Is Binge Watching Really the Future of TV?
I just wrapped up the fourth season of Arrested Development, which was released today. I passively stared at a screen for almost eight hours. I have no regrets, but I probably should.
After doing the absolute minimum required to start my day, I claimed a comfortable couch and spoke to no one until dinner. No regrets, though repeating an episode or two might have helped remember certain details and plot lines, and I do admit some jokes were less effective after about five episodes, since comedy does wear one out after a while. I’m not going to spoil the new season for those who made the more sane decision to take their time, but I’ll tell you now that it was not a letdown. However, the distribution model in which it was delivered might be.
Watching television for seven and a half hours isn’t "healthy," but I have to admit that this was not my first time. I watched Firefly and Alias straight through because I was too young to watch when they first aired. These two shows are a product of the traditional television model: individual episodes aired on a regular basis. If I had begun watching when they premiered, I would not have had to spend an entire day catching up. In the conventional TV-watching style, I saw 24, Lost, and Fringe on nights they aired. I knew what my friends and coworkers would be talking about the next day (but not Fringe; none of my friends watched Fringe). While waiting a week for a new episode was sometimes painfully suspenseful, it allowed us to talk about the episodes one-by-one and pick into the details. We would discuss potential hidden meanings, which are especially important in shows like Lost where small nuances matter. We would make our own predictions about future episodes. Many times these discussions, which usually turned into unnecessarily heated arguments, were more fun than the shows themselves.
When House of Cards dropped, I was unsure how to watch it. Unlike Arrested Development, which came out on the Sunday of a holiday weekend blessed with horrible weather, House of Cards was released when school was in full swing and I preferred not to be bothered by Frank Underwood’s elaborate ploys for twelve straight hours. I decided to use the little self-restraint I had and watch one or two (usually two) episodes per day. Restricting how much I watched not only allowed me to focus on my daily life, work, and friends, but also gave me some breathing room between episodes.
House of Cards begs long and steady contemplation, but Netflix made that essential part optional and seemingly unnecessary. Paper deadlines and seeing friends stopped me, but they didn’t stop everyone, and our conflicting TV habits made discussing the show frustrating. No one seemed to share viewing schedules, and if they did, they usually cheated. Discussions about the show had so much potential, but whoever was ahead ran the risk of spoiling the episodes. Some people did not even know which episode they were on; most of my friends simply clicked "next episode" until they forgot where they were in the season.
In 2011, Hulu took charge of viewing behavior when it released an original series The Confession, starring Kiefer Sutherland . It was a low budget series with decent writing. "Chapters" were between five and seven minutes long with a new one released each week. It was not very good. Yet, the weekly model worked; my friends and I had plenty of time to criticize it and laugh at it-and to be nostalgic about 24. Hulu probably had the option to go the Netflix route and release all ten episodes at once, but it made the choice to control viewing behavior.
Do I regret spending my entire day staring at a glowing rectangle? Not really. Do I think spreading it out would have been better? Probably, but The Verge is closed on Monday.