Five Reasons ‘Binge-Watching’ Is Bad For Us

Binge-Watching social

It’s a good thing I’ve never much minded having my cake and eating it too, as I sit here to write this having just finished yet another Netflix marathon, in my underwear and basking in a warm, orange haze of Dorito dust… and cake. Even as I type, my thoughts drift to my future, and I struggle to decide what my next excuse for further ostracizing myself from my fellow man is going to be – Archer, or House of Cards? I’m sure I’ll figure it out in the time it takes me to admonish you all for wasting your lives and rotting your brains. Remember kids, it’s not hypocrisy when it’s ‘research!’

Acerbic humour quota aside, I’m twenty-one. I’m part of a generation that has lived its entire life up to this point online, and if I were any younger I suspect I would genuinely struggle to recall a time when I didn’t have at least one online catch-up TV service no more than a short browsing session away. Nowadays, I can get an abundance of those services directly through my TV, and physical box-sets were barely hitting their stride before I could start downloading those without leaving my lovingly crafted arse-groove unattended for a second. Last, but not least, there are sites like the aforementioned Netflix, along with Hulu and Crunchyroll to name just a few, that offer what sometimes can seem like impossibly vast libraries of programming to explore. The buffet table stretches on and on, and we don’t even have to stop to return to our seats.

This is, by and large, a good thing. I’m not here to tell you that it’s destroying society, and I don’t even think I really need to argue the point to the contrary. The benefits of this new way of consuming art are broad and, for the most part, fairly obvious. If that weren’t the case, then there’s simply no way these services would have been such an instant and resounding success. It’s convenient, it’s comparatively inexpensive, and it has blessed us with choice the likes of which even a thousand channels could not seem to provide us with before. Despite my curmudgeonly disposition, I can’t in good faith pine for the Good Old Days. As far as I’m concerned, these are my Good Old Days! However, while I’m still too young to look good in rose-tinted glasses, I think this revolution in television is worth a fair examination of the potential down-sides (and I do see down-sides). Does all this convenience cheapen the art we consume, and make it more disposable? Does the glut of content create bottlenecks that we cannot possibly manage? Does it isolate us into our own bubbles of taste, and ruin the potential of the medium as a socially stimulating activity? In short, is all this good for us?

(Note: I use the term “good for us” in a strictly sociological sense. I’m not a doctor, and as such I have no business giving advice on what is or isn’t good for you from a medical standpoint. Though, in all honesty, nobody reading this should need a doctor or anyone else to tell them that spending hours on end consumed by a completely sedentary activity is not healthy.)

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1. More Choice Can Mean LESS Variety

I’ll be the first to admit it – I’m probably not the most qualified person in the world to be talking about variety in taste. Maybe I’m better than most – I haven’t checked – but I still have to concede that most of what I want to watch in TV and film falls into a small handful of broad genre types, with the occasional guilty pleasure (Oh Deadliest Warrior, why can’t I quit you?!) However, while it’s always fun to tune in to another episode of a show you already consistently enjoy, or pop in a favourite DVD for the hundredth time, there’s nothing like the kick of discovering something awesome that you weren’t expecting, or you were even actively expecting to hate.

That’s one thing that was so great about regular, scheduled TV. It was a broad map of completely unbiased variety. Of course, there are plenty of specialist channels, but even so; switch on at any time of day and flick through the listings, and you’ll find just about every kind of thing on somewhere simultaneously. Sure, most of it is bad, some of it is hilariously bad, and some of it is so bad you just have to sit there, in stunned silence, too horrified to even switch over, as you feel the desperate, unbridled cackling of madness bubbling up from the depths of your soul…

Netflix

Ahem, where was I? My point is, it’s worth it for the hidden gems that are out there, and it’s an experience that viewing according to your own schedule and tastes cannot replicate. Of course, you can find lots of different varieties of programs on places like Netflix (though, in a bit we’ll get to why that’s still not a good thing for a lot of what’s currently there), however Netflix is constantly using the data it collects from you to rig your selection, pushing to you shows and films it feels you’re more likely to watch (it wants you to keep paying that subscription fee, after all). An innocent customer service, surely? Probably, though I’m not so certain being second-guessed by the data-crunchers is actually so helpful, and not just because their predictions can sometimes be way off-base.

