- Words by Benjamin VanHoose
Illustration by Mark Tabar
A look at television consumption pre- and post-internet, and why audiences can’t seem to let go of the past.
It’s just after 8 p.m. when Candice Harris sets her laptop on a table in a Koonce Hall lounge area. She had a stressful day of work and classes, and the last thing on her mind is the accumulating homework that she’ll have to tackle eventually.
Just not right now.
After taking a moment to get comfortable, Harris puts on a pair of bulky headphones and exults in the fact that she finally has a few hours to relax. She checks her phone one last time for any urgent emails or pressing assignments. Harris scrolls through her inbox one thumb swipe at a time when, out of the corner of her eye, she witnesses a stone-faced woman decapitate a trio of figures with the swing of a sword.
No one was hurt, of course. The now-headless beings was just visual effect trickery, and the weapon-wielding woman was merely an actress. Harris is simply catching up on her latest television binge: “The Walking Dead.”
With a gasp, then a chuckle, Harris laughs off her moment of shock, slightly embarrassed with her concern for the characters she has come to care for over the course of several seasons. She sets her phone aside, losing herself in the bright computer screen.
Harris, a junior studying communication studies, is one of millions who participate in binge-watching, or the act of marathon-viewing a TV series multiple hours at a time. Long-form, serialized television content has never been more accessible or readily-available, thanks to modern technology.
“When I really want to watch something, it’s all I can think about,” Harris says. “I can’t focus on a lecture or studying—I just can’t wait to get back to watching my show.”
Just because it is easy, though, doesn’t mean it is harmless. Some studies link binge-watching to depression, and even deem the viewing trend a public health concern on par with other addictions.
While today it seems like a Netflix account is a given in every household, the entertainment giant didn’t launch its instant streaming service until 2007. At the time, the online component to a Netflix subscription was like a novelty add-on, something to toy with but never a replacement to the mailed out DVDs.
So as little as 10 years ago, the world had to either rent or buy physical copies of series, or wait for the almighty broadcasting gods to air a desired program on TV. Either option is sure to sound equally as archaic to today’s tech-savvy youth, spoiled by high-speed Wi-Fi and On Demand.
The number of Netflix streaming subscribers skyrocketed quickly. According to Netflix’s earning reports, total subscribers grew from roughly 21 million in 2011, to more than 86 million global accounts in 2016. But it’s not only Netflix getting in on the streaming game; Hulu holds 12 million subscriptions, more than 63 million are with Amazon Instant Video and there are 1 million paying subscribers at HBO Now.
“Before, when I just had regular TV, I was limited on the time that I could watch my shows; it would be a certain time slot set aside for them,” Harris says. “But having Netflix and Hulu, you can pull it up on your phone, so any free time that I have—even if it’s like 15 minutes—I need to watch part of an episode, just so I can get to the next one.”
Just forget about DVD box sets; all it takes is the tap of an app icon on an electronic device with internet connectivity to invest in a long-term binge.
According to Deloitte’s Digital Democracy Survey, 70 percent of Americans claim they binge-watch on a regular basis.
Katelyn Gibbons, a junior studying geology, says binge-watching has taken over parts of her college life.
“After work, I prefer to watch TV instead of doing homework,” she says. “I have told myself I can multitask but that never works. [Binge-watching] also takes away from socializing and exercise.”
And it’s not a trend exclusive to younger generations, either. The Deloitte Survey also found 35 percent of binge-watchers aged 50-68 consumed four episodes at a time.
“My grandpa even binge-watches TV,” Gibbons says.
To put into perspective the time required to binge-watch one series from start to finish, take fan-favorite dramedy “Gilmore Girls” as an example. Prior to its Netflix revival, the series ran for seven seasons. Not counting the new content, multiply 154 episodes by 45 minutes each. That’s 115.5 hours—nearly five full days of a life—spent eyeing a screen.
Beside the obvious physical side effects that come with sedentary TV consumption, binge-watching is believed to be closely related to social and mental implications.
Researchers from the University of Toledo polled self-identifying binge-watchers and people who claimed to have normal viewing habits. The former group reported more signs of depression, anxiety and stress than the latter.
