It’s the uncharted hours of night; you’re buried in the comfort of your duvet, as the ever-welcoming glow of the screen holds you in its vicious grip. You are in the sunken place.
The binge-watch is a troubling cornerstone of contemporary telly watching – when scrolling through Netflix’s smorgasbord of movies and TV, you’ll even see a category entitled ‘Binge-Worthy’.
However, the streaming behemoth is dabbling in weekly suspense. New seasons of The Great British Baking Show and Rhythm & Flow will not, as per tradition, be dropped in one sizeable load; you’ll have to tune in each week to see the latest episode.
However, this doesn’t mark a permanent change to their general model. A Netflix spokesman told UNILAD:
Some of our titles release in weekly installments – eg. Patriot Act with Hasan Minaj – but this does not mark a change to our overall model.
Incoming streaming rival Disney+ also announced that with its appetising roster of new programming – most of all, Star Wars series The Mandalorian – each episode would be released weekly, rather than made available for screen feast; this is a refreshing step away from the gluttony that’s now commonplace.
The word ‘binge’ was predominantly associated with sickening night on the lash or excessive enjoyment of food. But Netflix’s empirical rise to the top of the entertainment game brought with it a world-changing trend.
It can be traced back to Netflix’s acquisition of Breaking Bad’s streaming rights in 2011. The Emmy-winning show was still being broadcast on AMC, so the first three seasons were made available to the platform’s subscribers in 2012.
When season five premiered on cable television, it amassed a shattering 5.9 million viewers – about double the 2.93 million it drew for its regular-timeslot premiere the year prior. Who’s to thank for this surge of viewership? Netflix.
As reported by The New York Times Magazine, series creator Vince Gilligan said:
When the folks at Sony said we were going to be on Netflix, I didn’t really know what that meant. I knew Netflix was a company that sent you DVDs in the mail. I didn’t even know what streaming was. It really kicked our viewership into high gear.
Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson, believes that Breaking Bad was 10 times more popular debuted on the streaming service (it’s no surprise that the follow-up movie, El Camino, is premiering on the platform) – this was the beginning of a new dawn.
Richard Greenfield, a media and technology analyst at BTIG wrote years ago that Netflix would ‘unleash a monster’ into the business – and that’s exactly what happened.
Relationships between Netflix and networks became increasingly fraught: they were trying to collect licensing fees for their programming as traditional viewership numbers dropped like flies in favour of streaming.
The solution was clear: they had to launch a red-coloured foot into the market with original programming. ‘If we were going to start having to fend for ourselves in content,’ said Ted Sarandos, at the head of the platform’s Hollywood operation, ‘we had better start exercising that muscle now.’
Seven years later, one cannot imagine life without their streaming subscription; whether you’re suckling on the teat of someone else’s account, or you’re the chump supplying the goods to an unknown number of friends and family, Netflix is the titan of home and portable entertainment.
Huge shows made their name off the back of being globally binged: the first three seasons of Orange is the New Black were widely enjoyed and anticipated; women’s wrestling dramedy Glow is very popular; David Fincher’s latest delicious series of serial killer vignettes in Mindhunter hooks you in with its morbid gravitational pull.
As much as Breaking Bad helped establish some of Netflix’s initial dominance, Stranger Things is the company’s binge-watching granddaddy.
An 80s-inspired, neon-and-synth laden sci-fi saga – built upon the foundations of Amblin’s cherished child-adventure classics like E.T. and The Goonies and maturer fables like Stand By Me – Stranger Things‘ first season was lightning in a bottle.
‘Delicate, but potent,’ the show has continued through its subsequent seasons to capture the nostalgia zeitgeist that dominates pop culture. Like Mad Men‘s Don Draper said: ‘It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.’
Its third season dropped on Netflix on July 4. In the four days following its release, 40.7 million accounts had already watched some of it, while 18.2 million had already finished the season.
How does one benefit from this television debauch? A recent IGN poll found 69 per cent of people would rather consume content ‘all at once’ than on a weekly basis.
How do you prefer to consume content?
— IGN (@IGN) August 28, 2019
With reference to shows like Breaking Bad, binge-watching could be seen as reading more than one chapter of a novel at a time, allowing you to revel in the production’s story – it was the first show I ever binged, ingesting it in a meagre two weeks, and I truly loved every single minute.
