In the age of limited attention spans, it's a little surprising that the new preferred method of watching TV is such a time-consuming affair: binge-watching. For so long, TV broadcasters and consumers alike believed that timing was everything, and that the ritual of gathering around to watch a certain show on the same day and at the same time each week was as important as the show itself. But the rise of binge-watching proves that's not true at all.
So why do we binge-watch? Here are some of the scientific explanations behind why services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon On Demand are changing the way we watch TV.
1. The Brain Chemistry Behind Binge-Watching
As anyone who's eaten 11 cupcakes in a row can tell you, tiny pastries are satisfying in a way that regular-sized cake just isn't. When you eat one cupcake, you complete a whole action, and your brain releases a little dopamine in response. When you eat a piece of cake, you'll still get a sugar rush, but you'll miss that shot of dopamine because you haven't completed an entire action. You've only started to eat the cake, you haven't completed it.
Just like the cupcakes, when you watch a full episode of Sons Of Anarchy or House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, as soon as the episode ends, the reward center for completed actions is triggered in your brain, and woo-hoo! another shot of dopamine. Unlike movies, where you have to wait 90–120+ minutes for another completed action boost, streamable shows provide that dopamine every 20-60 minutes, and there's always another cupcake on the way.
Even though it might seem like one long episode that blurs together, your brain knows better. The fact that it's broken up into many episodes is what keeps you tuned in for days (or weeks) at a time.
2. When Is It Binge-Watching?
Netflix conducted its own study, surveying users in order to find out the tipping point between watching one episode and plowing through an entire season (or set of seasons). As reported in this article from Ask Men, they found that users started binge-watching their favorite shows after a few episodes, and once they started, 70 percent of viewers didn't stop until they finished the whole season.
Breaking Bad, the most popular show on Netflix, had users addicted by the second episode. It takes three episodes for House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Dexter, and Gossip Girl to become a habit. How I Met Your Mother and Arrow took about eight episodes for viewers to commit, but once they did, the majority of them went on to finish the whole series.
While traditional broadcast series like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead stagger their episode release and retain incredibly high viewership, Netflix has found that the exact opposite model can hold onto viewers, too. In fact, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos says that the way Netflix originals are released is better for building and maintaining a fan base:
"[Our method of releasing whole seasons at once] is more aligned with how fans are made."
3. Everybody's Doing It
According to the 2015 TiVo survey:
Negative perception of binge viewing has greatly decreased, to only 30 percent of respondents (versus 53 percent just two years ago). Overall, 92 percent of respondents reported binge viewing at some point, demonstrating that binge viewing is a new norm.
Gone are the days of "the idiot box." People might still feel disappointed or gross after especially hardcore bouts of binge-watching, but overall, the perception of binge-watching is changing. It's no longer considered the epitome of laziness; it's merely a fact of life. Thirty-two percent of TiVo respondents admitted:
[They] deliberately put off watching an entire season of a show until they can watch the whole season at once.
Writer Kimberly Alters even suggests binge-watching as a key to socializing. When young Alters moved to NYC without knowing anyone, she decided to catch up on the two decades of TV she'd been missing for her entire life. The result? She bonded with old classmates, far-away friends and new co-workers. She felt like she was a part of pop culture and belonged more securely to her peer group.
For better or worse, binge-watching is a primary method of media consumption in 2016, and it looks like it's here to stay.