“We found some mental side effects associated with binge-watching in adults, such as adults reporting higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression when binge-watching, and similar results were found in college students,” says Jessica Sloan Kruger, a doctoral health education student involved in the University of Toledo binge-watching study. “Because of our study design, we cannot say these are ‘side effects’ of binge watching, but we know there are associations between the two.”
If binge-watching is so unhealthy, why are millions paying to do it?
“Because TV is widely available, it is that much more tempting,” Harris says. “I believe it is human nature to want to do things in excess, and as long as it is easily available, people will overuse it.”
The team of University of Toledo researchers is now exploring the effects of binge-watching on young adults.
“The current study is examining the relationships between binge TV-watching and mental health, sleep and physical activity and diet in college students,” Kruger says. “We are still analyzing the data to further investigate the effects of this behavior.”
Will society’s craving for constant television consumption forever be a staple in everyone’s lives? As of right now, binge-watching looks like it’s the new normal, for better or for worse.
“It has negatively impacted interpersonal communications and harmed society,” Harris says. “But I think it will be here to stay—at least until the next big thing comes out.”
Television doesn’t have to be a scary thing, though. Like any other guilty pleasure, it can be consumed in moderation.
“Watching TV for long periods of time can cause students to run out of time to complete other important tasks, such as coursework,” Kruger says. “Be sure to take a break, complete your work and continue to be physically active.”
Look at it in terms of something everyone is familiar with: food. One could either binge-eat an entire pantry of pastries and reap the regrettable aftereffects, or just indulge in a single donut for now and delve back later.
However, a junk food analogy may not be the best in this case as some studies show correlations between binge-watching and poor eating choices.
“Other studies have examined TV-watching and diet and found a negative relationship,” Kruger says. “We might recommend taking breaks between episodes and doing something active, or monitoring the amount and types of food you eat.”
For now, there’s no real need to cut ties with streaming services and abandon favorite characters. Try one to three episodes per day, as long as other responsibilities are fulfilled. It’s when the fates of Walter White or Olivia Pope become more important than a research paper that binge-watching becomes an issue.
As binge-watching establishes itself as a bankable business, streaming services are seeking the key influencer in viewing activity. The nostalgia factor is proving to be the secret ingredient to a viral sensation.
Classic TV shows have been the subject of many bidding wars, major platforms eager to add a series of high pedigree to their catalogs. In 2015, Hulu dropped an estimated $180 million for the exclusive streaming rights to ‘90s sitcom “Seinfeld.” But why are retro series licensing deals so important to Netflix, Hulu and competing giants?
“I feel like people go back and watch shows to feel young again,” Harris says. “I’m at that age where I’m getting older [and] not really digging most of the new shows, so I just go back to bring up good memories.”
For Harris, those go-to shows that transport her to her former TV-consuming days are “That’s So Raven” and “Family Matters.”
Alison Shields earned her doctorate at Kent State and now works as an assistant professor of marketing at Ithaca College in New York. Her previous research focussed on how nostalgia impacts consumer decision-making, and she recently began a paper on the correlations between binge-watching and nostalgia.
“We know that nostalgia is something people do to make themselves feel better,” she says. “When you’re stressed, you go to the familiar things that you used to love to watch when you were younger.”
For college students, this longing for the past tends to heighten.
“It’s a very big period in a college student’s life: you’re leaving your parents’ home, you’re becoming an independent adult—that can be scary,” Shields says. “Going back and rewatching those old shows reminds you of easier times.”
And it’s not only the oldies that give audiences a nostalgia fix. Studios have found ways to play into our nostalgic side within their original content. Netflix’s “Stranger Things” perfectly illustrates this. Although the sci-fi series is not a remake, reboot or adaptation, at times it bares striking resemblance to “The Goonies,” “E.T.” and other ‘80s fare. That callback to vintage cinema spoke to viewers and paid off for Netflix since the company partially attributed “Stranger Things” to its 31.7 percent revenue increase last quarter. There are, of course, other releases that more blatantly capitalize on nostalgic value.
But as it currently looks, the desire to revisit childhood favorites isn’t detrimental.
“I can’t think of a reason why, if you’re going to binge-watch, it shouldn’t be a show from your childhood,” Shields says. “I don’t think anyone should give it up altogether.”
At this point, consider it impossible to put the remote down.