How we binge-watch: Savoring and devouring on Netflix

Netflix has just released some interesting research regarding how its users binge-watch television shows on its platform. Based on viewing patterns of its most popularly viewed television shows — including its own original content — the study found people usually finish shows within a week, with an average of a bit more than two hours of viewing a day. Viewers take a little longer to finish irreverent comedies and political dramas, and a little less time to finish horror and thrillers.

First of all, I like that Netflix is making an effort to describe binge-watching as narrative viewing at a fast pace, versus the characterization of binge-tv as simply hours and hours spent on the couch, comparable to other, dangerous binge behaviors. As a media researcher whose most recent research has examined binge-watching, some of which we’ll be presenting at this year’s AEJMC conference (shout-out to my amazing co-author Lindsey Conlin — and I’m honored and humbled to say “co” because it’s more like she’s the master and I’m the apprentice, but that feels maybe a bit too Sith Lord and I think Harry Potter may be a better pop-culture reference for our research-lationship), I think the concept of “binge-watching” needs a better definition, especially when we’re discussing the emotional outcomes and consequences of this behavior.

So what is binge-watching? Well if you define it the way Dr. Conlin and I do, it’s watching a television series at a relatively fast pace. Also, new media technology is involved, as you’re going to need a DVD player or streaming service to do it fast, and the most important variable is control; you control the pace of viewing. Netflix’s latest research highlights genre differences in how people choose to consume television at their own pace, and that pace should be viewed as a day-to-day pace rather than a single-sitting pace.

I think it is important to make these distinctions. While last year’s controversial Netflix headline suggested a correlation between depression and binge-viewing, it is important to note that a careful distinction between narrative viewing and good old fashioned couch-potato viewing was not made in this research. There’s nothing new about laying on the couch with the tube on all day; people have been doing that since television adopted an all-day schedule. However, I think it’s safe to say there are differences between binge television watching that is motivated by a strong narrative and binge television watching that is motivated by a lack of control. There’s that crucial variable: control.

While Netflix makes some assumptions about how people are processing these shows, more research to parse out specific behaviors is needed. We engage in television shows in three ways: in how we choose shows to watch, how attentive we are while watching, and how we process shows after viewing, which includes the social component. Research is needed to determine how all three phases impact the pace of narrative viewing, and whether we “savor” or “devour” shows.

One final note: the networks argue that the traditional broadcast model creates social engagement over a longer period throughout the year. I would not argue this. However, my question is how is that a benefit to the viewer? We know it’s a benefit to the network in that they get repeat viewers for advertisements, but in an age when viewers are actively avoiding advertisements and embracing commercial free platforms like Netflix (even Hulu, which is owned by major network players NBC, Fox, and ABC, now offers a commercial free subscription), what does the viewer get out of this?

My own research suggests that while the pattern is different, the overall level of second-screen social interaction is not much different for traditional broadcast versus streaming, all-at-once released programming. Look at other media: people still participate in lively social discussions about books, and those can be consumed at a pace of the reader’s choosing. Those are released “all-at-once” and not one chapter at a time. Heck, what’s a book club if not a social gathering centered around a medium? This idea that the broadcast model is somehow more social is not absolute.

More research is needed here, but as binge-watching becomes an increasingly normative phenomenon, I expect the viewing public’s expectations will continue to shape the conversation about how broadcast television presents its content.


Photo credit: Netflix Media Center


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