Normalizing the binge: We've decided gorging on TV is harmless—with Netflix's help

TV marathons have more in common with other addictive behaviors than our ironic acceptance might suggest

By Thomas Cook
Published June 17, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)
  (<a href=''>LoloStock</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(LoloStock via Shutterstock)

The most recent study conducted by Netflix on the viewing habits of its subscribers has yielded, understandably, an only minor ripple in the electronic fabric of our news cycle. This is partly due to how the press release frames the study, which is basically as more or less feel-good propaganda for increased binge-watching. The truly inspired touch is the company’s attempt to tap into one of our most deeply rooted and widely bandied American values: freedom of choice. With this study, Netflix claims that subscribers today autonomously “choose to binge” and that they do so at different rates, rates that correspond to how discerningly their subscribers adapt their viewing patterns based on the genre of program they’ve chosen to ingest. Some genres, such as dramas like “House of Cards,” with what Netflix calls “complex narratives,” and “sophisticated comedies” like “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” subscribers choose to “savor,” because the content is oh-so-rich, the jokes too rapid-fire to absorb all at once. Thrillers like “Breaking Bad,” on the other hand, we simply “devour,” propelled by the breakneck speed of the action, the unflinching drive of the plot. (The press release was nothing if not an advertisement for Netflix’s programming, of course.)

Keep in mind that all of the viewing Netflix describes, whether that viewing is savoring, devouring, or one of the categories that fell in between those and remained unnamed (noshing? gorging?), registers clearly on the company’s fantastic “Binge Scale,” a colorful wheel of binge levels populated with characters from our favorite shows that provides a handy way to self-diagnose the level of one’s consumption by genre and hours of captive streaming. Only those subscribers who were “focused on finishing” a season of a given series and succeeded in doing so were counted in the study of viewers across 190 countries, and we’re left to assume that many millions succeeded by this metric, but the precise number of Netflix’s 81 million worldwide subscribers who provided data was not revealed, in the same way Netflix refuses to divulge its ratings, much to the consternation of its competitors.

In addition to celebrating our freedom to binge, Netflix accomplishes a sleight of hand by avoiding questions about what bingeing is and what its effects may be, instead presenting bingeing as a kind of normally regulated activity that one might discuss as one does a gym routine or a gardening hobby. It no longer behooves Netflix to try and understand what bingeing is and how it affects us as they once did in a previous study that dates from the dark ages of 2013; rather, today, their efforts to diversify our conception of bingeing by promoting different ways one might binge and aligning those behaviors with specific genres and programs are all generally aimed at normalizing the practice through the development of various bingeing normalcies with which one might identify. If you’re not one kind of binger, you’re likely another.

Is Netflix and its binge-promoting model evil? Major television networks might say yes, but they have their own motives. Netflix’s success at promoting its model of viewing over the now traditional, weekly viewing of network television episodes both frustrates and inspires network executives, but effectively most entertainment disseminators are on their way to a hybridized production model if not a complete conversion to the release-the-whole-season-at-once-and-let-them-feast approach for which we now hunger. And that alone can make one wonder: Do all entertainment companies seek to enslave us all to an extended series of binges with only brief interruptions for emergency trips to the bathroom and sugar fixes, eradicating our will to do anything other than keep watching until we expire, our subscriptions living on after us in a dystopian future a la the North America of the famous millennial entertainment in “Infinite Jest” portrayed in David Foster Wallace’s novel of the same name? Unfortunately, probably not.

Though the dystopian-future-sugar-fix-binge would be an exciting plot to uncover, the sinister part of what the Netflix study portends is both simpler and more disturbing. The contours of this troubling moment come into relief when we gather historical perspective—and realize that Netflix’s and other streaming services are not yet a full decade old. The truly alarming thing about where the conversation about bingeing is right now is that at the same time Netflix and their companies are working hard to normalize binge-watching and the production models that facilitate it, the behavior itself remains something we have only begun to study and understand. In this sense, though the forces of an apocalypse may not be aligning in the same way they do in Wallace’s novel, we may all be a little more like the author’s Hal Incandenza than we realize: “Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.”

