Does binge-watching TV make it less enjoyable?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they are talking about. Today we wondered, does plowing through a TV series make it less pleasurable?
When Netflix first launched their streaming service in 2007, the ways that we consume media were changed. Netflix certainly did not invent binge-watching, but they did create an avenue that rewarded, if not demanded, it. Netflix is the all-you-can-eat style approach to programming; the more you devour, the better your value. The increased presence of Internet-based television series like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Amazon Prime’s Transparent, or Hulu’s East Los High, gives viewers, for the first time, the option to watch an entire series the day it is released. Beyond questions of obsessive compulsiveness, there are practical reasons that binge-watching makes sense; the most obvious being the ability to avoid spoilers (which, in the age of live tweeting commentary, is increasingly difficult).
But does binging have an adverse cognitive affect on our enjoyment? If we are to believe the adage that you should “savor every bite,” you can fathom that viewing something like a television season, let alone a series, in tandem can depreciate the individualized value of its parts. However, the flip side can argue that, by watching the entirety of a series in one sitting, one can better link the pieces to the whole and get closer to some overarching message. In order to better contextualize the nuances that exist in the act of binge-watching, we spoke with writers, critics, psychologists, and TV executives to better learn how they prefer to consume their media.
Writer and Critic - Movie Mezzanine and IndieWire's /Bent Blog
I started binge watching television in the age of my father buying Friends on DVD. I was technically too young to watch it and glean anything substantive about it — regarding sex, relationships, friendship, etc. — and it was always a source of tension between he and my mother. But I appreciated the proto-hipsters’ company nonetheless. It was about being in their presence, regardless of understanding their situations or the context with which they came, that mattered to me. (And I appreciated the jokes about Stephen King’s The Shining.) So, I could consume about ¾ of a season in a day, when I had nothing to do.
That was fun.
But old habits die hard, and while I haven’t stopped binge watching, the process of television has been more arduous. Although being steeped in an environment or world that is not your own is part of the pleasure of any kind of fiction, breaks are in order. That’s on me, but my mildly addictive personality and compulsive need to be able to have zeitgeisty conversations, prevent me from not binge-watching. I watched Arrested Develoment Season 4 in one day, Hannibal Season Two in two days, Master of None in four hours, each season of American Horror Story in two days, the complete run of 30 Rock in about a month, and, cumulatively, the entire run of Gilmore Girls in two and a half months. It’s exhausting, and takes a toll on my ability to gather my thoughts to make cogent critiques or observations. I’m thankful for the option, but I don’t necessarily recommend it.
Writer on Girls
As much nostalgia as I feel for the appointment-TV of my youth, I’ve been a binge-watcher from the start. I still have dozens of VHS tapes of grainy Seinfeld reruns I recorded off Channel 11 when I was a kid. The thing about binge watching is that it allows for a total immersion in the world of the show. If it’s a show I’m watching for the first time, consuming the entire series in a condensed period of time allows me to see the shape of it — the long and short lines of tension, the call-backs, the character arcs — in a way I’d never be able to if I had to wait a week between episodes.
If it’s a show I’ve seen before, binge-watching turns TV into a balm for whatever ails me. When I’m going through a break-up, I embrace the cliché and re-watch Sex and the City. For grief, Six Feet Under. If I want to remember why I became a TV writer, My So-Called Life usually does the trick. And, I’m currently on my 20th viewing of Gilmore Girls (not my 20th episode. My 20th viewing. Of the entire series). Of course, going out in the world and interacting with real people makes for a healthy and fulfilling life, but I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to get through bad days or even just bad moments if you know that, as soon as you get home, you can get back on the couch with Rory and Lorelei.
Jake Alden Whritner
Postgraduate film student at University of Kent, specializing in cognitive media studies and working in the interstices between film theory and cognitive neuroscience
The first question here is what exactly it means for TV to be enjoyable. If we take this to mean that the experience provides us with some kind of pleasure, then we need to discuss how this pleasure comes about. One way of approaching this would be to take a look at how it is that TV hijacks the brain’s reward system to elicit a pleasurable response in viewers.
The literature from affective neuroscience tells us that reward involves three components. First, there is the affect of pleasure which is referred to as “liking.” Next, we have some kind of motivation (whether extrinsic or intrinsic) that drives us to desire to obtain the reward (“wanting”). Finally, we have reward-related learning, which is where we alter our behavior based on previous experience of what has and has not worked to obtain the desired reward repeatedly. This framework can be applied to the case of TV by looking at the elements of style and narrative that have been designed to maintain viewer interest, and to stimulate their reward systems by setting up goals for characters, which they desire by virtue of their engagement with the character. The series will prompt viewers to want to see these goals achieved in two ways. First, by aligning them with the characters (spatially and through subjective access) and second, by promoting a strong allegiance with that character by portraying them as being morally preferable to most other characters. The path to achieving these goals will be fraught with obstacles, occasionally frustrating both character and viewer as challenges arise until they are—almost always—overcome. This eventual realization leads to pleasure and thus creates an enjoyable experience.
The type of narrative structure I just detailed has been altered and refined over many years in film and TV production. Indeed, it is often described as one of the primary features of the Classical Hollywood cinema. Here is also where we get into what is interesting about contemporary TV series, however. In the case of Classical Hollywood and conventional cinema this structure typically plays out over the course of a 90 to 180-minute film. When discussing TV, we have to consider the fact that the narrative arcs as a whole might last a single episode, a season, or even multiple seasons. This longer duration means that creators have to include a series of micro narratives that can satisfy certain questions or desires along the way to maintain the viewer's interest. In this way the viewer receives, by virtue of their emotional engagement with the primary characters, little doses of pleasurable outcomes—and occasional setbacks—to prevent them from getting bored and to keep the experience enjoyable.
