The New Binge

Harvard’s winter break is a long one. In 2012, the last fall term exam took place on December 20, with classes resuming this Monday, 39 days later. For many Harvard undergraduates, the lengthy respite means more time spent with the family and friends. For some it means travel to other continents; for others, more earnings and work experience. And for a swelling subsection of Harvard undergraduates, it means more hours spent absorbing the pixelated plot of a television show. It means more binge-watching.

The Los Angeles Times defines binge television as “any instance in which more than three episodes of an hourlong drama or six episodes of a half-hour comedy are consumed at one sitting.” The phenomenon extends well beyond the college campus. Primary binge-watching enabler Netflix registered 27.1 million domestic subscribers for its online streaming program as of December 31, up two million in the fourth quarter. In fact, its better-than-expected growth has helped drive the NFLX stock value out of the doldrums, with a 42 percent jump just last Thursday. And while the service has added users, its viewers have also become more intensive—television shows watched per week have risen 38 percent for Netflix customers since 2009, The Wall Street Journal reports.

As might be expected, the rise of binge-watching has met with its share of negative reception, and the name surely doesn’t help. The word “binge” carries a pejorative sting, conjuring phrases such as “binge-eating,” “binge-drinking,” and “spending binge.” The word, per, denotes “excess,” but not a positive sort—we have no “generosity binge” or “binge-caring.” Binge is bad, not supererogatory. And beneath that basic PR problem, binge-watching consists of prolonged, passive stagnation in front of a screen, a difficult activity (or inactivity) to defend with much gusto.

But television has endured those complaints since its inception. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends 2.75 hours watching TV every day, with television surpassed only by the biological necessities of sleeping and eating (and not mutually exclusive with the latter). Maybe we need to reevaluate behavior (or simply pick up a book on occasion), but television-watching is a form of leisure, and although the prolonged sitting during binge-watching can lead long-term health issues, that offers a common-sense argument for occasional pauses, not against stringing shows together.

Much more worth discussing is the commentary that centers on aesthetics, specifically the shift in viewing experience that binge-watching has produced. Binge-watching has reduced the time between episodes from a week to mere seconds—which can even be counted down during the credits, if you let Netflix’s “post play” feature automatically start the next episode for you. An article last July from Slate Magazine sees this as a negative because “episodes have their own integrity, which is blurred by watching several in a row.” True, almost all television shows are designed for weekly viewership, but a similar complaint might be levied against the move away from serialization of the novel. And nineteenth century literature isn’t read today with month- or week-long pauses, despite some advantages to the old practice. Readers of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, for instance, were left to ruminate for a month on his great challenge to the divine, “The Grand Inquisitor,” before the author’s counterarguments appeared in print. Yet one of the unique qualities of the novel is the reader’s control of its pace; binge-watching allows TV viewers a bit more control, too.

Of course, most serialized novels were written with an eye toward eventual publication in full, but a similar impulse has hit TV shows. The former Fox show “Arrested Development,” kept relevant in part through binge-watching, plans an upcoming Netflix-exclusive season to be released—and consumed—in bulk. And even serialized shows are keeping down-the-road viewers in mind: “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan has suggested that binge-watchers may be “more rewarded” by the intricacies of plot he has worked to integrate. Another creator, David Simon, of HBO’s “The Wire,” which left the air in 2008, has expressed (and later clarified) “amused contempt” for latecomer binge-viewers. But “The Wire” in particular with its ornate webs of characters and season-long plot arcs, has showcased the unique offerings of post-serial life.  “It was conceived of as a whole, and we did it as a whole,” Simon has said. That idea left the show languishing with low ratings while it ran on air—but flourishing when binge-viewers discovered it.

This isn’t to call binge-watching unequivocally better than the old serialized system. But it is something distinct and worth appreciating. And it is fascinating. The modern age, as commenters so often lament, is a condensed, quick world. The average presidential election TV sound bite has slipped from 43 seconds in 1968 to under eight seconds of late. Thoughts face 140-character caps. And we are impatient: 32 percent of internet consumers will abandon slow sites after one to five seconds of delay. And yet, in the midst of this new, ballyhooed cultural norm, in the form of binge-watching, a shift persists toward decelerating and maintaining focus. If nothing else, we have finally found a way to sit still.

Brian Cronin ’15, a Crimson editorial editor, is an economics concentrator in Mather House.


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