David Eide – Opinion Columnist
Streaming has become the most common way that our generation consumes television, whether it be Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. For the most part, the switch to streaming has been good, people are now able to view the backlog of a show without having to wait for reruns or spend money on DVD sets. However, I believe there is a downside to the increasing prevalence of streaming. Namely that it has resulted in binge-watching becoming the main way that people watch TV shows.
This might seem a strange statement to some, as binge-watching has come to be seen as a much better way to watch television shows than the piecemeal methods of the past. Indeed, in its core form, I don’t think there’s much wrong with binge-watching. If someone is very invested in a show it’s only natural to watch every available episode to find out what happens next. However, the acceptance of binge-watching as the main way that people consume shows on streaming services has had a very negative effect on the medium of television.
For one, it has resulted in individual episodes of shows no longer having a cohesive arc as they have ceased to be individual episodes and are now part of a broader whole that will be consumed all at once. In the past, it was possible for shows to have one-off episodes that were entirely unrelated to the overarching storyline of the series. For example, the X-Files has a number of these so-called “Monster of the Week” episodes, many of which are some of the best episodes of the show. Even if a series does not have one-off episodes, they were still far more likely to have internal arcs within episodes that made them more fulfilling to watch independently of one another, such as with Breaking Bad or Hannibal. Contrast this with major streaming shows such as Stranger Things or Daredevil, where episodes feel a lot less distinct from one another and feel a lot more like a movie that was split into many parts than a set of interlocking yet independent stories.
The prevalence of binge-watching doesn’t just negatively affect the production of shows themselves; I also think it has negatively affected our overall enjoyment of the shows as well. Back when shows had a weekly format, viewers had a long period to process and think about the material they just watched. This allowed for the formation of separate memories for each episode. When a series is consumed in one sitting, on the other hand, it leaves no time for the creation of separate memories which leads to a more disjointed recollection of the various episodes.
Binge-watching has also harmed the way that popular television shows interact with our broader culture as well. When television shows were airing on a weekly format, it was easy for watchers to discuss amongst themselves, after all, by necessity they had all watched up to the same point. This is certainly not the case anymore. Due to Netflix’s model of releasing every episode at once to encourage binge-watching, it is now far less likely that people will all be caught up as various people could be at any point in the series.
Even streaming services have begun to realize that weekly releases are far more effective at maintaining pop-culture momentum. Take Disney+, which utilizes the weekly format quite effectively. I noticed that the buzz surrounding The Mandalorian lasted far longer than any of the talk surrounding Netflix’s original series. This makes sense, The Mandalorian received new episodes every week which prompted new discussion every week while Netflix shows have a brief week and a half of frenzied activity before slowly fading away. Bearing this in mind, it makes sense why most new streaming services pursue the weekly model rather than the Netflix model.
This is not to criticize those who enjoy binge-watching, I myself like to binge-watch old shows on occasion. Rather this is an attempt to point out what is lost when binge-watching becomes the dominant way that we watch television. I’m not asking anyone to change their habits, everyone is free to watch television how they want to. Yet I still genuinely think that television as a medium is better expressed in an episodic format rather than being consumed all at once. If a tightly constructed narrative stretching over 6 to 8 hours is really what you want, you could always just watch The Lord of The Rings extended editions.