I have a confession to make. Recently, on a rare day with the house to myself and nothing to do, I watched Supernatural, Season One. The entire season. All twenty-two episodes in one day. This is not the first time I’ve watched the series, and initially, this blog was going to be about repeat viewing. While thinking about repeat viewing, I came across Jason Mittell’s excellent blog on the topic, which pretty much covers most angles. Then it occurred to me that although I intended to write about repeat viewing, I was entertaining some qualms about admitting to watching an entire season of one series in one day. Which led me to question why, despite being a widespread viewing practice with interesting implications for the television industry, binge viewing continues to be regarded as a ‘guilty pleasure’ and remains under-examined in academia.
Binge viewing was brought into the open as a staple of the television industry at the recent Emmys, which began with presenter Neil Patrick Harris desperately trying to ‘catch-up’ on a year’s worth of television on multiple screens. On the red carpet, meanwhile, the practice was endorsed by the stars of television themselves.
Well, if industry ‘insiders’ admit to the practice, then it must be ok for the rest of us, right? A brief survey conducted on its students by Boston University suggests otherwise, and reveals some of the contradictions and confusion regarding both the term and the practice.
Even from this informal collection of interviews, it is apparent that the definition of the concept is unclear. Just what constitutes a televisual ‘binge’? Does it involve watching more than one episode of one series concurrently, and if so, how many constitute a ‘binge’? Or is it watching an entire season or more – sometimes described in somewhat more respectable terms as ‘marathon’ viewing – in an uninterrupted session? Why would watching consecutive hours of television, but viewing different programmes during that time, not be considered a ‘binge’? Which raises the question of why an extended period of consuming television should be considered ‘binging’ in the first place.
For those in the U.K., where ‘binge drinking’ is an all-too familiar term, the fact that an examination of the etymology of the word ‘binge’ reveals that it was initially associated with drunkenness will come as no surprise. More recently, it has been used to describe eating disorders. Either way, to ‘binge’ suggests some form of shameful indulgence, and a lack of control. The widespread use of the term to describe a television viewing practice consequently implies a vague distaste for the medium itself. We do not, after all, refer to ‘binge listening’, when someone works his or her way through an entire symphony or a band’s oeuvre. Nor do we call reading an entire novel in one sitting a ‘binge’. A book that you can’t ‘put down’, or a ‘page turner’ seems to have a higher cultural currency than the ‘must watch’ television that leads to ‘binge’ viewing. While these odd cultural hierarchies are a constant source of annoyance for those of us who study television or media in general, there is no denying that admitting to watching an entire series of television in one day, and one that I have no ‘academic’ interest in, makes me feel peculiarly guilty, particularly when there is so much other television that I have not yet seen (The Wire raises its head at this point). Amongst fan communities binge watching can be regarded as a badge of honour, a demonstration of supreme commitment or even a kind of bold form of resistance to the industry itself, but a recent survey conducted by MarketCast reveals that the practice extends beyond committed fan groups to the majority of a mainstream audience (it is worth noting that this was a survey conducted in the U.S. and, as John Ellis notes in this week’s blog, viewing behaviours might well be very different in the U.K.). While 67% of respondents admitted to watching television in this way, it continues to be identified as a ‘guilty’ pleasure that most (over half of respondents) indulge in on their own.
Yet despite the apparent guilt associated with binge viewing, there is no doubt that it is an increasingly important part of the television industry. Perhaps the most extreme indication of the industry’s acknowledgment of the appeal of viewing a series in one or two sittings can be found in Netflix’s original production of House of Cards, a series starring Kevin Spacey.
While the on-demand streaming service allows for the binge viewing of series in general, House of Cards is specifically designed, according to Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer for Netflix, to ‘be watched in multiple episodes. So there’s no catch-up. There’s no exposition. There’s no “previously on” or “next on.”’ Netflix consequently released all thirteen episodes at once, presenting an explicit challenge to the broadcast model of television. Although Sarandos appears to be claiming that this kind of narrative structure is unique to House of Cards, an argument could be made (as Jason Mittell has done) that ‘complex’ television series similarly encourage not only repeat viewing, but also binge viewing. Despite debates around the concept of ‘complex’ television, certain series do appear to lend themselves particularly well to binge viewing, including Lost, Homeland and, most recently, Breaking Bad.
