The Normalization of Binge Watching - Empire Week


By Molly Freeman

Image courtesy of Seth Anderson.

Netflix, the would-be lover of many homebodies and couch potatoes (if only the streaming service were a real live person), recently sponsored a study showing that 61 percent of TV streamers participate in binge watching regularly.

The study, conducted by Harris Interactive, found that out of 1,500 TV streamers surveyed, 73 percent harbor positive feelings toward binge watching, a practice the researchers defined as watching 2-6 episodes of a single TV series in one sitting.

Netflix worked with cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to look into the history of binge watching and why it has widely become the new way viewers watch TV.

“I found that binge watching has really taken off due to a perfect storm of better TV, our current economic climate, and the digital explosion of the last few years,” said McCracken. “But this TV watcher is different, the couch potato has awoken. And now that services like Netflix have given consumers control over their TV viewing, they have declared a new way to watch.”

Other findings of the study reinforce the idea that binge watching doesn’t necessarily refer to a lone, glazed-eyed person wearing sweatpants with grubby Cheeto-powdered fingers sitting in the same spot for hours on end. Among the TV streamers surveyed, 51 percent prefer to binge watch with at least one other person, while only 38 percent would rather watch alone.

McCracken went on to say that binge watching came about because Netflix allowed users to watch television at their own pace, instead of the week-by-week schedule that networks traditionally granted. In an age where television series are taking winter hiatuses around the holidays, two week breaks on a whim, and splitting up seasons to air separately during the year, it’s no wonder audiences want to take back some control. Online streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, have provided services for that.

Binge watching rarely has the catastrophic consequences as seen on Portlandia. In the sketch, “Battlestar Galactica” the two characters binge watch the cult classic sci-fi reboot series to the point that they skip dates with their friends, lose their jobs, and stop paying their bills. The sketch hilariously insinuates that binge watching can turn a person into a sweatpants-clad lunatic chanting, “Next one! Next one!”

Similarly TV streamers frequently joke about their dependence on Netflix, which is certainly the purveyor of binge watching – expressed anywhere from pillows emblazoned with the words “Netflix is my boyfriend,” to a viral Tumblr post stating, “Netflix doesn’t care if you showered or not.”

BuzzFeed even compiled a listicle about Netflix: “21 Signs Your Relationship With Netflix Has Gotten Out Of Control” which includes, “You get anxiety when you have to stop watching a show mid-binge” and, “Ending a show on Netflix physically hurts your heart.”

TV streamers gather on social media sites like Tumblr to discuss their favorite shows to binge watch while also commiserating about how Netflix’s “Continue Watching” question can feel judgmental. Many find humor in the matter, for instance, Tumblr user HeyMonster creating comic strips about viewers needing help after watching eighteen consecutive hours of episodes.

Just as Netflix has become a part of common vernacular, so has binge watching, and the two are often synonymous. We can all admit that we do it—according to Neflix’s survey, you’re in the minority if you don’t binge watch. I’ll fess up to it: In the past few weeks, I have binge watched seven episodes of Project Runway in a day as well as two seasons of Teen Wolf over the course of a weekend. The worst that’s happened to me is I think I can talk about fashion and werewolves with exceptional expertise (spoiler alert: I can’t really).

The very term “binge watching” connotes that the practice is an indulgence to excess; binge is usually used to refer to over-eating or imbibing too much alcohol to the point that it becomes unhealthy. However, binge watching is not at all unhealthy. It promotes the ideas of individual choice (that is, if you can make a decision about what to watch given all the prospects on Netflix) while also allowing a person to escape into worlds unlike their own.

Isn’t that why people encourage reading? To learn about the world through eyes that are not our own? To enlighten ourselves through alternate worlds we never could have even dreamed about? Television series now have complicated storylines and a range of well-developed characters who run the gamut of race, sex, religion, and backgrounds. Television is not the mind-rotting, soul-sucking medium many people originally thought. It drives people to contemplate and discuss heady matters like politics, classism, racism, feminism, and many others.

No one would mock someone who spent a whole day on the couch reading George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, but if they were to watch the whole first season of HBO’s adaptation, it’s a whole different story.

However, given the findings of Harris Interactive and Netflix’s study, perhaps we’ll be able to move beyond the negative connotations associated with binge watching. The binge watchers of the world can unite and prove they are not bleary-eyed mole people who fear social interaction; they’re just normal people like you and me.