With 1.5 million people in the UK subscribing to Netflix and even more subscribing to LoveFilm, the way we watch television is undoubtedly changing. The ability to record live TV and to catch up on online platforms like SkyGo and 4OD mean that shows are rarely watched in real time, and we can watch these shows in excess, always just a click away from finding out the outcome of a cliffhanger. As we are moving away from traditional viewing, is a culture of binge-watching emerging?
Binge-watching is a relatively new phenomenon. The term made it onto the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2013 Words Of The Year list, where it was described as having recently “come into its own with the advent of on-demand viewing and online streaming”. Although people have been marathoning shows since the 1990s, when DVD box sets became popular, its recent rise in popularity can be attributed to shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. For online-exclusive shows like these, entire seasons are made available all in one go, meaning that there is nothing stopping you from watching episode after episode.
Tech Radar warns that marathoning could turn us into “a bunch of spoilt Veruca Salts”, and that it is “lessening our appreciation and dumbing down our cultural and emotional responses”. Watching in excess changes the experience of TV completely. End-of-episode cliffhangers are rendered meaningless without an agonising week-long wait before the next episode. Without the wait, marathons of serialised shows feel more like watching a long film than a television series.
Television viewers have always been impatient, and online platforms like Netflix just allow us to have the instant gratification we’ve always wanted. When it comes to serialised dramas, the days of tense cliffhangers are probably behind us. Shows like House of Cards are designed to leave us wanting more, and now we can finally have more. However, not all shows lend themselves to binge-watching. Netflix does mean that we are losing the suspense of serialised shows like Breaking Bad, but the experience of watching sitcoms or reality TV shows hasn’t really changed at all. No one watches shows like The Office or Arrested Development for suspense-filled plot lines; most viewers are just in it for the laughs. Our experience of drama shows has changed, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but shows designed for more casual viewing have been unaffected by our culture of binge-watching.