I Can’t Binge Watch My Television

It used to be that as viewers we were at the mercy of broadcasting schedules. We had no say about when we wanted to watch a show — if you missed an episode at its prescribed time then you missed it until it was repeated, again at a set time decided by the series’ network.

The first change to this paradigm came with the advent of VHS recorders that allowed viewers to tape a show then watch it later at their convenience. It was the beginning of viewership being liberated from television’s rigid timeframe. In the 2000s the first hard drive recorders, such as TiVo and Sky boxes, came onto the market and replaced VHS tapes after three decades. They were simpler to use, and they didn’t rely on external storage that took up physical space; the days of tape archives had seen its end.

The current state of TV emphasizes the freedom of the viewer to choose when and where they watch their programming. Networks offer catch-up services and offer box sets on demand. In the UK the BBC iPlayer enables people to watch the majority of its programs for free via their website, Android and iOS apps, and licensed boxes from providers such as Sky and Virgin. Internet providers double as multimedia companies offering subscription packages with access to libraries of older material and exclusive original content, all at the touch of a button.

Agents of the FBI examine the psychology of serial killers in the period Netflix series Mindhunter

The biggest innovation to television in the last several years has been the model of releasing entire seasons of a new series simultaneously. Streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix have popularized this new approach and more companies are beginning to follow suit. Where binge viewing was once restricted to watching series months after their initial runs viewers now have the option to binge watch a new series the moment it is released. Netflix encourages its customers to “binge race” a series in single sittings during the first few days of their release, and will automatically play the next episode seconds after the finished episode’s credits appear on screen. (They even enable you to skip the title sequences should you be too impatient to sit through them.)

For all of the excitement binge watching new series brings to millions of people I’m not convinced that it’s the best way of watching TV. As far as my personal viewing habits are concerned binge watching isn’t for me. I can’t fully grasp why people are so obsessed with beginning and finishing the latest season of Stranger Things or Mozart in the Jungle in one or a handful of sittings. Why is immediacy so important to modern television audiences? Is there nothing to be said about the merits of watching episodes in weekly installments as determined by their producers and creators?

Don’t misunderstand me: the instant/simultaneous model does possess qualities that I appreciate, but not in the way that is encouraged or publicized. I like watching a series at my own pace, which in the case of a Netflix show like Mindhunter means viewing maybe two or three episodes a week spaced out a couple of days apart. I’m not beholden to a fixed day and time of the week when a new episode becomes available — I can decide the speed at which I consume a new series. I can ramp up or slow down depending on what else I’m watching or doing away from my TV. My series are ready for viewing when I am.

So what reservations do I have with people who plough through their favourite TV shows rather than parsing them out and taking it steady?

It’s often said that attention spans are getting shorter. That younger generations need constant stimulus and bore faster when it comes to entertainment and popular culture. In the scramble to binge a new season in its entirety over a weekend how much does a person miss through lapses in their concentration, or their inability to recollect key moments and details because too much has happened for them to keep up with?

Amazon Studio’s Mozart in the Jungle (2014-present)

Think of a person speed reading through a book or a long read news article: they risk sacrificing their understanding of a text in favour of expediency. Many shows benefit from breathing space; from allowing oneself to process and ruminate the last episode before moving onto the next. Shows like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return benefited by having new episodes aired weekly instead of being made available all at once. Viewers had time to gather their thoughts and anticipate upcoming episodes, to let them sink in before delving back into their dark and layered worlds at a prescribed time.

With social media and entertainment websites viewers have to be aware of the litany of potential spoilers for their favourite TV shows. Where most individuals are sensitive and respectful to not ruin the surprises and shocks a series may have in store there are others who have no qualms ruining others’ viewership. In weekly installments there is only so much that can be spoiled to audience members who are running behind. In contrast, when a series is made available all at once an entire season’s worth of storyline can be revealed online in a matter of hours; to many watching a TV show then becomes a race to the finish before a careless or trolling fool can spoil to us what happens.

Within days a series can be digested, examined and finished with until its next season when the cycle happens all over again. In addition this also produces the effect of making our TV viewership more disposable — instead of committing ourselves to a series for several months we condense our experience to a single weekend. It’s over and done with before having had a real chance to settle.

Instant/simultaneous access also dilutes one of the more communal aspects of watching television: so-called water cooler discussion. When a series is broadcast, or made available online and through streaming, on a weekly basis it provides viewers the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions with their friends, co-workers, family members, and social media groups who are also watching, who in turn can share own their opinions and insights. It allows for buzz, speculation and fan theorizing about upcoming episodes. HBO’s Westworld built a substantial fanbase in 2016 with it’s mysteries and cliffhangers that kept viewers coming back each week, eager for the maze to reveal its secrets. Astute viewers observed details from previous episodes which gave clues about what was to come, and made predictions about what the series’ biggest revelations could be (some of which turned out to be precisely correct).

Hulu’s Emmy Award-winning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale

The thrill of sharing in the unknown is lost when there is no scheduling. Had the whole of the first season of Westworld been made available all together the gossip and excitement that surrounded the show most likely wouldn’t have been as intense or rewarding. The instant/simultaneous model is a more insular and solitary way of viewing television. Instead of asking a friend or family member, “Did you see the latest episode?” we ask, “What episode are you on?” We stop sharing our experience but compare our progress. Deep and engaging discussions about our viewership peter out.

I don’t paint the most flattering picture of Netflix and Amazon’s distribution methods, but just because I’m not enamoured with them doesn’t mean the people who prefer to watch their television differently are wrong. My contention is that the approach many people have to TV series has downsides that in many respects dampens our experience, both personally and socially. Too often in modern life we’re attempting to consume too much in a shorter time; too often we value speed over quality, and excess over restraint.

I find Netflix’s idea of binge racing gross. With the investment of time and money producers and showrunners give to a series we can at least afford them our due attention, and not think of watching television as a time trial or speed run. We shouldn’t be treating them like brief flings to be used and discarded. We should be savouring the stories and characters that grace our screens.

That means slowing down, taking things easy, and keeping our minds fresh and sharp. With a good story on our screens it’s not about the end destination, but the journey we take getting there, alone and together.

Coming soon: Sympathy for the Beast