Binge watching is catching on with avid TV fans
Jennifer Chaney isn't ashamed to admit that she often falls prey to addictive behavior when it comes to the consumption of television content. Over any given weekend, she and her husband will stay up into the wee hours of the morning as they gorge on multiple episodes of their favorite shows.
To paraphrase an old potato chips commercial, she simply can't watch just one.
"We'll usually start after the kids go down for bed," says Chaney, a Walnut Creek, Calif., resident and mother of two. "I'll start out watching the first 10 minutes of something, but once you start, you can't stop. You've just got to see what happens next."
Chaney has become an avid advocate for what is known as binge-watching. It's the habit of plowing through an entire season sometimes more of a particular show in a highly abbreviated period of time. Binge practitioners, in a way, are new-age rebels who crave what they want when they want it, rather than be slaves to the traditional week-to-week delivery of "appointment" programming.
Binge watchers have been known to purposely avoid watching a show such as "Mad Men" or "Scandal" during its regularly scheduled run. Then they'll go on a ravenous TV bender over a rainy day or long, lost weekend by plunging into their overstocked DVR queues, a bulky DVD box set or an online service.
Binge-viewing is not exactly a new trend. In fact, it has been practiced in musty college dorm rooms for years. But the habit gained more attention earlier this month when the Netflix streaming service made all 13 episodes of its first major original series, "House of Cards," available in a single day.
"House of Cards" is a stylish political thriller starring Kevin Spacey as a power-hungry congressman intent on revenge after being passed over for a Cabinet post by the president. The series, which has drawn raves from critics, is being touted by Netflix as the first show for "the on-demand generation."
"It had me riveted," says Mike Lippitt, a Danville, Calif., binge-watcher who says he polished off "House of Cards" in less than 30 hours.
"I ate the whole thing. I just devoured it," he says. "I hope the networks do something like this sometime."
For now, the major broadcast networks seem intent on sticking with their usual week-to-week release pattern. But Netflix plans to do more experimenting with the all-in-one-day thing. In May, it will deliver 14 new episodes of "Arrested Development" in a single gluttonous serving. The beloved sitcom, canceled in 2006 by Fox, was revived exclusively for Netflix, which figures to earn plenty of publicity in a month when most network shows are heading into hibernation.
Industry observers, noting the growing popularity of binge-watching, have speculated that Netflix ultimately could wreak havoc with television's long-running, tried-and-true model. But Ted Sarandos, the company's content officer, pleads innocent.
"I really do think that TV matters in our lives. It defines and shapes who we are," he told journalists at the recent winter TV press tour. "And it's with that deep appreciation for the rich history of television that we are leading the next great wave of change in the media; not to destroy it, but to help (it) evolve for the current generation and for generations to come."
As for "Arrested Development," creator Mitchell Hurwitz is willing to get with the program.
"This binge-viewing is not how we came up watching TV. It's not how I looked forward to seeing 'The Sopranos,' " he says. "But you've got to follow the audience. You've got to stay fresh and keep challenging yourself. So we're just embracing it."
Chaney embraced it a few years ago, after she had kids. Bogged down during the week with workplace and parental obligations, she realized that she had precious little time for TV and was missing entire seasons of her favorite shows, such as "Supernatural" and "Fringe." The solution came after the TV season ended, when she and her husband planned late-night marathon catch-up sessions.
"It was the best summer ever, and it made for some great date nights," she raves.
Now, Chaney is hooked on binge-viewing, pointing out that it allows her to be in control of the viewing schedule.
"It's like reading a good book," she says. "Stopping after just one chapter is no fun. You want to get into it and savor it. Four or five chapters is much better."
Likewise, Lippitt is a dedicated convert.
"Watching in big chunks allows the story to remain vivid in your mind," he says. "So many shows today have breaks in their run, and you have to wait months for them to return. You don't get satiated. Binge-watching gives you a more cohesive experience. The show holds together better."
Still, binge-watching does have its detractors. Jim Pagels, a blogger for slate.com, decried the practice, writing, among other things, that single episodes have "their own integrity, which is blurred by watching several in a row" and that "TV characters should be a regular part of our lives, not someone we hang out with 24/7 for a few days."
While Chaney may not agree with those opinions, she does admit that binge-viewing has its pitfalls. For example, she missed out on all the "hype and buildup" for the recent series finale of "Fringe" because she was still a season behind. And because she can't live "in the moment" with her favorite shows, she is forced to go out of her way to avoid spoilers and lives in exile from water-cooler conversation.
"Several of my friends and I love 'Mad Men,' but they watch it live," she says. "So I can't talk and share it with them. We can't bond over it like we would have in the old days, so that's kind of a bummer."
Still, Chaney says that, with binge-watching, the good outweighs the bad.
"It's important that I'm in control of the schedule," she says.