Thursday , July 18 2019
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To Binge or Not to Binge

by Susan Quilty, author of The Insistence of Memory

In some ways, we’re living in a golden era of TV watching. We can DVR shows to watch at our convenience, stream from an incredible range of sources, and binge our way through whole seasons at whatever pace we choose. (Yes, Netflix, I do want to continue watching—don’t judge me!)

As a TV viewer, I love binge-watching. Instant gratification! No waiting a whole week to see what happens next! And, yes, there have even been times when I’ve waited to watch a new show until a full season is out, just to avoid that week-to-week wait

As a content creator, I’m less comfortable with my impulsive joy of binge-watching.

Binging is fun, for sure, but it also has some downsides. Some are minor, others may have more serious consequences.

From an artistic standpoint, there’s an effort that goes into crafting a story and deciding where to break it from one episode/season to the next. Setting up anticipation is an art and, when it’s done well, it adds to the emotional payoff.

Knowing that, I often wonder if I’m missing out by simply not giving myself enough time between shows to really contemplate and appreciate what I’ve just watched.

Case in point, Jessica Jones is one of my all-time favorite TV shows. When season one dropped, I wanted nothing more than to curl up on the couch and stream the whole thing in one sleep-deprived, snack-fueled sitting. But I had agreed to wait and watch it as a couple. (The things we do for love!)

 As hard as it was to wait, slowing down to watch just two episodes each night likely made it a better viewing experience. More anticipation. More time to wonder, and imagine, and rehash the previous details while guessing where the story might go.

From a business standpoint, TV shows need viewers if they’re going to be renewed for another season. When too many people wait for the season to end before watching a show that is released week-to-week, there’s a higher chance that it will be cancelled before its time.

We’ve seen that happen to countless, amazing shows. Shows that ended too soon, often without a proper wrap-up.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Take a show like Orphan Black. It had an active, vocal fan base and viewers who turned in week after week. The creators were able to tell their story and end it when they were ready, on their terms, partly because they had the ongoing support of regular viewers.

BBC America is at it again with a mind-bending thriller called Killing Eve. Season one recently finished and is now getting a lot of recognition, not just for its quality writing, acting, and production, but also because it managed to have a growing viewer base from week to week.

We, as viewers, can do that with other new shows, too.

When a new TV show looks like it has potential, take a chance from the beginning. When you want a week-to-week show to succeed, watch as many episodes as you can within 3-days of their original air date. (They track that!) Spread the word on social media, have viewing parties, do whatever it takes to help others find that great content before it goes away!

Look, I get the appeal of binge-watching and I’m not saying we should stop entirely. Instead, let’s consider the messages that our viewing habits send and do our best to not let our own convenience kill amazing new shows.

In essence, find a balance to the binge. It’s worth it!

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  1. “As a content creator, I’m less comfortable with my impulsive joy of binge-watching”

    You wrote this specifically towards TV watching. But as an author, how would you expand this towards bingeing vs slow-reading a book? Is it better to read a chapter a week? Or to inhale a book in a weekend?

    Going further — how about speed reading? The analogy might be to whether a TV show is improved or worsened by watching it sped up (this is a thing TiVo DVR’s can do now). Similarly, podcast and audiobook players can play spoken-word material at faster than realtime. Should a reader carefully experience every word? Or skim / skip to read quickly to have time for more books?

    IMO: Bingeing bingeable material is a great way to watch such shows. Modern shows, especially the newer 10-ish episode seasons, are produced knowing the modern audience may watch as a complete work. And so the episodes flow into each other, as procedural TV never did. Stranger Things in my experience has taken this the furthest so far, where the boundaries of “episodes” are gossimer, and it begs to be binged. A show like “The OA” also works well consumed in short span, that forces the emotional impact to hit hardest, with no time to recover between episodes, leaving you wrung out for the conclusion.

    There is also the aspect of being spoiled with on-demand TV. I now want to watch on my schedule. I may have no time to watch any shows for a week or two, but then I’ve got time two watch three in a row. That’s not really about bingeing as finding time between adulting.

    But watching TV or listening to audio books faster than realtime is a moral outrage and should not be done. Unless you’re short on time for your wife’s book club 🙂

  2. Building on your “what do content creators care about” perspective, I see two simultaneous answers:

    * Cable / Network shows should be watched within three days of original broadcast as you concluded. And you shouldn’t skip the commercials. Because broadcasters care about people watching their shows when they air, and they really care that people watch the ads that pay for the show. Recording a season of The 100 and bingeing it six months after the finale aired, with commercial skip, isn’t the best way to help the show come back for another seasons.

    But orthogonally:
    * Streaming shows should be binged, and watched to completion. Netflix cares about how many people finish a season. And they care about how long it takes. Taking a year to slowly watch through the latest season of Jessica Jones is less helpful to the show’s future than bingeing it in a weekend.