Columns

Rattner ’15: The potential in binge watching

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, February 28, 2014

At 12:01 a.m. PST on Valentine’s Day, Netflix released the 13-episode second season of “House of Cards” in its entirety, part of its effort to accommodate viewers who prefer to “binge watch” rather than wait a week between episodes. The recent phenomenon of watching entire seasons in a weekend has raised concerns about our viewing but may also offer an opportunity to increase the intellectual quality of television.

On Feb. 1 last year, Netflix released the entire first season of “House of Cards” at once. It did the same with the fourth season of “Arrested Development” in May and the first season of “Orange is the New Black” in July.

Netflix began releasing entire seasons in response to changes in how we watch television — fewer people watch episodes as they are released. One friend told me he gave up on “Game of Thrones” because he did not like waiting for the next episode. Instead, we watch older shows or content produced by Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, available exclusively online.

As people who had finished House of Cards announced their achievement on Facebook over Presidents Day Weekend, concern over the prevalence of binge watching rose again.

A recent internal study by Netflix found that of viewers who watched an entire 13-episode season of a drama series in under a month, 25 percent did so in two days and 48 percent within one week.

But is binge watching any worse than regular TV watching? The term carries negative connotations, but there are at least two reasons to be optimistic about its long-term impact on television.

First, binge watching could actually decrease our overall consumption. As scary as it may sound, watching the entire “House of Cards” series over Presidents Day Weekend is actually less than the average person would watch over those four days.

American 18- to 24-year-olds spend roughly 25 hours watching TV every week. If you watched all of season two Friday without seeing sunlight, you would still have to watch two hours of television over the other six days of the week to keep up.

But it is common that in the aftermath of watching an entire series, many of us feel saturated or guilty for spending a day in bed and may take a while before resuming our typical schedule. If we set our goal to watching just one television season each week, we would cut consumption in half.

None of this is to mention the years — yes, years — our parents spent watching commercials that we save watching Netflix. Moreover, a Penn study found that 40 percent of Americans lost sleep because of television. The Internet and DVRs allow us more flexibility, and fewer people are staying up for late-night talk shows.

Second, we appreciate characters more and become increasingly invested in the plot when we complete something in a short amount of time.

So far as there is value in these shows, watching for extended periods at once may actually increase how much you get out of it. We could lose sight of details when we over-consume, but, as the Netflix study found, the average viewer watches a 13-hour season in a week. This is roughly how quickly humanities professors recommend reading a book. We do not read novels over the course of 25 weeks, because from week to week, it is difficult to remember details and stay invested in the plot.

Binge watching allows us to immerse ourselves in a show in a way weekly viewing does not. This condensed consumption might allow us to make television more intellectually stimulating.

Even if binge watching does not reduce the total time we watch television, those 25 hours are better spent watching one or two shows rather than jumping between a dozen.

Because of our previous viewing style, much of television has been simplified. Nuance had to be limited because viewers might not pick up on subtle connections to earlier episodes. Late-night talk shows and detective dramas like “Law & Order” were popular in part because they allowed us to watch sporadically. Even complex thrillers like “Lost” lacked the slow-building plot and denouement found in movies and novels.

While much of television still follows older models, binge watching and Netflix are changing the way some shows are written. In creating the fourth season of “Arrested Development” for Netflix after the first three were released in traditional format on Fox, creator Mitch Hurwitz said he was forced to invent “a new format.” Indeed, Hurwitz compared traditional television to short stories and Netflix content to novels.

Instead of a conventional chronological story, the 15 episodes gave 15 different perspectives of the same events. This more complicated writing would have been difficult to follow if the season had been released in traditional increments.

Though a Harris Interactive study commissioned by Netflix found that nearly three-quarters of people streaming TV feel positively about binge watching, we should have no delusions about the perils. The accessibility of thousands of hours of video paints concerning images of people not seeing sunlight for days, escaping reality into a fantasy world. Certainly addiction to television exists, and a University of Virginia psychologist found that watching just nine minutes of “SpongeBob SquarePants” can negatively affect a child’s performance on cognitive exercises.

Assuming binge watching is the future, the big challenge remains: Could we get content to the point where watching a season in a week is as good for your brain as reading a Jane Austen novel? It may be difficult for a passive activity to engage our minds in the same way reading does, but thus far it seems binge watching is actually increasing what is demanded of viewers.

So long as we are spending nine years of our lives watching TV, binge watching may make better use of that time. In fact, our willingness to watch 13 hours of TV in one sitting presents great possibilities for increasing its intellectual value.

 

 

James Rattner ’15 can be reached at james_rattner@brown.edu.