In a perfect example of the confluence, rather than competition, between broadcast television and on-demand services, viewers of Breaking Bad furiously binged their way through the previous four seasons in order to catch up with the series in time for the network airing of the final episode of season five. Despite Netflix’s argument of exceptionalism, broadcast and subscription television itself supports binge viewing by airing back-to-back episodes of a series, sometimes only a few at a time, at other times (as over weekends) running one entire series over one day. Alibi, for example, recently ran the first season of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries over a single Sunday, and episodes of NCIS Los Angeles together with an almost constant stream of Stargate feature daily on BskyB channels. Sky’s ‘On Demand’ service additionally offers ‘box sets’ of various series. DVDs, Blu-Ray and DVRs (Digital Video Recorders) contribute to the practice, although perhaps not as significantly as during the height of the sell-through market. And while not usually associated with binge viewing, television also facilitates the extended viewing of certain sports events, which additionally meet the criteria of an extended period of consuming a single product of television. Cricket matches, for example, might run over five consecutive days. Sports tournaments, such as Wimbledon, make it possible to watch matches throughout the day over a period of weeks. During the Super Rugby season in the Southern Hemisphere, four or five games of rugby union can be watched almost back-to-back in one day on Sky Sports. Avidly following the development of a sports event is not all that different to watching several episodes of a new series. And as Sky’s development of a holiday channel devoted to the Bond franchise shows, films can be consumed in this way too.
Even this brief overview of the ways in which various platforms make it possible to binge suggests potential reasons behind this form of engaging with television. Catching up on series that viewers missed or were unable to watch when they first aired is a significant factor in binge viewing on demand, as the Breaking Bad binge indicates. Contrary to an article on Slate magazine, which suggests that binge watching as first-time viewing erodes the structural integrity of individual episodes of a series and dilutes suspense, it is precisely the awareness of narrative arcs and the suspense they create that drives many viewers, myself and my husband included, to watch episodes of a series new to us in batches, if not in binges. But binge watching is also connected to repeat viewing, and may share some of the same reasons and pleasures with this mode of consumption. From my own experience of watching Supernatural on that rainy Sunday, I can attest to enjoying the comfort of a familiar narrative with much-loved characters. It seems to me therefore, that binge watching does not always involve intense emotional engagement, but that it can also take the form of a gentle re-encounter with a favourite text. Empirical research is called for here to fully explore this complex viewing practice, not only to examine the reasons why it is so widespread, but also to explore how it inflects the experience of viewing television.
While I would like to conduct such research in future, for now my thoughts on how binge watching shapes the viewing experience are by necessity, subjective. The first season of Supernatural does not have a complex narrative arc. The series follows two brothers, the Winchesters, on a road trip across America as they search for their missing father. Along the way, they continue the ‘family business’, as older brother Dean (Jensen Ackles) calls it, of ‘saving people, hunting things’; the latter taking the form of supernatural entities such as wendigos and ghosts.
Yet despite the lack of a complex narrative structure (a deliberate choice by showrunner Eric Kripke) and an episodic ‘monster-of-the-week’ format, the series nevertheless provides the foundations for what eventually develops into a complicated arc over the next eight seasons concerning demons, angels and the Winchester’s role in the war between the two. Watching the series in one sitting I found myself becoming far more aware of how the show’s mythology builds during the course of the season than I had been even during previous repeat viewings of the series. As a result, I also became more deeply involved in tracing the character trajectories of Sam (Jared Padelecki), as he grows increasingly obsessed with finding his father and tracking down the demon responsible for killing both his mother and his girlfriend, and Dean, whose motivations for finding his father are more concerned with putting the family back together again. The odd flaw, or jarring note, in both the narrative arc and the character development of the two main protagonists was also suddenly far more apparent than it had been during previous repeat viewings of the series in single episodes. The increasing tension between the two brothers, for example, happens in fits and starts, surfacing quite suddenly in Asylum (1:10) and Scarecrow (1:11), only to die out before coming to the fore again in the final episodes. Yet I was equally aware of structural successes, such as the reversal of a confrontation between Sam and Dean that happens in the pilot, when Dean angrily rebukes Sam for suggesting that there can be no adequate retribution for the losses they have suffered, but which is repeated in Salvation, the penultimate episode, when Dean attempts to halt his brother and father’s near suicidal quest for vengeance and Sam reacts against what he perceives as his brother’s lack of commitment. Viewed in one sitting, the repeated nature of this scene made for a pleasing symmetry. Overall, the day devoted to Supernatural created an accumulated awareness of aspects of a show with which I am already deeply familiar, and allowed me to enjoy it in a different way.
There is more to be said on binge watching, and I intend to say it in greater detail elsewhere, but for now, I am content to stand up and admit that I am a binge watcher, and proud of it. While watching one series in one day is extreme and yes, I woke up the next morning feeling more than a little hung-over, with a headache and scratchy eyes, recalling the original meaning of the term, engaging with television in big, lovely blocks of time is not something that should be regarded as somehow of less value than engaging in the same way with any other medium. With winter drawing in, what better way to spend a cold and drizzly day? I hear The Wire calling . . .
Debra Ramsay teaches film and media at Leicester University. Her doctoral research examines war, memory and media through contemporary representations of World War II in American film, television and games. She has published articles on the impact of DVD and Blu-Ray technologies on the relationship between history, film and television, and on the First Person Shooter and the memory of World War II.