My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

On binge-watching

Two interesting television-related things happened this weekend that have me thinking about our (and by that I mean, my, I suppose) relationship with consuming new television shows in 2015. Firstly, Netflix released the first season of Daredevil, a “Netflix original” series it produced with ABC Studios for Marvel. Secondly, the first four episodes of season 5 of Game of Thrones leaked (one day prior to the premiere).

In both cases, I see a lot of posts on social media about people “binging” on these episodes. Some people are even suggesting that HBO should release the season—or at least the four pirated episodes—all at once to level the playing field, so to speak. The alternative being a post-apocalyptic dystopian future in which the people who binged on the leaked episodes spoil everything on the Internet for everyone who hasn’t seen them yet. And by “future,” I am clearly referring to “Monday.”

Now, I’m not actually interested in what HBO is going to do. I’ll watch the episodes as they come out (mostly because I am too lazy to pirate, and also for reasons discussed momentarily). Rather, I want to discuss the rise of binge-watching, and the tectonic shift in the landscape of broadcast television that only encourages this activity.

Binge-watching, or marathoning, as it is often more healthily called, has been around for a long time. Pretty much ever since it was possible to record a TV show, it was possible to watch it as a marathon later. (And even before that, I suppose, one could watch re-broadcasted episodes in a scheduled TV marathon.) Season DVDs, and later series boxed sets, only made it easier. Pop in Disc One, hit “Play All,” and suddenly you’re four or five episodes in—and that next disc is right there.

Streaming, which is fast becoming the new normal, makes binge watching even easier. (For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to just use Netflix here as a metonymy for streaming, but almost everything I say is applicable to the model in general.) Netflix removes those last vestiges of effort required to continue watching: the moment you finish an episode, it queues up the next one. Do nothing, and it plays; you only have to do something if you want to stop. Like DVDs, it has no commercials. You can literally play an entire series back to back without interruption, assuming you have the time, bladder capacity, and quality of Internet connection.

Netflix has added a dimension to binging, however, that was previously rare: binge-watching a new series. Time was, if you wanted to be on the cutting edge of a show, you would have to watch each new episode each week as it was first broadcast. DVD releases and marathoning was reserved for newbies who had to “catch up” and established fans who wanted to re-experience a previous season. Netflix turns this model on its head; it releases entire seasons of its original series in a single go. Hence, when House of Cards premiered at midnight, you would have dedicated (or crazy) people who had stayed up to watch it and had finished the season before noon.

This is simply the logical conclusion of the uncomfortable truth that broadcast television companies are being slow to acknowledge: in a world with Netflix, scheduled television makes no sense. Just as we laugh at our parents for the size of cell phones in the 1980s, our children will laugh at us to think that, if we wanted to watch a TV show, we either had to be in front of the TV at a certain time and day, or record a broadcast for later viewing. It made sense when the technology wasn’t there to do it any other way. But now we have such a nicer alternative.

Alas, dropping entire seasons at a time, along with the binge-watching phenomenon, makes for new moral quandaries. Are we now expected to binge-watch in order to participate in the discussion about a new release? If we don’t, are we fair game—that is, do we venture online at our own risk of spoilers? How does a critic review these seasons?

The other reason I don’t download the leaked Game of Thrones episodes is simply that I suck at binge-watching. I don’t actually watch much TV … I get bored with it. I can watch a little, especially if I knit while I’m watching. Two hours is usually my maximum—my dad and I watched the first two episodes of Daredevil Friday night—though sometimes I can make it through three episodes. Back in my younger days, I was wild enough to stay up all night—and sometimes all day, because this was back when a “season” comprised 22 to 26 episodes, boys and girls, and thus an “all-day marathon” really was all day—but it was never something I relished.

This dislike of binging on my part, however, should not read as an animosity towards those who binge. I’m not saying Netflix should stop dropping entire seasons. The practice make sense, from a business point of view and a behavioural one. It is nice to have all those episodes there for me to watch at my leisure. Similarly, I’m not interested in claiming that binge-watching is a bad activity, or bad for one’s health.

I am not one for binging, but I know that many people are. I wonder how this is going to change the culture of discussion around television. One option is for us to lose this obsession with spoilers. After all, research has found that spoilers don’t actually impede our enjoyment as much as we might believe. We might have to adapt to the new normal in which bingers spoil everything for non-bingers as a matter of course, but non-bingers are just like, “We cool, we cool.” (The alternative is open holy warfare, and I’m not down with that.) Failing that, I suppose there could be radical shifts in TV-watching habits, where binge-watching becomes much more common—but with the way “free time” continues to be eroded by work and other calendar constraints, I don’t necessarily see that happening.

Anyway, we are in for some fascinating times ahead, assuming cable companies ever figure out that broadcast TV is dying, whether or not they like it.