To Binge or Not To Binge

Since the very dawn of television, the ways in which we consume the medium have been in constant flux. For many years, the only way to watch your favourite show was to tune in at the exact time it was airing. If you missed an episode, there wasn’t much chance you’d ever see it unless it happened to re-air, or the show made it into syndication.

Until the physical television set reached ubiquity in private homes, many people would gather in one place to watch something live. By 1955, half of all U.S. homes had their own set, but that didn’t stop people from gathering together to watch the moon landing in 1959. Events like these could be considered the birth of appointment-viewing television, and the trend of making TV a community-oriented experience.

By the 1980s, the VCR made it possible (though probably not legal) for people to record their favourite shows, and to never fear missing an episode again. This, and the invention of the TV Series Box Set (first on VHS, then DVD, then Blu-Ray, etc.,) is where the idea of re-watching has its roots.

Not long after that came DVRs and PVRs, which has made recording television a very common practice – and a far more legal one. Providing you have a specific cable package, there’s the On Demand option now, too, where you needn’t even worry about setting a time to record.

Having access to DVRs, On Demand, and, most recently, streaming services, means that TV (not all, but a whole hell of a lot) waits for you. Appointment viewing hasn’t disappeared, but more and more, TV is striving to work around our schedules and not the other way around.

In addition to having the freedom to watch TV on a variety of devices – actual television sets, computers, phones, and tablets – we now have the means to choose when to watch, and how slowly or quickly we’d like to do so.

Binge-watching is the most recent evolution in TV watching methods. It’s one that has completely changed not only how we consume this media, but also how it’s made for our consumption. The term – which I define as watching 4 episodes or more of the same show in one sitting – can be traced back to 2003, but wouldn’t reach mainstream popularity until about a decade later.

When Netflix released its first original series, House of Cards, all on one day in February of 2013, TV was forever changed again. Netflix set a new standard for watching television, one that took practically no time at all to become completely normalized. It’s been a little over five years since Netflix revolutionized TV, but the “all at once” model is something many viewers now simply expect from every streaming service.

I’ve had plenty of conversations with people who are irritated by the fact Hulu has chosen to release a number of their series’ on a weekly basis, rather than all in one day. Many of those same people will wait for a season of television to be completely finished before diving in, so they can still take advantage of watching it all at once.

The freedom to choose how and when to watch a show has sparked several debates on what’s better: the binge or the week-to-week? A number of studies have been done to determine what method bring the most enjoyment or gives viewers the best retention. Critics have discussed, at length, which methods they prefer personally and what makes the most sense for the structure and art form of TV in general. Still, there remains no real consensus on what makes for the best viewing.

As with most things concerning television, the answer to this conundrum is entirely subjective. We all have our own favoured methods for watching TV, and this kind of habit can be hard to deviate from. Below, I aim to outline the pros and cons of both binge-watching and weekly viewing, not to steer you in one direction or another, but in an attempt to give you a more rounded view of the options.

It’s honestly a bit of an experiment for myself, too. I recently binge-watched two new shows, Maniac (over four days) and Forever (all in one), and my thoughts on them remain a bit jumbled. Though I believe I have a clearer idea of how I feel about Forever – which could simply be a result of shorter episode run times, or because I connected much quicker with the material – the chaos in my mind got me thinking about how different my experience might have been had I watched them in a more spread out fashion.

So, I decided to explore the ups and downs of both bingeing and watching weekly and promised myself I would conclude with a verdict on what I think is the best way to watch TV. Perhaps this will help others in the same boat. At any rate, I hope it offers some added perspective on the matter.

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A recent Twitter poll reveals this topic is quite divisive!

Binge-Watch Pro: The freedom. As I touched upon earlier, there’s a huge sense of autonomy when it comes to binge-watching. It’s a method that works around our busy schedules. We can choose how many episodes to watch and when to watch them. There’s no need to worry about setting the DVR or trying to be home for a certain time.

This freedom can extend into helping you determine if a show is right for you, much quicker than usual. I typically give a show three episodes to hook me before I jump ship. For people with similar “rules” being able to power through those first three episodes is a time saver. You won’t have to tune in every week for three weeks to decide whether a show is right for you, because you can figure it out in three hours or less.

Conversely, watching a show week to week takes away a lot of this freedom. If you’re not someone who can wait for an entire season of a show to finish before watching, you’re somewhat beholden to the show’s airing schedule. This can prove frustrating if, like me, you’re the type who prefers to stay on top of all things TV, because you don’t enjoy falling behind on a show and feel compelled to check in every week. This is especially true when you’ve curated a social media lifestyle that revolves a lot around the TV industry; if you miss an episode there are certain websites you might feel the need to avoid.

Weekly Pro: The community aspect. There’s something really special about the connections we make surrounding television – whether in real life or on social media – and some of the best relationships are those made through watching the same show together every week. Not only do you get to share in the excitement of watching the new episode, but you also get to chat, craft theories, and gush or complain for an entire week with people who have a similar investment as you.

