Why do we binge-watch?

A loveable dog living out our dreams, watching Netflix and chilling in bed on a school night. Perhaps he is appreciating TV as an art form?/ Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While the use of escapism as a coping mechanism stretches far back into human history, and mass media consumption is certainly not a new phenomenon, the ability to binge-watch is a fairly recent development. For clarity, I define “binge-watching” as any instance wherein three or more episodes of a single show are watched in immediate succession. A decade ago, I definitely could not have watched three seasons of “Outlander,” a whopping 42 hours of television, during finals week. Now that whole seasons of television are often released at the same time and old favorites are consigned to easily accessible locations, series practically beg us to watch them all at once.

As a chronic binge-watcher, I have a personal investment in answering the question of why we binge. Is it purely a malignant method of escapism designed to fill some void in the real world, or is it, as some have suggested, the new zeitgeist medium for storytelling? Can any viable middle ground be found? With these questions in mind, I set out to discover the benefits of binging, as well as its often-noted malicious side effects, to reach a greater understanding of the practice.

In my experience, I binge much more when I am stressed or overwhelmed. It doesn’t take much self-awareness for me to recognize that I use television to avoid my real-world stressors (thus my well-timed introduction to “Outlander”). For me, engaging with a dramatic, often romantic, narrative provides catharsis; I enjoy shows that I know will have a predictable structure and tension with a clear resolution. Amongst other bingers, however, this experience is far from universal.

Instead of emotionally-fraught tales, some favor lighthearted narratives. Sarah Allen ’19 explained in an emailed statement, “If I’m using [binge-watching] as an escape, I don’t want to spend my down time worrying. Sure, I like drama and tension, and watch heavy stuff too on and off, but specifically when it comes to binging, I tend to only binge comedies.” This still falls under the umbrella of escapism, but latches onto the fun often lacking in our daily lives.

Lee Ann Bael ’21 called attention to a fringe benefit of binging: “There’s a mild sense of accomplishment to watching an entire season of America’s Next Top Model.” This illusion of productivity definitely draws people to binging; when completing an assignment is beyond reach, watching a bunch of episodes to get to the conclusion of a storyline is an attainable goal.

Phoebe Lippe ’21 highlighted one of the implications of this type of binging, lamenting, “I definitely think there’s an immediate relief from stress, but then when I’m done and I realize how many hours I spent doing nothing whatsoever, it ends up being more stressful.” She also revealed another unfortunate side effect, which I call the post-binge haze: “When I’m done, I just feel out of it.” Often, after a particularly manic binge session, I feel almost trapped in the fictional world in which I’ve just spent so many hours.

However, being trapped is not an altogether unpleasant feeling. Bael remarked, “If it’s a show that I’ve seen before like a million times, then I’ll be playing a crossword or something like that at the same time because I’ve memorized all the lines. [Watching the show] is comforting, like a blankie.” When we become part-time residents of a fictional world, returning to it again and again becomes soothing, and the characters start to seem like old friends.

Other binge-watchers take further advantage of the almost social nature of immersive television. A natural extrovert, Professor Katie Gemmill of Vassar’s English Department told me that sometimes binging can act as a stand-in for needed social interaction. She elaborated, “If I have had a full day when I’ve just been doing research projects or grading or whatever and I haven’t had any sort of social time, I’ll start to feel really heavy. And if I watch a show with characters that I find appealing or interesting, it almost feels like company. I sort of get energy sometimes from filling my apartment with a sense of people conversing and having experiences and psychological issues and stuff. It’s a kind of engagement that I find energizing.”

Another unexpected benefit of binging requires a bit more self-control than I possess, but Tanya Kotru Gode ’20 makes full use of it. As she stated in an email, “I do it to reward myself. I can’t find myself doing it as routine because I have too much work, but every once in a while when I’m done with work, I’m like, it’s time to reward myself, let’s watch a bunch of episodes.” Rather than binging to avoid work, as I so often do, Kotru Gode uses her craving for the next few episodes as motivation.

Allen also uses her binging habit as a reward system. She described her method of moderation and motivation: “I’m pretty good at getting on with work when I need to, and binging a show tends to be more of a reward for already having worked that day rather than a distraction for getting stuff done. I’m a big believer in the idea that to work well, you have to be well-rested, and that means taking breaks whenever you need them.” I definitely envy such a productivity-minded approach; it seems a highly sensible way to incorporate a television addiction into an otherwise functional life.

In contrast to the reward system strategy, Graham Ebbecke ’20 binges only in the absence of other tasks. Rather than merely wasting time, Ebbecke sees binging as its own endeavor. He commented via email, “Sitting down for even a three-hour span of television watching is some kind of meaningful phenomenon. I think the reason I binge-watch television arises both from an existential sort of boredom, and a subconscious desire to stop actively thinking about anything else for a short while. Consequently, binge-watching is definitely the focus of my attention when I’m engaging in it, and not a source of background noise.” In this way, binging serves as an outlet for critical thinking. It involves an artistic appreciation of television, rather than mindless consumption.

It seems that there are two binging styles: active and passive. Passive binging occurs when the show happens to be in on the background, but is not the primary focus, while active binging involves a deep engagement with the narrative and visual elements of the show.

Gemmill advocated active binging, saying “The whole thing, the visual composition, is not missable. You really shouldn’t be looking away … That’s basically not treating the art object with full respect. I do think that TV is art, and that people have crafted in it a very thoughtful way. It would be just like walking through a museum and breezing by the Picasso saying, ‘Okay, cool, that has some shapes,’ and then continuing to go on your way. So, I think it doesn’t do justice to the art. But also I think, just for yourself, you want to be able to do deep thinking and deep engagement with art, instead of surface level.” Her concept takes binging from mindless to mindful, which fundamentally alters the nature of the activity.

As a parting thought, Gemmill offered her thoughts on the decreed dangers of binge-watching. She opined: “Binge-consumption of narrative is not new … Like, that’s why we have the three-volume novel in the nineteenth century … People were just angling for more volumes because they wanted to immerse themselves in it. So an immersive artistic experience is not a new thing, and I don’t think we have to be afraid of it. People have always wanted that kind of outlet. We’re just basically getting a new one right now because TV is getting so good and it’s so omnipresent. I think it’s good to be aware of all these dynamics, but I don’t think we have to be afraid of binge-watching as a mode.” Instead of a moral panic, Gemmill recommended, “Maybe [we should] just develop good practices around how we binge-watch, in order to do justice to the art and do justice to our own intention and critical faculties.”

Those who see binge-watching as an unhealthy behavior are not completely wrong. Kotru Gode summed up this concept of moderation well: “Binge-watching is like alcohol. With limits, it’s amazing, but if you overdo it, I mean, you’ll go crazy.” I will admit that I have crossed the line from enjoying a healthy cathartic release and engaging with someone’s artistic creation critically to becoming an absurdly sedentary addict on more than one occasion. Deciding which of these behaviors to adopt makes all the difference. To borrow Kotru Gode’s analogy, binge-watching can be an enjoyable wine tasting in the company of high society, or it can be drinking a whole box of iffy red wine alone on a Wednesday night.


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