Annoyances aside, the more content of a certain kind you watch, the more similar content gets suggested to you, the more it fills up your browser listings, the less of anything else you have to choose from, and so the vicious cycle is complete. Sure, you might be up to your ears in all the jungle survival shows you could possibly desire; but, much like the thermos full of urine that’s going to save Mr. Grylls from dehydration, you’re stagnating. In its quest to make it as easy as possible for you to find more of what you like, Netflix has robbed you of your ability to broaden your horizons, and to surprise yourself. In this way, I believe you can have too much of a good thing.

2. It Only Suits A Limited Range Of Genres

It’s no coincidence that the renaissance of serious, adult drama on TV is coinciding with the increasing domination of streaming and the box-set format. They go together very well. It’s a genre that relies heavily on narrative suspense that makes you crave the next episode, that thrives on word of mouth in the age of social media, and with episode and season lengths that are nice and meaty on their own, but with dedication and a day off can usually be blown through in a handful of sittings. It’s a match made in heaven, and so naturally, more and more of them are getting made in order to jump on the very lucrative bandwagon. Now, I’m by no means against this, especially when you consider that a short time ago the industry was dominated, by a truly huge margin, by reality TV and talent shows, which at best annoy me and at worst sicken me to my black, pulsating core.

Planet Earth

It’s done a lot of good for us, but not everyone is reaping the benefits; and if our future lies entirely down the road of a la carte and on-demand entertainment, then that doesn’t bode well for the bigger picture. Take the sitcom, for example, or the documentary, or the cartoon, or even the one-off special. All worthy experiences in their own right when done well, but none traditionally employing the same kind of tactics that are making box-set dramas such a huge hit right now. I watch an episode of Planet Earth; it’s breath-taking, informative, and David Attenborough is a God among men… but when I’ve finished it I don’t think, “Aw man, I’ve gotta watch just one more!”

I’m not saying that we face a kind of mass-extinction event just around the corner. As I said before, you do still see a wide variety of genres being streamed on Netflix after all. However, some are undoubtedly more popular than others, thanks to the strengths of the format; and I worry that, if scheduling and dedicated genre spaces are going to become a thing of the past, all but the best known staples of this genre are going to struggle to get past the first rung on the ladder. Netflix and other, similar services, naturally want to push what their metrics judge to be popular in their marketing, and their customers will, again naturally, be drawn in by what has been advertised. If this trend is allowed to run unchecked, then some programs, no matter how fresh or well-made, could be lost in the vast ocean of content, never getting their heads above water, simply because they belong to a genre that is never going to get everybody talking about it, no matter how good an example of said genre it is.

3. You Can’t Keep Up… And That Is A Real Problem Now

Yeah, yeah, I know. The First World Problems are strong with this one, but hear me out…

Fashions have existed all throughout recorded history. They are hardly a modern annoyance. However, an increasingly broad and fast pace of life has led to all new fashions invading every space that we inhabit, as well as a faster turnover that the ordinary person cannot hope to keep pace with. It’s not just about what you wear and how you decorate anymore; a box-set, binge-ready TV culture, fuelled by social-media hype, has turned our entertainment into a fashion accessory as well. More and more, what you are and aren’t ‘current’ on in the TV landscape determines your ability to hold a conversation with people.

