The Culture of Binge Watching

The old days of TV are gone. There used to be a bit of a shared experience in the way we watch TV, especially with the most popular shows. If you sat down on your couch on Thursday night to watch Seinfeld, you could bet that millions of other people across the country were doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. That’s why so much of the watercooler conversation in offices revolved around last night’s episodes. We all watched TV pretty much the same way. A few people recorded programs, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Then the 2000s came along, and with the new millennium came a new wave of entertainment options.

Streaming services

Netflix was known in large part as the place to watch all your old favorite shows, the ones you already knew were good. It was comfort food. You got a Season 4 disc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the mail, then you watched it, mailed it back, and got the next disc for that season. You could also catch up shows you missed when they aired initially. In 2007, Netflix started streaming movies and TV shows on its website, which meant you could watch an entire season of a TV show in one weekend, or maybe one night if you were really committed and didn’t feel the need to sleep at all. In 2013, Netflix changed the game again with the arrival of House of Cards, a political drama starring Robin Wright and the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey. Oh, and it dropped every episode in the queue at once. So not only did you have an original streaming show, you had every single episode at your fingertips on the same day. It’s an intoxicating feeling, like you can get drunk on your favorite show without having to wait months to see what will happen this season.

Netflix actually wasn’t the first streaming service to develop original scripted content; that distinction goes to Hulu, which debuted a show called Battleground in 2012. But they gave viewers a new episode each week rather than giving it to them all at once. Hulu still mostly follows the “once a week” method, though it sometimes will drop two or three episodes initially to get people hooked. When a new season of a beloved Netflix show debuts, it’s an event. It’s not quite like watching Seinfeld or Friends in the 1990s, but it’s similar. The shows pop up on Fridays, meaning you might have people at work talk about how they can’t wait to get home and gobble up the new episodes of Stranger Things like candy. It’s a model of sustained tension versus immediate gratification.

Binge watching criticisms

So now, in the year 2018, we regularly seek out lists that will give us Netflix shows to binge watch. There’s so much content to consume. In fact, we may be reaching a critical mass of too much original programming when you factor in broadcast TV, cable TV, and streaming services. There are also people who believe that some shows could actually be hurt by the Netflix model. Darker, more complex TV shows may be too much for viewers to take in all at once, or even over the span of a few days. Some shows need more time to marinate. For now, binge culture doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, but it will be interesting to see if things somehow shift away from that model in coming years.

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