Community isn’t completely absent during a binge-watch, but it is different. Watching a show weekly means everyone is (mostly) on the same page, but with bingeing everyone is progressing at their own pace. Spoiler warnings are par for the course with nearly every show these days, but they are much easier to navigate with weekly watching.

I’ve built relationships through both weekly and binge-watching, but there’s a particular kind of magic involved in the former, that the latter just can’t seem to achieve. I think a lot of it has to do with the amount of time I spent engaging with those people – 10 weeks as opposed to one weekend or one day.

Just this past summer, I made several connections with people all over the world thanks to Castle Rock. On top of anticipating new episodes and, thus, new information to mull over, I looked forward to hearing my new community’s opinions and the inevitable conversations that would be started. We were all on the same page – episode count wise – and it was a feeling that’s hard to recapture when everyone is going at their own pace.

Binge-Watch Con: It’s addictive. Listen, as far as addictions go, this is far from the worst kind. However, I’m starting to wonder if our actual enjoyment of a show can sometimes be misconstrued with our attraction to the ability to finish something, and “know everything.” For example, I watched episodes 7 through 10 of the new Netflix show Maniac all in one sitting, and I honestly can’t tell if I kept going because I was so thoroughly enjoying the show, or if I just couldn’t resist the idea of completion.

I certainly like the idea that I can watch whatever I want, whenever I want (for the most part) but I’ve started to wonder if that’s always a good thing. Where Maniac is concerned, I have a gut feeling I wouldn’t be left with such jumbled thoughts on the season, had I spaced out the viewing of each episode a little more.

To be fair, I think this is a show-specific problem. Half hour sitcoms typically don’t require the same level of attention as any other genre, and watching 4 or more of them in a row doesn’t leave us with a massive amount of material to ponder over. It may seem backwards, but not bingeing a show we really like – excluding a re-watch – might be more conducive to both our enjoyment and understanding of it.

Weekly Con: The Little Things. Now, to somewhat contradict myself, bingeing can often be advantageous for picking up on little details, which might otherwise be forgotten from having to watch a show weekly. For example, let’s say you’re watching a show with five seasons, which originally aired weekly but you’re just now catching up on it via Netflix. Because you just watched S1E2 yesterday, the callbacks in S2E1 are more recognizable and, possibly, that much more fulfilling. The person who had to wait almost a full year between those two episodes might not see all the nuance and connections the binge watcher was able to catch.

Binge-Watch Pro: It can be an entire event. When Stranger Things 2 dropped on Netflix, my fiancé and I said to hell with other plans and devoted the majority of our weekend to watching the season. Based on Eleven’s love for Eggo Waffles, we decided to eat only breakfast foods while watching, effectively turning those three days into two kinds of a binge. Now, it could be that Stranger Things 2 was memorable on its own merits, but I have a feeling I’m far more connected with the material because of how I consumed it.

Event watching can be done in online circles, too. I’ve been part of show re-watches with Facebook groups I belong to, where we’d watch several episodes at once to gear up for a show’s return. Sadly, none of these has involved curating a specific menu, but they’ve been just as exciting.

Group watching isn’t uncommon for week-to-week shows, but they feel less like an event than just a weekly tradition.

Weekly Pro: Episode integrity. The episode is the basic unit of television, and it is far more important than we often give it credit for. They are magical little building blocks that (should) contain their own story and themes, while also providing structure, continuity, and cohesion for a season, or an entire series. The episode has a valuable weight to carry, and shouldn’t have to rely on others to make it feel whole. Episodes are unique to television, and they can turn a show from good to great, to unforgettable.

The importance and effectiveness of the episode is often lost while doing a binge, but sometimes, that’s out of our control. A lot of shows, particularly where Netflix is concerned, have been made without worry about whether each individual instalment is distinct. Many showrunners creating content for the binge model aren’t overly concerned about the Episode, as they assume a majority of viewers will be on to the next one before thinking too deeply about the one they just watched.

However, even when a show is made with episode integrity in mind, bingeing can force them to blend together in a negative way. We start to forget when certain events took place, or when a particular character’s arc began to evolve, and suddenly nothing stands out. There should be some level of flow between episodes, but not so much that each unit doesn’t have its own central importance. When a showrunner fails to use an episode to its fullest, it winds up being a mere bookmark until the “next thing” instead of being that thing by itself.

Verdict

This is less an objective conclusion and more my subjective opinion, but I’d take week-to-week viewing – even if it’s not Appointment Viewing, but simply at your own pace – over binge-watching. All Day. Every Day.

As much fun as a binge can be, particularly when you have found a new show you really love, or when you make a season’s release date into an event. However, there’s something I find highly attractive about the Episode. These mini-stories within a larger arc feel vital to good television, and they are too often overlooked in the making of binge-able shows. Even when they aren’t, the process of binge-watching can too easily erase the beauty of these basic units of television.

I think there’s room for bingeing and weekly viewing, but the old model still reigns supreme (at least for now) in my TV-loving heart.

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