Yes, before the last decade or so, you still might have every so often discovered an unforgivable gap in your pop-culture repertoire (“What do you mean you’ve never seen The Godfather?!”) However, time was these were few, far-between and easily remedied if you gave a damn. What’s more, in those halcyon days when TV shows were dispensed to you at a specific time on a specific channel on a daily or weekly basis, then we all pretty much moved at the speed of the slowest person in regard to what we were caught up on. Infuriatingly slow now, of course, but it kept us all on a level, and if you weren’t watching something, then it could be safely assumed that you’d either never heard of it, or didn’t care about it.

The Wire

Now? Well, I’m not exaggerating when I say I have an actual catalogue of ‘Best Shows Ever’ that I haven’t gotten around to watching yet. I still haven’t seen The Wire. Can you believe that? The nerve of me! It wouldn’t be so bad I suppose, if behind my caustic exterior I wasn’t a closet optimist. I want to believe the hype about all of this stuff, and I want to experience it all for myself, but watching it takes time, and there’s just so much of it; and, every time I cross one off the list, three more have piled on! Oh, and for all the vastness of my DVD collection, I can forget watching anything twice, maybe to see what I missed the first time around and get a deeper appreciation, or just to spend time with an old favourite. If I did that, how could I possibly face Shaun tomorrow, who’s been trying to get me into Boardwalk Empire for months?!

It’s even worse when you’re halfway through something, now that online streaming networks have taken to releasing entire seasons of fresh new shows at once. If you go to work/school/on the internet tomorrow, having only had time to watch the first six episodes of Orange Is the New Black, then good luck trying to have a conversation with anyone. Sure, the people who don’t watch it at all are wearing looks on their faces like everyone around them is speaking Swahili, but at least in their social no-man’s land, the spoilers can’t find them…

Not being current can turn you into a social pariah. You might wear the right shoes, and drive the right car, but God help you if you don’t know why everyone’s so mad at some kid called Olly.

4. There’s No Accounting For Preservation

I think almost all of us already understand the value art has, both in and of itself, and for what it can tell us about the history of times gone by. Most of us in turn then understand why it is so important to keep art preserved, so that these things are not lost for future generations. It’s predicted that over 90% of American films made before 1929 are lost because no one at the time gave any thought to preserving this budding art form. Believe me, this is not an abstract concern. Much of the video-game industry’s output from the Golden Age and before is facing the same fate, with only the very best known and most-liked titles being given lifespans longer than the hardware they were made for.

House of Cards

Now, we may not see movies and TV in the same way as we saw film back in the 1920’s, or video-games in the 70’s and 80’s. However, the way we consume them is changing, rapidly, and in a manner that is making much of the art we consume a throwaway thing. To understand how, you have to look closely at the business model of sites like Netflix. These streaming sites do not usually buy the rights to the art they host; they rent them. Netflix will only host a film or a show for as long as it’s willing to keep renewing their licence for it, meaning all but the biggest crowd-pleasers can end up homeless after a relatively short run, with perhaps in the future not even a physical existence to show for it. If trends continue, with physical media becoming ever more obsolete, then it would be all too easy once again for movies and shows that didn’t quite make the cut to once more start vanishing into thin air, accessible only by the memories of those who watched them at the time, which won’t last forever.

It might seem like Netflix’s expansion into production is a potential antidote for this problem. Surely, you might think, they will take greater care of productions such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, among others, that they have made themselves? Well, you would be right… in theory. However, this raises a problem all of its own. A film or show made exclusively for streaming, that has been filmed, edited, and distributed in an entirely digital process from start to finish, has no need for any kind of physical media presence at all. The rights may be better preserved, but the art itself is vulnerable to being corrupted. This doesn’t have to be a problem in the future, but going forward, we would do well to understand the value of permanence that a fully digital existence can never guarantee.

