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Quartz Obsession — Binge-watching — Card 1
It’s probably happened to you. You sit down to watch one episode of a show, and when it ends, you’re left dying to know what happens next. “What’s one more 50-minute episode?” you ask yourself. Three hours later, you’re still on your couch, binge-watching.
While precisely how many episodes it takes to be a true binge is a matter of debate, watching two or more episodes of the same television show in one sitting is a good working definition. Yes, TV and movie marathons have existed for decades, via VHS, DVD, and as holiday or weekend programming blocks on cable television, but streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, and BritBox have transformed binge-watching from a special event into the de facto way to experience a new show. And despite the buzzy breakout successes of series like Stranger Things, a lot of binge-watching is dedicated to what we used to call reruns—old episodes of The Office and Friends are consistently among the most-streamed shows.
Binge-watching hasn’t just shaped our relationship with television, it has dramatically changed the entertainment industry. The next episode starts now.
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Quartz Obsession — Binge-watching — Card 2
52%: Share of participants in a 2018 survey who said they had stayed up all night binge-watching at least once
45%: Share of young adults who have canceled plans to continue watching a show
76%: Share of viewers ages 18 to 29 who prefer binge-watching
45%: Share of viewers ages 55 to 64 who prefer binge-watching
160 million: Netflix subscribers worldwide
10 million: Disney+ subscribers on the first day of its North America launch
~20: Hours Americans spend watching TV each week
361,000: Viewers who watched all nine episodes of season two of Stranger Things in the first 24 hours it was available
189 million kg (417 million lb): CO2 produced by the 64 million people who watched season three of Stranger Things, based on the energy required to power routers, data centers, and streaming
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When Netflix released the entire first season of the political thriller House of Cards in one day in 2013, such an approach had never been done before. “It all felt very experimental,” Beau Willimon, the show’s creator, told the Wall Street Journal. “We were a bit shocked at how quickly the world glommed onto the idea of streaming shows over the internet and binge-watching seasons.” Now that’s the standard on most streaming sites (HBO remains a holdout).
Streaming services like Hulu, Disney+ and Apple TV+ have experimented with releasing episodes on a weekly basis to see if viewers retain interest longer, and as a way to do more with less, in the face of the seemingly-endless amount of content produced by Netflix. Even Netflix, though, has made the occasional exception. In 2019, it released one new episode per week of The Great British Baking Show in the US, two days after each episode originally aired in the UK.
Cable companies are losing subscribers each quarter, but it doesn’t mean they also can’t join the market in new ways to retain the interest of viewers. HBO has created original content that makes it worthwhile for subscribers to pay $14.99 a month. Channels like NBC are creating their own streaming networks, and Viacom has also made content-specific streaming sites.
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“Often I’ll be like, OK, I’m just gonna watch this one episode while I sit on the couch and fold laundry. And then, yes, suddenly five hours later I’m still on the couch with only half the laundry folded.”
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Streaming services have doubled down on creating original content in recent years. Writers don’t have to work around commercial breaks; episodes can be as long or as short as desired, and the number of episodes in a season is no longer dictated by traditional network schedules, allowing for more killer, less filler with as few as 10 per season, perhaps with a six-month gap in between instead of a full year.
Writing for binge-watching opens up new narrative possibilities. The creators of Netflix’s Bloodline told Quartz they approached the series like a movie or play, with multiple episodes working together as an act; didn’t have to wind every character through A, B, and C storylines in every episode to keep them in viewers’ minds; and didn’t have to worry about repeating information to hook new viewers who came in late.
The Witcher showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich uses her writers’ strengths to vary the voice of the show from one episode to the next so that too much continuity, critical to tiding audiences over for a week, doesn’t kill binges. “I don’t want everything to sound like I wrote it. That is my worst nightmare. No one wants that, especially when you’re bingeing,” she told TV Guide. “You want individual episodes to really have a distinct tone.”
Such a valley of plenty may keep more viewers hooked on a show that would otherwise shed them week by week. On an October 2019 earnings call, an analyst asked Netflix chief content officer Theodore Sarandos if the service would consider not dropping addictive series all at once, as is often suggested. He used his love of HBO’s Succession to suggest it’s a high bar to clear: “If I like that show a little bit less I would probably burn out on it, because I get aggravated every week waiting for the next episode. That’s how much I like it. So we are trying to fine-tune the proposition to the customer.”
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Quartz Obsession — Binge-watching — Card 7
1990s: Entire seasons of television shows become available on box sets of VHS tapes, and binge-watching takes off.
1997: Netflix launches, allowing subscribers to rent DVDs online, receive them in the mail, and send them back when finished. There are no overdue fees, a major change from video stores.
2007: Netflix launches an online streaming service. Other cable companies create on-demand services for shows and movies around the same time.
2011: Netflix begins using the term binge-watch internally.
2013: Binge-watch is shortlisted by Oxford Dictionaries as word of the year.
2015: Collins English Dictionary chooses binge-watch as word of the year.
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Quartz Obsession — Binge-watching — Card 8
It would take six days and two hours to watch all nine seasons of the suspense thriller 24 back to back.
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Quartz Obsession — Binge-watching — Card 9
Portlandia was ahead of its time with this skit about bingeing an entire box set of Battlestar Galactica DVDs. It’s highly relatable even almost a decade later.
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Quartz Obsession — Binge-watching — Card 10
The term “binge-watching” bugs Barry Enderwick, a former marketing executive with Netflix. “[W]hen I first heard the words ‘binge-watching’ uttered at Netflix, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he writes on Medium. “My immediate reaction was that it was a horrible term. After all, the only association I had with the word ‘binge’ wasn’t ‘watching,’ it was ‘purge.’ I thought that if we used that in consumer-facing materials we were going to pay a big price for it.”
It’s not just the terminology up for dispute. Most of us could stand to move more and sit less, which is at odds with serious couch time. Binge-watching has also been associated with poor quality sleep. A study in 2018 found that prolonged sedentary behavior during a binge-watch is similar to the nonstop sitting on long-haul flights or when ill, and can also cause blood-clotting in leg veins that can become deadly if they break off and travel to the heart or lungs. It can also increase depression and other mood disorders when isolating for long periods of time. But it may also have real upsides.
Watching a feel-good, low-investment show like Schitt’s Creek, Grace & Frankie, or The Good Place may actually be psychologically soothing. As media psychology professor Elizabeth Cohen explains in The Atlantic, “There’s a lot of comfort in knowing when something’s going to happen. You don’t have to exert a lot of cognitive energy, so it doesn’t feel taxing.” Which explains the small cottage industry of essays about how Parks and Recreation is a balm in troubled times.
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