge Watching, Party of One

 Before “binge-watching” wiggled into the pop-culture vernacular, “water cooler moments” was the premiere television buzz phrase. Water cooler moments took place when something unexpected happened during an episode of television and was discussed the next day with other people who saw the episode. The phrase highlights how television can be an enjoyable personal experience as well as a way to connect people with one another.

Unfortunately, the term continues to wither away thanks to the growing reach of binge-watching. People, especially college students, don’t watch television together as much anymore.

With laptops, gaming devices, tablets and phones all capable of streaming, students can watch their shows when it’s convenient for them, which usually means between classes or during late night study sessions. It allows the student to watch several episodes in a row, but it puts him in an isolated bubble.

While that student might be on episode seven of the latest season of Orange is the New Black, everyone around him might already be done with the series, or may have not even started yet. The disconnect that results from everyone watching shows at their own pace destroys watercooler moments, forcing people to ask those around them what’s safe to talk about and what’s a spoiler. You can always turn to the Internet to find people watching at your pace and see what they think, but online is not the only place television should be discussed.

Broadcast television networks are the last line of defense against the binge-watching model.

Their normal, weekly distribution method champions synchronized viewership, but even that is starting to crumble.

They won’t vanish completely overnight, but change is inevitable. Broadcast networks are inching toward a revamp as online streaming becomes more of a power player in the television industry. At the start of summer, NBC made all the episodes of their Charles Manson drama Aquarius available online before the show premiered on live television. It’s a baby step, but it shows that even broadcast networks are willing to test the waters to see if they can get on the binge-watching bandwagon.

Netflix’s rise from a small, innovative DVD rental service to major power player in television production can largely be attributed to boldness. Many scoffed when the company split their rental and streaming service into two separate entities, and even more cried foul when they announced their plans to start producing original content. Netflix shrugged off the naysayers and continued to push forward.

Now, Netflix aims to produce and distribute new original content every three weeks. It’s an ambitious plan that will have serious ramifications for the future of binge-watching. A new show to binge-watch every three weeks will continue building up the binge-watching culture until it overtakes everything else. We live in a world with a vast wealth of diverse television shows to choose from, but constantly pumping out television shows for viewers to consume quickly and then move on lessens television’s ability to connect with audiences in an impactful way.