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Alexander has been contributing for THS for over a year! While he attained a major in communications at SFU, he also recieved a minor in Psychology. Despite those accomplishments, Alex has also never had a full cup of coffee (crazy right?!). Alex is a lifelong sports fan and will defend his Seattle Seahawks to the death, especially if faced against a 49er fan. While Alex's long-term goal is to become a marriage counsellor, he also has a strong passion towards writing that he looks forward to exploring.

The Ramifications of Binge Watching

"Are you still watching...Friends?" YES NETFLIX, GET OFF MY BACK ALREADY. 

Photo Credit: Alex Keobke

What are you currently binge watching? Whether it’s old comedies or a new dramatic series, there’s no shortage of TV shows to binge watch. My 94 year old Grandma who just watched eight episodes of Downton Abbey, or my 3 1/2 year old niece whose binging through Dora The Explorer will also tell you there is no age limit to this new trend of how we consume media. As more people are choosing to watch series or complete seasons once they finish airing, it is important to look at the potential ramifications of this trend.

We are going through series quicker than we ever have as technology (such as Netflix) makes binge watching not just an option, but the easiest option. The term binge watching or ‘marathoning’ of series refers to watching 3 episodes of an hour-long drama or six episodes of a half-hour comedy [in one] sitting”, a feat largely aided by comfortable sweat pants and snacks on hand. As Netflix continues to produce original series’ and upload entire seasons at a time, it is encouraging and giving audiences the power to consume these series in a rapid fashion. For example, when season two of the Netflix original, House of Cards was uploaded, 670,000 people watched the entire season within the first three days. The concept of waiting seven days in between episodes (as traditional TV still does with active series such as The Flash) would have been preposterous. As more complete series hit Netflix (or become easily accessible), more people are continuing their binge watching in a happy daze.

However when we binge watch a series, it decreases the level of anticipation towards what will happen next. As that anticipation weakens, so too will the emotional attachment to the characters. Binge watching also weakens community discussion as we are asked less to discuss what we see, and instead to just absorb it. 

It is easy to procrastinate any assignment by disappearing into the limitless array of series to binge watch on Netflix. We are no longer asked to restrain ourselves with our viewing habits and there is no effort that goes into finding that next episode. It is all there in front of you, so why would you use a level of restrain? I cannot imagine trying to stop myself as I got obsessed with Game of Thrones for three weeks until I had caught up to season four. Each episode raised more questions and when there is nobody to debate them with to slow you down, you may find yourself rushing towards that end goal. However, when you get there you may find an empty feeling as you were unable to enjoy the series as it unfolded, and instead focused on getting through the series as a form of ‘accomplishment’ without truly taking it all in. As you watch season after season unfold with no lengthy breaks in between you lose the anticipation that comes with waiting for the next chapter to unfold.

Sports in contrast is built off that rush of anticipation and remains one of the few things on television that cannot be ‘binge watched’. I love the Seahawks but no matter how much I wish there was an ‘auto-player’ and the Super Bowl was eight seconds after the NFC championship game, it doesn’t work that way. By involving the element of watching something live, sports, like currently airing TV shows, have time to build up anticipation. Media days are scheduled for the players, people will furiously debate it online and all of this will make the game better. Your level of engagement with the material will help build the emotions you tie to that sporting event. While it can be frustrating that you cannot watch sports at your own pace, there is something unifying about the entire (sporting) world all being tuned into one moment. With television shows you can have a similar situation. Discussions online might build anticipation as you wait for the next episode or season. In addition with more people binge watching, nobody is ever truly on the same page and that anticipation and that sense of community gets eroded.

Unlike sports, television has the advantage to implement cliff-hangers into the series. These cliff-hangers will allow the series to be pondered by fans and critics as everyone waits impatiently for the newest season. This longing for new content may be familiar for many fans who watched Game of Thrones in three weeks and now must wait months for the newest content. While not a big cliff-hanger, when Ross came back with Julie at the end of season one of Friends, many fans were outraged. Finally it looked like Ross and Rachel would get together and then here’s this woman! Yet Julie became a minor speed bump and that anticipation and guessing games (sure he’s going to get Rachel, but how?) is all but ruined when instead of waiting months thinking about it, we wait 8 seconds and wait to be told what is next.

Now I don’t mean to brag, but I got to that cliff-hanger as well as the ‘payoff’ of Ross and Rachel getting together in only three days. However just as quickly as that moment came for me, it was erased only two days later as I saw their relationship come crumbling down. Ah the power of binge watching. The relationship while played out over a year in real life seemed incredibly trivialized as I marathoned through it all. You, like myself, may find yourself less emotionally attached when you get to watch their relationship build up, be together and have it crumbling down by the time you’re through your 12-pack of Mountain Dew. The idea that I could not get fixated on one aspect of the show because I was so quickly moving onto the next season and sub-plot relates to an overall theme of lack of emotional attachment with binge watching.

This lack of attachment is not due to lack of quality on television. Far from it, television is arguably creating a higher quality of show at least in terms of star power and budget than we have ever seen before. Shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Sherlock and many other series help push the boundaries of what we are used to seeing on television. Academy Award winners are now in series’ (such as Kevin Spacey) but no matter how outstanding the acting or shows are, how long do these series really stick with us? The curse of binge watching is the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality as we move onto the next series to consume. Jack Gleeson is masterful as his portrayal, as is the insufferable King Joffrey on the HBO series Game of Thrones. However despite my immense hate for his character, it was harder to get attached when it only took me 3 weeks to catch up on the series. I did not have to spend a lot of time thinking about how I hate Joffrey, because I kept being able to just watch and have him show me why. Yet it is that thinking about his actions that really helps hammer home the dislike.