What we know about bingeing today is the result of a few researchers, Yoon Hi Sung, Eun Yeon Kang, and Wei-Na Lee, from the University of Texas at Austin among them. In a much-circulated study, they suggest that binge-watching is merely one of many behaviors related to bingeing in general. Like bingeing on food, alcohol, or any other vice, bingeing on entertainment is partially the result of one’s inability to regulate one’s own behavior at large. This inability and the resulting behaviors can lead to anxiety, depression and obesity, or it can exacerbate these conditions in the cases where they already exist. In fact, research suggests a direct correlation between loneliness and depression and binge-watching, that the former can lead to the latter, and because the latter compounds the former, the cycle becomes difficult to break. Studies on the negative health effects associated with binge-watching also suggest that the average American watches enough television each day to rank at the highest level of the handy Netflix Binge Scale. Not only that, but the viewers know this fact, often self-identifying as bingers. This additional layer of the new binge-watching normal is how we end up where we are today: We hear the alarm, we smell the smoke, and revel in our arson instead of putting out the fire.

So, are we all depressed, we nation of binge-watching zombies, skulking from couch to cabinet, fixing our gaze on screens with ever-higher resolutions and definitions, totally aware that those screens are draining our will to live at the same time they’re burning our retinas? If we are, an increasingly younger portion of our population doesn’t see it that way, a Deloitte study seems to suggest. The results, released in March, provide some insight into how the condition of our new bingeing normal escapes our concern. Surveying more than 2,000 people last year, Deloitte concludes that not only do close to half of Americans now pay for subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix, but millennials who pay for such services usually have an average of three different subscriptions, and they tend to value their streaming subscriptions more than other media subscriptions (like that of traditional cable television, for example).

On their own, those results likely aren’t surprising, but as viewing values have shifted, so have other values. Perhaps some of the most remarkable data from the Deloitte study indicates that two-thirds of millennials actually value their mediated interactions (i.e., time spent with friends on social media) as much as the time they spend with those people in person. It doesn’t take Holmesian powers of deduction to connect FaceTime to Netflix-and-chill time—or, in other words, screen time to screen time. But what if mediated experiences are the experiences that not only millennials but most Americans are choosing? And what if we are choosing at an ever-increasing rate, fueled not only by our autonomy, as the Netflix study would like us to believe, but also by an entertainment industry that finally has the technology and critical mass of screens to launch a full-scale assault on our attention?

To think about any of these things—binge-watching, screen time, mediated friendships—as right or wrong is to oversimplify the issues that surround their proliferation. At the same time, flying the freedom-of-choice flag, the new-normal flag, over something you’re selling when a growing body of knowledge suggests that the thing you’re selling can seriously and negatively impact a consumer is, at least to some extent, irresponsible. But we can’t expect a profit-driven industry to regulate the products from which it derives profits, right? We can’t (nor do I think want to) ask a government or agency to regulate that industry for us, lest we end up with warning labels flashing before whatever they deem binge-likely programming: Unsafe for those with addictive behaviors. Would we take those warnings seriously anyway, or would they only entice us, the same way a smiley face on otherwise unmarked packages concealing the lethal entertainment did in "Infinite Jest?"

Though the prospect of labeling seems unpalatable (and potentially unsafe), what we can do, at least as long as we have the capacity to do so, is reflect on what this time of transition between one normal and the next normal signals. That we now refer to our viewing as bingeing—remember, one hour and 45 minutes in front of your screen puts your behavior squarely on the Binge Scale—certainly signals a semantic shift in how we regard the most common way most of us (Americans) unwind. Can that shift, the new language we use to talk about television viewing, start to awaken us to the cycle of addictive behaviors and emotional fallout of which binge-watching is only one part, or will bingeing remain a self-aware, ironic term to describe what we did with a Tuesday night? With an entire weekend? Perhaps if we use the term bingeing enough, the full connotative weight of the word, the fact that what we do when we watch that much television is succumb to the pleasure of deregulated, addictive consumption, will begin to register.

Thomas Cook

MORE FROM Thomas Cook

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Binge-watching David Foster Wallace Editor's Picks Infinite Jest Netflix Tv