Binge-watching: Enjoy the highs, beware of the lows

Why do we do it, and what do we get out of it? Is it escapism or an easy feel-good fix?

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Fri 21 Oct 2022, 11:06 PM

New words reflect new trends in new times. It was in 2015 that Collins English Dictionary declared ‘binge-watch’ as the Word of the Year, defining it as “binge-watch (verb): to watch a large number of television programmes (especially all the shows from one series) in succession”. But the idea is not exactly new. I remember reading The Phantom, Tin Tin, Mandrake comics at a stretch, or Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven book series, then moving on to James Headley Chase and Alistair MacLean books years ago, but no one then thought of coining a word for it: ‘binge-reading’. Even in the early 2000s, when a friend in Bristol presented me DVD sets of the ever-delightful BBC series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, and I watched them in a way that could only be described as ‘binge-watching’, the word did not cross anyone’s mind.

It is only with the global expansion of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime in recent years — and the release of House of Cards in 2013 — that ‘binge-watching’ took off and caught the attention of lexicographers at Collins and other dictionaries. Reality shows encourage binge-watching. Netflix has announced its latest Arabic reality show, Dubai Bling, promising to take you behind “the velvet rope to experience the glitz and glamour of life for the rich and famous in Dubai”. Premiering on October 27, the streaming giant says the docu-soap follows 10 Arab millionaires who are “living their wildest dreams in the Bling City, Dubai”.

The Collins definition already faces something of a revision: binge-watching is no longer confined to television sets, but is increasingly across laptops, tablets, iPads and even on smartphones. For less than the price of a month’s coffee, you get access to a wide variety of riveting content, including films. Broadcasting giants such as BBC have been repositioning their content and delivery systems to meet the infotainment needs of a younger generation that has less time for traditional programming peppered with advertising on television. Lockdowns in the Covid-19 pandemic also added to the growing numbers of binge-watchers.

Netflix has a ‘binge scale’, and a ‘bingeometer’ sets out which top programmes are binge-watched. It claims to have changed the way the world engages with stories — viewers watch when, where and how they want, at whatever pace — and in doing so, “has given rise to a new kind of fan: the Binge Racer. Accomplishing in a day what takes others weeks to achieve, Binge Racers strive to be the first to finish by speeding through an entire season within 24 hours of its release”. In 2017 it announced over 8 million subscribers had binge-raced at least one series, and listed ‘top 20 binge raced shows’ and ‘top 20 binge racing countries’ (Canada and US topped it).

Regulators across the globe have confirmed the growing incidence of binge-watching, even as health experts advise caution. Ofcom, the UK’s communication regulator, says the country “has become a nation of binge viewers”, with eight in ten adults watching multiple episodes of their favourite shows in a single sitting. Its research shows: that bedroom is the most preferred location to watch programmes; that younger viewers prefer streaming services such as Amazon Prime; that BBC iPlayer is the most popular on-demand service with 63 per cent of adults saying they use it, followed by ITV Hub at 40 per cent, YouTube at 38 per cent and Netflix at 31 per cent; that most binge viewers (70 per cent) find this type of viewing relaxing and enjoyable, and for others it is an opportunity to discuss with friends (24 per cent), but around a third (32 per cent) of adults admit the temptation to watch another episode has cost them sleep and left them feeling tired.

Says Lindsey Fussell, Consumer Group Director at Ofcom: “Technology has revolutionised the way we watch TV. The days of waiting a week for the next episode are largely gone, with people finding it hard to resist watching multiple episodes around the house or on the move. But live television still has a special draw, and the power to bring the whole family together in a common experience.”

Many in the world of binge-watchers are eagerly waiting for November 9, when Season 5 of The Crown will drop on Netflix. One of the most binge-watched series, it has already made news: it is due to cover the 1990s period, with former prime minister John Major already bristling at some of its bits, calling them a “barrel-load of nonsense” and “malicious fiction”; Netflix has defended it as “fictional dramatisation”.

Everyone remembers the first series they binge-watched (which was yours?): mine was Mirzapur on Amazon Prime. I remember well the strange experience in the evening, getting hooked after every episode, trying to justify to myself watching just one more episode, finishing bleary-eyed in the wee hours. The ‘cliffhanger’ in the narrative at the end of each episode is the irresistible hook.