You know who I hated even more than Joffrey? The character of Kate, played by Evangeline Lily on LOST. LOST has the distinction of being one of the few series that I actively waited in between each episode and season while sucking up all the newest content or theories in between. Was Kate nearly as deplorable as Joffrey? Not even close, in fact she was one of the ‘good guys’! Yet for six years she was on my TV screen. When I watched an episode of hers not only did she take up the precious one hour of LOST I had a week but I had to focus on that episode for the next six days. Kate’s annoying nature however may only be a small footnote if I was able to get through the series at my own pace (aka in two weeks). It was that wait between episodes that built anticipation and increased the emotions invested in the series. While some of my emotions towards the show may have been more negative as a result, the show as a whole was far more impactful because of the time I invested. LOST is not the greatest show I have ever seen, yet through the emotional attachment and community involvement over six years as I waited for what was next, it is impossible for me to not say it was my favorite.

When you watch series in such a quick succession you also lose the ability to pick out the nuances of each specific episode. Seasons become a blur and the small details that leave you guessing till the next episode get forgotten in favor of the plot themes of the season. When you try and watch six episodes of Breaking Bad in one day (glorious idea) your brain is only going to remember so much. You may get an overarching idea as to what is going on or what you saw but you lose the ability to digest each episode if you are so quickly onto the next one. Instead of thinking about what just happened, we think more about what is going to happen next, an answer that is now put immediately in front of us with no need to wait. There is no mystery in a series if you never have to leave yourself guessing and this too lessens the attachment. This lack of emotional attachment is further compounded by the inability to engage with the online (and in person) community to discuss the series in the same way than if you were watching it live.

One of my biggest regrets about Breaking Bad is that I did not choose to watch it live. I say this not because I love torturing myself by waiting for the next episode, but instead because I missed out on different ways to engage with the series beyond just watching it. Tweets, promos, people discussing different aspects of the show would all have been monumental in allowing me to take in the show slowly instead of in a race to finish. You can’t talk about just one episode online of a series that is already finished because the majority of people have finished it and spoilers may be just around the corner. Yet, I will never forget breaking down certain scenes frame by frame with my buddies online while watching LOST as it aired. In a similar light, The Flash is a new TV series that is doing incredibly well with critics and fans. Each episode is brilliantly broken down on The Hudsucker by Nicole Drum, and can be a great resource to gain more from the show. Reviews like Drum’s are a valuable method to further your appreciation, pick up on small details you may have missed and see the series in a new light. This opportunity would be lost if I was watching the series after it aired and I never had the ability to digest an episode before moving onto the next one.

Television has a unique advantage over cinema. As explained by Mary McNamara, a TV critic for the LA Times, for “a series [to succeed], one must interact with it, carry the characters and plotlines around in between episodes” in order to increase overall enjoyment. Unlike a movie that is watched for two hours and the viewer moves on, television is constantly asking the viewer to be engaged with the material throughout the seasons. This engagement could manifest itself in several ways ranging from online discussions to discussing with friends just how awful Joffrey was this past week. And the more we interact, the more we attach; the more we attach, the more enjoyment and impact the show can have on you but binge watching takes this element out.

As Netflix continues to pump out original series in complete iterations it should be no surprise to see this trend continue. Why wouldn’t it? People love it. I cannot imagine the backlash if Netflix had only uploaded half of Friends. Binge watching allows us to give some series a chance that we would not otherwise, simply because of the convenience of the material. Want to give Parks and Recreation a try but hear season one is awful? Well not only is it all on Netflix, but instead of wading through that season for months as you would have if watching live, you get it however efficiently you want it.

Shows like The Walking Dead are also notorious for having some episodes that are completely filler or slow moving (like a zombie!), but this becomes much less of a burden when the next episode that has enough action to justify the series, is only eight seconds away. As a result we forgive the shows more and instead just appreciate that there is something is playing. As we continue to binge watch we rob ourselves of certain things. We lose the community involvement, we lessen the depth of our attachment to the show and we get through some of the greatest characters ever (Walter White much?!) in three weeks, instead of taking six years to get to know and appreciate him.

We have stopped being active and patient viewers because we don’t have to be. There is no need to theory craft or discuss when we wait until the season is already done before we dust it off. Instead we become passive, watching the series to fill a void or gain a sense of achievement. We go through the series’ quickly claiming it is only because we loved it so much that we could not help ourselves only to not realize we are losing value in the series itself.

What shows do you enjoy binge watching? Share with us in the comments below.

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2 Comments on “The Ramifications of Binge Watching”

  1. Lisa P January 26, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

    I’ll tell you this for nothing: if I could have binge watched Lost, i would have only lost a few months of my life to that terrible ending.

  2. entropyaffront July 17, 2015 at 7:37 am #

    I don’t watch enough television, certainly at pre-determined/planned times, to not “binge” watch a series that interests me.

    Commercial combed lab like choreographed plots, visuals, spoken word and ambiance turns us all into spoon fed fools being baited through 30-60 minutes of focus grouped stereotypical tokens tip toeing through an ikea like marked pathway toward the ever conclusive always inconclusive ending that we all know will do nothing more than frustrate us over the course of the following 7 days awaiting the same unsatisfactory kick me sign outcomes like its groundhog day the night before christmas.

    Stumble on a program you like thats 3 seasons in and roll it exclusively till its either done or turned off due to dumb.

    I find you can also get a far better grip on how good that show really is, or isn’t, when locked into it for a few+ episodes at a time.

    That being said, ill eat the entire advent calendar December 1st and not touch another chocolate again until December 27th, 28th, 29th and 30th so perhaps my thought processes are skewed.

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