“People are so obsessed with this program,” Stewart said. “I have people who work here, in this office, who disappear for days, on ‘Game of Thrones’ jags. And they are, they just come back with that, sort of, can’t wait —”
“Nerd glaze,” Dinklage cut in.
“Yes!” said Stewart. “You just coined something, sir.”
Ah, nerd glaze. It’s not something you get when you watch television. It’s something you get when you binge.
Addiction language is part of the culture — aided by the addicted antiheroes of acclaimed TV dramas — so it’s not surprising that the same slang is used to describe the obsessive consumption of television as is used to describe the out-of-control consumption of food, drugs or alcohol.
But why binge at all? In the so-called “Golden Age of Television,” is programming so excellent that it’s literally irresistible? Are humans hardwired to binge? And what does this mean for the next stage of TV, both for creators and consumers?
For those who think television is a brain-rotting, time-wasting toxic box of depravity, this is the beginning of the end. But for those who believe television is our next great art form, this is the beginning of the future.
Some TV-viewing facts from a 2013 Harris Interactive study: Nearly 80 percent of U.S. adults with Internet access watch TV through subscription on-demand services (like Netflix or Hulu), through cable on demand, or through a time-shifting device like a DVR. Sixty-two percent of people who watch TV whenever they feel like it will watch multiple episodes back to back.
There’s a sociological explanation for why we binge watch: Overindulging in entertainment is as American as McDonald’s apple pie. We’ve never met fries we couldn’t super size. We’ve demanded six “Fast and Furious” movies. Moderation is for Canadians.
There’s also a scientific answer, one you’ve likely discerned from personal experience: your favorite shows can be addictive.
Whenever you engage in fun activities — eating, drinking, having sex — your brain releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes you feel good. Every drug of abuse also directly or indirectly causes a release of dopamine, which is why (until they kill you) drugs make you feel good, too. You also have a forebrain, which allows for thought, evaluation and the prediction of consequences.
In other words, a miniature system of checks and balances has set up shop in your skull. It’s all very D.C.
Whether you’re deciding to watch “just one more” episode of “Breaking Bad” or you’re throwing back “just one more” tequila shot, a similar sequence is playing out in that particular part of the brain. According to Richard Rosenthal, chairman of psychiatry at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York, we have “momentary lapses in judgment . . . where we suspend that executive function and give ourselves permission to luxuriate in the TV show.”
In television, as with other rewarding stimuli, “access makes a difference,” Rosenthal said. That explains how the popularity of binge watching has risen alongside the increased availability of streaming services, and why the new Netflix model, “post play” — wherein the next episode of a series starts automatically unless you hit “pause” — is so effective: It eliminates a barrier to entry.
“They’re taking advantage of human nature,” said Rosenthal. “It’s good in one way, and it’s a bit scary in others.”
But wait! What about appointment viewing? What about that water-cooler moment? What about co-workers swapping Monday morning notes on Don Draper or Carrie Matthison? Or Hannah Horvath? Or Matthew Crawley? Or Daenerys Targaryen? Or — wow, Sunday is a really busy night. Good thing you have a DVR.
Beau Willimon, creator of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” finds all the panic about “the end of the water-cooler” to be amusing and ridiculous.
“A lot of people have brought that up with me,” he said, due to the fact that the entire first season of his series was posted on Netflix on Feb. 1, for viewers to guzzle or graze at will. “I don’t know why, because we’re already well beyond that. There is no water-cooler moment.
“What you have is really a trend in viewer empowerment,” Willimon said. “People getting to watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it, and on what device they want to watch it on.”
The question isn’t even why people view television this way in 2013, but why it took us so long to get here — and why anyone could possibly think we will go back to the way things were.
Television is behind the curve when it comes to ceding control to the consumer. We used to watch MTV for hours hoping a music video would come on; now we just look it up on YouTube. We used to play our favorite radio station all day to hear a new song; now we just stream it on Spotify. Soon enough, the idea of waiting a week for the next TV episode could seem as anachronistic as waiting for news to arrive by telegram.
“Every new technology that comes in creates a moral panic,” said Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “There is this baseline that the way we used to do it is ‘the right way,’ and the way we do it now is ‘the wrong way.’ ” This belief, she said, frames the discussion as a false debate that “is already anchored in the pejorative.”
Willimon doesn’t think the loss of appointment viewing “lessens the community at all.” Shows like “House of Cards,” he said, “have proven [that] these communities find each other.”
Bethany Rae Cramer, who works in PR in Ohio, started binge watching in 2010, with her then-long distance boyfriend. When the two were separated by geography, they’d create a sense of community by synchronizing their viewing habits. Now they still get together on the weekends and watch three or four episodes at a time, sitting side by side. “It’s a way for us to reconnect at the end of the week, because we’re so busy.” She and her boyfriend would rather wait until an entire series is complete before they even begin viewing.
Despite his pioneering role in the brave new entertainment world, Willimon isn’t anticipating a TV free-for-all. Writing and shooting a season “takes a certain, concrete amount of time” and deals are still structured by the episode, not the hour. Seasons operate on budgets. Even a game-changer like “House of Cards” isn’t changing the game everywhere. The first season is 13 hours long, Willimon said, because in some countries, “House of Cards” airs week to week with commercial breaks.
Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of “Arrested Development,” recently told New York magazine that he thinks it’s best if people don’t binge watch the new season, which premiered two weeks ago on Netflix. “Don’t feel obligated to watch it all at once. It’s a comedy! . . . Comedy takes a lot out of you.” His concern: You get tired, the jokes lose their funny. Bingeing results in diminishing returns.
Erik Cieslewicz, an independent filmmaker from Mount Pleasant, planned with his fellow fans to watch all the new “Arrested” episodes together the day of Netflix’s release. “I tend to enjoy television more when I can binge watch it,” he said.
Cieslewicz “laughed uproariously throughout the whole series as I watched it,” despite Hurwitz’s concerns. “I never felt like I wasn’t enjoying the joke because I’d been watching it for seven hours previous.”
Johnny Strada, a 29-year-old director of sales from Mount Pleasant, also binge watched “Arrested” but pointed out that his chosen viewing style is, in a way, a luxury sport. “In order to successfully binge, you have to have a few factors working your way: Some time to do it, less responsibilities in terms of home life, perhaps, and you also have to have a desire.” Which is to say, if you have three kids who need to be schlepped to three corners of the Earth for soccer games and slumber parties, plus errands to run and a dog to walk, you can’t plunk down on the couch and chug half a season of “Scandal” just because you’re dying to know what’s happening to Olivia and Fitz.
Maybe this explains our slightly judgmental terminology. Our culture is skeptical about the value of binge watching; that much is evident in our choice of a label. To binge is to cross the line between acceptable recreation and sinful sloth. Binge watching is a pleasure one must modify with “guilty.”
But not for long, argued Willimon. “I certainly think that television is an art form,” he said, albeit a young one that’s still vying for entry into the highbrow ranks alongside theater, film and literature. Most people would applaud devoting a weekend to consuming, say, the entire works of Shakespeare. Why should devouring all of “The Wire” over a vacation be different?
“Whether you find it valuable or a waste to engage with that art form over the course of a weekend,” he said, “that’s up to you.”