LUSANDA FUTSHANE

The word “binge” has some negative connotations. It is generally used when you stay away from something (that is not good for you to begin with) for a very long time, and when something negative happens to you, such as getting fired, dumped or a bad mark, under the cover of darkness where no one can see you, you medicate yourself with whatever it is you like to binge on. So, automatically, the term “binge-watching” has a lot of baggage.

But it also looks like the trend that could change the television landscape and redefine what precisely it means to enjoy TV.

For a long time this has been the student viewing experience, but recently it has become everyone’s viewing experience. Binge-watching is nothing new but what used to be a fringe, often less-than-legal activity, has now become so mainstream that television networks have listened and started catering to it. House of Cards, an American beltway drama, was the first series to premiere an entire season online at once. The show went live on Netflix (an online streaming service) on 1 February this year and was a hit. How big a hit, you ask? Well, the show has been nominated for nine Primetime Emmy Awards this year, a historical first for a web series. A second season is currently in the works.

Netflix has since released other straight-to-web series that have also done well: Hemlock Grove, a horror/thriller that has been critically divisive but still managed to earn two Emmy nominations, and Orange Is the New Black, a comedy-drama about a woman who goes to prison, premiered in July to much fanfare. Netflix also revived the ill-fated cult sensation Arrested Development for a fourth season, seven years after Fox cancelled the comedy. As with House of Cards, entire seasons of these shows are available to view online at once.

The 2013 Edelman Global Entertainment Study, which surveyed over 6 000 adults between the ages of 18 and 54 from all over the world, revealed that 88% of its respondents prefer to watch consecutive episodes of their favourite show one after the other. One reason for this could be time. Most adults’ lives are already filled with studies, jobs and maintaining social lives which leaves a small amount of free time over the weekend and the occasional public holiday to actually catch up on TV shows. Having all the episodes of a certain show puts you in charge of your viewing experience – you decide how much to watch and how often.

Another reason could be the jaw-dropping way that episodes of most TV shows end, leaving week-long periods of suspense and torture. Most people are often anxious to move on to the next episode. What do those numbers mean? Who was that shadowy figure wielding an axe behind the door? How are they ever going to get off that island? These are the kind of questions people used to obsess over until the following week when the next episode premieres, but the success of binge-watching suggests that viewers no longer enjoy the suspense. It is almost like reading an intense crime novel – the last thing you want is someone telling you that you cannot read the next chapter until next week.

But what does this mean for the television industry? “TV executives are torn by the development: gratified that people are gorging on their product, frustrated because it’s a TV party that all-important advertisers aren’t invited to,” writes John Jurgensen for the Wall Street Journal. And therein lies the problem: this new television paradigm is difficult to monetise for networks who have relied on advertisers to fund their business for decades.

Binge-watching dissidents also try to defend the integrity of serialised television and the need for breaks in between intense scenes, episodes and seasons. In an Entertainment Weekly article entitled “The case against binge-watching”, Mark Harris writes: “It has been more moving and exciting to me to watch Mad Men over six years than it would have been to watch Don and Peggy age a decade in six weeks. Breaking Bad is not one long chopped-up movie; it’s a series that is hugely enhanced by the breathing room that’s built in between each immaculately crafted hour.”

At the end of the day, the ultimate argument in favour of binge-watching is freedom of choice. As with anything worth bingeing on (cake, vodka, pizza – to name a few), you have the freedom to have it all now or save it for later. And once you choose to wolf it down in one deep breath, you need to be prepared to deal with the hangover, as you will emerge from your long weekend unwashed, under-rested and covered in popcorn seasoning. But at least you found out who the axe-murderer was and that is all that matters, right?

Photo: Hendro van der Merwe