Binge Watching Phenomenon


By Molly Freeman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As an avid fan of television, I am–at any given time–in the middle of watching no less than five different series. Currently unchecked on my “To Finish Watching” list are Friday Night Lights, Merlin, Political Animals, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, From Dusk Till Dawn, Continuum, and Star-Crossed.

Despite a lengthy watch list, though, I often take a break from scripted television to watch an entire season of Project Runway over the course of a single weekend. That’s right, I’m a binge-watcher–and quite possibly a TV addict.

For example, when the second season of Orange is the New Black debuted on Netflix, rather than spend my Friday night out with friends or my Saturday outside, I watched the 13 episodes in less than 36 hours.

In recent years, Netflix’s streaming service has seen massive success–especially among Millennials, who make up the majority of the most desired viewing demographic–which has led to the normalization of binge watching as well as an influx of more video-on-demand (VOD) services like Hulu.

However, not everyone is a binge-watcher. One reason many dislike binge watching is that it may be unhealthy. Certain studies suggest binge watching, specifically for adults who watch three or more hours of TV a day, may likely double the risk of an early death.

Though binge watching may contribute to an overall unhealthy trend, the study does not say binge watching itself is unhealthy.

“Television viewing is a major sedentary behavior and there is an increasing trend toward all types of sedentary behaviors,” said the study’s lead author, Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez, in a statement.

Binge watching certainly has been on the rise, both as a cultural phenomenon and a term within the popular lexicon; the term itself was unheard of in news headlines prior to 2009, and didn’t start gaining traction until 2011.

In terms of how many people binge watch, recent research compiled by Netflix has found that 60 percent of streamers binge watch television, which they define as viewing more than two episodes of a series in single sitting.

Although the numbers may seem high given the modernity of binge watching as a term, the practice of watching multiple episodes of a television show in one sitting isn’t new, we just called them something different: marathons.

One of the more popular annual television marathons is the New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone marathon, during which Syfy airs episodes of Rod Serling’s classic science fiction series from December 31 – January 2. Although tuning in to nearly 44 hours of a television series would absolutely qualify as binge watching, the Twilight Zone marathon predates binge watching and can be traced back as far as 1980.

Outside of the holiday tradition that is putting on The Twilight Zone while nursing a New Year’s Eve hangover, though, marathons are still common practice on television. FXX, an offshoot of FX, recently aired every Simpsons episode ever over the course of 12 days.

Similarly, television series released on DVD also allow for binge watching. In my freshman year of college, in the midst of surviving a particularly terrible Ithaca winter, I borrowed all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and five seasons of Angel from a friend. It didn’t take me long to get through the two series.

Even more recently, in order to gear up for a new season of MTV’s Teen Wolf, I watched 24 episodes of the show in less than 48 hours. In my defense, the internet in my house was down for those two days and it was the dead of winter.

What else was I going to do? Read books?

Binge watching isn’t a new phenomenon. Like so many internet trends and exaggerated new behaviors associated with advancing technology, it’s sort of a new term for an old practice. The only difference in terms of viewing habits is agency. Rather than hoping a television network is playing a marathon of your favorite show, or waiting for a season to be released on DVD, viewers have the ability to find a series online–whether through legal or illegal means–at their own convenience.