But bingeing comes with it genuine medical concerns: a study by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that 98 per cent of binge-watchers were more likely to have poor sleep quality, were more alert before sleep and reported more fatigue. University of Texas research also found that bingeing could be correlated with correlated with depression, loneliness, self-regulation deficiency, and obesity.
One could argue that the act of bingeing multiple seasons creates a sense of faux-immersion. The process of being engrossed by a television’s world should come organically, with each episode hooking you in deeper and deeper until it becomes your religion.
By eating it up in a small number of sittings (if not one), you’re subconsciously forcing yourself to be interested – it’s only natural that your imagination will become tied to the show, but is it legitimate? Without that weekly gap, can you ever really appreciate how much you enjoy it, or do you just take it for granted before moving onto your next meal?
A personal example: Waterloo Road. BBC’s drama about teens in secondary school was part of my weekly DNA as a youth – I would wake up on a Thursday immediately excited for that night. When having a lousy week, it’d be something to look forward to – an hour a week I could escape reality to my own (not so) guilty pleasure.
Without that gap, I’d have lost a necessary retreat.
Binge-watching could be argued as a simple cure from office FOMO (fear of missing out); if your colleagues are engaged in enthusiastic chatter over the latest season of popular TV, you can rectify your gap of knowledge in one telly-fuelled late night. The next day, you’re armed with conversation starters, talking points and spicy takes.
But, it also does little to help bonding. Growing up, television used to be a communal experience. Whether it was reality TV, talent shows like The X-Factor or soaps like Eastenders, huddling around the living room’s 32-inch watershed theatre was a genuine family activity.
Now, the accessibility of shows in bulk disassembles any notions of routine. The art of patience is but a distant memory: if you want to keep watching, no body of time or entity is there to stop you.
The hypnotic allure of your ‘Continue Watching’ section is nigh-on impossible to resist. It’s the technological embodiment of your granny shoving a tenner in your pocket; you feign resistance, but deep down, you want it. Before you know it, in a hazy blur, you’re five more episodes deep.
Not everyone can keep up with the latest television trends; water-cooler chats are no longer the friendship-building tool they once were. In a time where what’s loved and what’s forgotten comes and goes in a flash, sociable viewing is made increasingly difficult.
For the lovebirds out there who have vowed to exclusively watch episodes together, Netflix have even drew up a contract to help couples curb the temptation of betrayal in writing.
It’s not just Netflix – other platforms have followed in the path of the binge-watching mission.
BBC iPlayer dropped the entirety of Killing Eve’s second season online, allowing fans to swallow it all up without the restriction of a weekly wait. Amazon Prime’s latest superhero hit, The Boys, was released in its entirety for comicbook lovers to gorge on.
There are a few exceptions; generally, HBO and Sky Atlantic’s programming. For example, Game of Thrones was always released in weekly instalments, allowing for sensational viewing parties at pubs where fans could weep and cheer among friends. That said, their new streaming service HBO Max will drop next year.
Bodyguard and Luther, two tentpole BBC crime dramas, orchestrated complex, breathlessly gripping stories that would have lost their indelible sense of suspense if not for the weekly routine.
For those in the media and creative sector, weekly episodes enable the possibility of think-pieces and recaps. For the binge-watchable shows, there’s an overriding fear that sends shudders down TV lovers spines: spoilerphobia.
When platforms release an entire show in one go, spoilers creep on to Twitter timelines like a rash. It’s slow at first, like a sparse minefield that only those with terrible luck will fall victim to. But as days pass, the risk of a show’s mystery being ruined is palm-sweatingly high for those who can’t resist social media scrolling.
Whether it be essential plot details, reviews that don’t come with a spoiler warning, or screenshots of people’s favourite scenes – the playing field is no longer even. And no matter what people say, spoilers do ruin the experience of watching something for the first time.
The exciting direction of Disney+ is a brilliant step away from the toxic love affair with the binge-watch model.
The obsession with mass consumption of content is best seen as an infection rather than a trend; and a return to the ancient age of weekly programming is a mission we should all support.
We’re truly blessed to be able to enjoy near-unlimited long-form storytelling – it’s time we bring back long-form viewing.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He’s now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.