5. It’s Inherently Anti-Social

I may be wasting my time even trying to make this last bit not sound like nagging, but let’s all be honest. A human being, healthy of mind and body, needs to be going outside every once in a while. The point is, if you’re spending hours, or even days on end, marathoning The Soprano’s or all the Bond films (particularly if you’re doing this alone in your room), and you’re not already cooped up inside for some other reason, then you are being anti-social. Maybe you like it that way, but let’s call it what it is. I don’t want to sound like I’m directing this at anyone in particular. I’m not going to speculate on the personal lives of people I don’t know (and hey, I like my ‘me’ time as much as anyone). However, if the above applies to you on a not-infrequent basis, then you know who you are, and you should know it’s not good for you.

Now, many might say to that there’s nothing stopping you from making these tests of endurance a social activity. Movie marathon nights are a thing, right? You and a bunch of friends go to someone’s house, and over popcorn and beers (cosplay optional) you power through the entire Harry Potter franchise together. Good times, right? Yeah, I know about them. I’ve been to a few myself… and they have unwaveringly been awful.

Harry Potter

From a social standpoint, this only works when everyone involved is really just looking for an excuse to spend time with one another, rather than actually being invested in what they’re watching. In fact, it invariably helps if the subject matter is universally agreed upon to be terrible. That way, it can become a point of conversation and even humour without ruining everything. That is the one exception to the rule I can see. Otherwise, you are essentially taking all the worst parts of going to the cinema, making it longer, less majestic, and adding a quite frankly offensive ratio of onesies to real clothes. If anyone tries to talk, people who want to listen get mad. If someone needs the bathroom, arguments are started over whether or not play should be paused; and people who could only find space at the edge of the room and can’t see anything stew in a ball of resentment all evening. At best, none of that happens, and your numbers are slowly whittled down as people get too bored, too tired, or too drunk. It ends with you alone, a third of the way through Order of the Phoenix, trying to keep your eyes open and acutely aware of just how many times Gary farted.

It’s okay; you’re safe here. You can admit it… None of you have ever enjoyed one of these, let alone made a new friend at one. Most of us do not watch our favourite shows and movies while in company (I’d argue to an extent that even the entire concept of ‘favourite’ things is an innately personal, private experience) and even when we do, we are not socially stimulated.

Castle

However, there is an upside; and as much as I loath to admit it, it comes with the help of Twitter and Facebook. Social media in and of itself is a pretty poor substitute for genuine social interaction much of the time, but if there’s one thing it’s really, really good at, it’s sorting out what you have in common with who. It has never been easier to find interests that you didn’t know you had in common with other people. ‘Sharing’ culture is a melting pot for the kind of topical, water-cooler conversation that can forge new friendships and solidify existing ones. I know my mother and I have recently bonded over Castle, combining her love for procedural US cop-shows, and my love of… well Nathan Fillion, basically.

Now, this in turn may contribute to the problems of point #3. However, the good thing about ‘that show everyone is talking about’ is that people are actually talking.

All the potential pitfalls aside, it’s fairly clear by now that these new avenues of entertainment are here to stay, at least for as long as it takes for the next bright idea to come along and make them obsolete; and somehow, I don’t see any future advancements doing anything other than making these problems ever more endemic. Therefore, it’s pretty pointless to bemoan the tide as it rushes in, especially when it brings with it so much to be thankful for. That said, just as with every tool and service, there are ways to use, and abuse, the opportunities they offer. Netflix isn’t going to check up on you to make sure you’re getting a balanced diet of entertainment in your life. My Game of Thrones box-sets don’t care about what I’m doing with my spare time. It’s up to us, the consumers, to take that responsibility. Our leisure time is ours to spend how we wish, of course, and enjoying the conveniences of the modern age is nothing to feel guilty about. However, I believe we have a duty to ourselves above all, to make sure that we explore a variety of different tastes in a variety of different ways, and that we don’t let convenience isolate us.

Now where did I leave my trousers…


David Sayers is an aspiring writer and a long-time contributor to The Escapist forums. If you like his work, be sure to nag him to make a blog or something, so you can check him out on it (he doesn’t even use Twitter, the boob)!


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