Given all of this, we can get back to the main question at hand, which is the effect that “binge-watching” has on the experience of TV viewing. The fact that viewers are binge-watching these series all at once—or over the course of a few days or weeks—means that the emotional engagement with characters is built more quickly. Instead of having to wait for the show to unfold, we are summarily provided with all of the necessary context to understand the character’s goals and moral values. Furthermore, binge-watching results in a continuous cycle of desire fulfilment which signals to our brain’s reward system that our reward has been granted, resulting in a feeling of pleasure. Thus, the viewer gets a constant fix in the form of concentrated enjoyment granted by producers who are quite skilled at intuitively tapping into the reward system on a consistent basis.
The fact that with streaming technologies we are given full control over when we get our satisfaction means that rather than having to wait for a week, months, or years for the next episode we have the ability to simply watch an entire series straight through. This ties back into the idea of reward-related learning. Essentially, we learn that by choosing to keep watching a program we increase our likelihood of receiving those pleasurable moments when our desires are met. While one might argue that this cycle could lead to habituation, dampening the pleasurable effects of TV, the fact that the goals and means by which characters achieve them are constantly changing means that the road to reward is not stagnant and can continue to surprise and entice viewers. Binge watching, then, not only does not make TV less enjoyable, but it increases the frequency and perhaps overall effect of pleasurable outcomes. Of course, the binge almost always leads to much larger disappointment as we finish the last episode of a given series and can no longer satisfy our desire—at least until we find a new one.
VP Creative Director Art + Design at TV Land
I’m not sure that binge watching makes TV less enjoyable, but I think it does make it harder for a storyteller to tell a story. Usually there is a rhythm to a show and when you watch back to back that rhythm can feel repetitive. Also, when you binge a deeper show like Breaking Bad and True Detective you need time to absorb all the different elements of the show. If not, it just runs together and you miss the nuances that a director and producer have put into the show. The brain throws away information when it’s overloaded, so that makes it harder to put the narrative pieces together. Lastly, watching Netflix and Chilling can make your life much more complicated; especially in the dating phase. Just saying.
Pop Critic, The Guardian and Vulture
Does binge watching TV make it less enjoyable?
I don’t think that the right question to ask is whether or not binge watching makes TV more or less enjoyable, I think it’s about how it changes the viewing experience, and in some instances that is good and in some instances that is bad.
There is something rather delightful about getting swept up in the universe of a show, letting it permeate your mind so thoroughly that, for the day/week/month that the viewer is binging it is all he thinks about. I think this is great for things that have a really different world than our own, thinks like Game of Thrones or the recent The Man in the High Castle. Binge watching these shows makes it fully immersive, like the viewer is really living there.
I also think it’s great for shows that are really dense or heavy on information. Something like The Honorouble Woman or The Wire, for instance, where the plotting is so intricately woven it’s better to watch all the episodes together, where the viewer can’t forget any details, than spreading the episodes out and opening up the possibility that some of the details are going to get lost in the cracks.
While I think that binge watching is better for carrying information from one episode into the next, I think it is detrimental for carrying information from one season to the next. By giving an episode a week to ruminate in the mind, it allows viewers to cling to details and impressions that are otherwise forgotten when flying through a season at warp speed. The season feels like it takes a much longer amount of time and can really seep in. I have found that when tuning into season 2 or 3 of Orange is the New Black, for instance, I have always forgotten almost everything that happened the year before. Sure, I remember the broad strokes, but if the series asks me to remember smaller details, it’s hard to recall them a year later, though I can still tell you all the ins and outs of Laura Palmer’s murder investigation.
All of that said, the predominant structure of each television show is still the episode. Even series meant to be binge watched, like House of Cards, still have an individual episodic structure and letting them all bleed together into one massive episode by binge watching them does some sort of damage to the basic unit of the piece of art that the viewer is trying to consume. I think once that starts to disappear and writers start to make series for platforms like Netflix and Amazon that enable binging, we’ll see the content finally catch up to the behavior and that will really make watching things in a marathon more enjoyable than they are not enjoyable.
PhD, Chartered Psychologist and author
As a psychologist who binge-watches, I may be biased. It certainly feels enjoyable, despite the claims that it is bad for our health, makes us obese, and even has the potential to kill us. I choose not to let these criticisms spoil my binging pleasure, for new media have been criticized in this way throughout history. The addition of secular words to sacred chants by tropists was banned for being socially harmful 400 years ago; and heavy TV viewing was described 40 years ago as increasing perceptions of violence in the world and fear of leaving the home. Similarly alarming things have been said about video games, cellphones, and radio waves. With each new medium that comes along, fears are raised about its potential to do harm as well as good.
There is a grain of truth in most claims of this kind, for any medium is only as good as the way it is used. Viewing violence or pornography can be harmful to those who lack the judgment to assess them. Binge-watching them could cause genuine problems, although these might also stem from factors that caused the decision to binge-watch violence and porn in the first place. Identifying the actual causes of a problem within a complex set of factors is the major challenge of all good research, and representing this complexity accurately is a key priority for those who report it — as, for example, journalists when reducing a book of research conclusions to a 3-minute summary.
For me, binging on a TV series feels more enjoyable and less stressful than having to wait a week for each new episode. Current statistics suggest that binge-watching will continue to increase, though will never completely replace traditional viewing. If it does, one can imagine a new set of criticisms about the old style of "non-binge watching" and the stress caused by its constant advertising breaks. If watchers ever abandon television altogether, alarms could be raised about the growing popularity of binge-reading and binge-sewing. And there could be truth in all these concerns, for moderation is the key to using all media. In general, however, a dose of well-selected binging can provide a welcome and enjoyable break. After all, Michelangelo binge-watched the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for days at a time, and he lived to a ripe old age.