How Binge Watching Disrupts the Structure of Television Storytelling

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Some people are asking if binge watching is the future of television consumption.

Binge watching is attractive. It represents the culture of individual choice. We get to choose when to watch our television episodes. We get to choose how we watch them. We get to choose how many we watch at a time. We can watch a full season of a television show in one sitting if we’d like.

But by binge watching – namely, by watching several episodes of a television program at once – we lose what I’ve always seen as an essential part of the television watching culture: discussing and pondering the show in between episodes.

I cannot imagine what it would have been like to watch Lost without taking a break in between each episode. I was lucky that I watched it during the years it was airing, as half of the fun surrounding Lost was going online the minute after each episode aired and exchanging theories with others. And then there would be the brilliant analytic essays that would appear, unpacking the many questions raised in the episode.

Watching Lost in tandem with others enriched my viewing experience; it made the show feel like I long journey I undertook. Even if I can’t watch a program as it airs, I try to catch up a few episodes at a time in order to digest what I’v watched, which mimics the experience.  Binge watching would simply not yield the same experience; rather, it would feel as though the story had hit me in the head with one swoop.

My problems with binge watching boil down to three simple concepts:

  1. The term binge conjures a host of negative images about television.
  2. Binge watching breaks the episodic structure.
  3. Binge watching doesn’t allow for the careful analysis that many good programs deserve.

The proponents of binge watching say that it allows them to see the overarching story of a program and to experience the program as a story rather than as a series of episodes.

Binge watching is, after all, similar to reading a novel.

Television comes in episodes. Novels, by and large, come in chapters. We’re expected to watch television episode by episode, and yet, we’re expected to read a book at our own pace.

The problem with arguing in favor of binge watching lies in questions of design, and binge watching fundamentally disrupts the structure of television storytelling. Writers of television write for each episode to be consumed by itself; each episode is a mini-story in itself, part of the larger story that the series will tell. An episode will often end at a point at which one should stop and take careful note of what just happened. Novelists write knowing the reader will read at his own pace. So when you adopt a television viewing style that’s suited to the other design – which is exactly what binge watching does – you aren’t quite going to get the same punch from each episode.

Novels, however, weren’t always designed to be consumed at one’s own pace. With the serial novel, popularized in the nineteenth century, Dickens and Tolstoy, to name just two luminaries, published works episode by episode in periodicals. Readers had to wait and ration their consumption, just like television viewers only a few years ago.

And, ironically, just as binge watching television is becoming more common, some are predicting the return of the serial novel. Read-alongs on book blogs also like to do this, giving bloggers a chance to pick apart a book while they’re reading.

So let’s take a cue from history and slow down. It’s worth it to savor rather than binge. 

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4 thoughts on “How Binge Watching Disrupts the Structure of Television Storytelling

  1. You raised some good points here. When “Lost” started airing on TV, it was all everyone in our office talked about! Like you said, it was fun to swap theories and discuss where the series was going. Binge-watching it would certainly lessen the experience of the series.

  2. I think you have a great point when talking about great dramas of the day, but for shows that don’t require the same post-viewing rumination I think it is great. Binge watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer is what rekindled an interest in TV for me. I think shows with a lighter tone lend itself to binge watching more than heavy shows. Certainly someone watching a pleasingly dumb procedural like Castle doesn’t need a week in between episodes to digest the content. The best binge watches are comedies. I would never “tune in” to watch Big Bang Theory, but cranking out 2 or 3 episodes nightly gets me in the spirit of the show. Again, I agree with the points you raise.

    • Thanks! You make a good point about comedies and procedurals, which I admit was an oversight on my part. But I do feel as though most people refer to the practice of binge watching when they’re talking about serialized shows that should be digested slowly.

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