In many ways, content offered by streaming services is designed to be addictive. It is clever marketing when there are no advertisements to distract you. The next episode loads before the previous one has ended and the ‘cliffhanger’ propels you further into the nether world of binge-watching. Such behaviour clearly informs marketing and programming decisions.

But why do we binge-watch, and what do we get out of it? Is it escapism or an easy feel-good fix?

Says Minnie Vaid, prominent Mumbai-based documentary-maker and writer: “For more than two years, every time I felt a tickle in the throat, the mind’s automatic reflex was fear – of it being Covid, of having to be hospitalised, of long-term side effects. After the first thousand such responses, I finally found a solution. I watched Downton Abbey on a loop, six seasons with at least eight episodes each, losing myself in the nostalgia-filled world of English upper-class aristocracy. It was so remote after all from the dystopian times that the world faced in 2020.”

For Vaid, this kind of binge-watching has been the norm for decades, way before the rise and expansion of OTT. “Watching web series, films or even the more pedestrian television soaps (so cathartic after all to watch women administering hard slaps in the saas-bahu serials) became the default setting for comfort. And distraction. It provides temporary relief from depression, anxiety, panic attacks. I call it my ‘nightie’ days — the ‘do-nothing’, indulge yourself, sitting in front of the television screen. I assure you it works! During and after Covid this self-indulgence was sanctioned instead of censured as the entire world needed some time out as well,” she adds.

As a film-maker and television professional, Minnie also has the ‘incentive or justification’ to keep watching to check what works with the audience and what doesn’t.

“I watch a LOT of shows… Not to forget the inevitable cliffhanger, so the hapless viewer is forced to watch Season 2, 3, 10 to find out what happened to the characters he didn’t even like that much! This is after all the power of the episodic formula, common to television and OTT. Sometimes you find a nugget you like — Panchayat, Gullak and Bandish Bandits — and then you’re back to the cringe-not-binge watching and end up following the Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives,” she says.

To understand the effect of binge-watching is to go into the realm of psychology and the biochemical processes that are constantly going on up there. You binge-watch because it makes you feel good; but you also do it when you don’t really like it, as some kind of escape from the grind of the real world. At times, binge-watching leaves you exhausted, emotionally spent, even depressed that there are no more episodes to continue the binge. A new term has emerged: PWBD, or post binge-watch depression. In an essay for New York Times, writer Matthew Schneier reported feeling “anxious, wistful, bereft” as his binge of Aziz Ansari’s popular comedy series Master of None neared its end.

Binge-watching makes us feel good because it links to the body’s natural responses to enjoyment, the chemicals released in the brain. As American clinical psychologist Renee Carr explains on NBC’s Better blog, “When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge-watching, your brain produces dopamine. This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It is the brain’s signal that communicates to the body, ‘This feels good. You should keep doing this!’ When binge-watching your favourite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.”

The process, she says, is like any other addiction: “Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine”.

Experts say binge-watching activates the part of the brain responsible for ‘reward’ functions, but over time, the brain produces less dopamine from the same level of activity as the level of tolerance builds up, which means it takes more and more of the same activity to give us that same feeling of enjoyment, making binge-watching TV shows that much harder to stop.

Oxytocin also comes into play. “When we can identify with a character it leads to the release of the love hormone oxytocin. It creates a bond”, explains British psychologist Hamira Riaz to BBC. “A series like Big Little Lies, which allows you to look at the same event through the eyes of very different characters, you’re bound to be able to find a character you can relate to and go on the journey with. If we’re making time to watch a series end-to-end, we are potentially creating hours of space to work with our emotions, our relationships”.

Research into health effects of binge-watching is new, but there are already pointers of risks. Experts suggest measures to ensure it does not become a habit, which could lead to several issues, such as sleep problems and fatigue, blood clots, heart problems, poor diet, social isolation, behavioural addiction, and cognitive decline. According to the US-based National Institutes for Health, a mostly sedentary lifestyle is causally linked to a number of poor health outcomes, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, strokes, excessive weight gain, and mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

Binge-watching is also linked to foregoing sleep, consumption of unhealthy meals, unhealthy snacking (‘distraction eating’), and sedentary behaviour. Experts say people who binge-watch tend to do so in solitude, and the more they binge-watch the more they isolate themselves, suggesting links between social isolation, binge-watching, and poor mental health outcomes, including cognitive decline down the road.

How to keep enjoying the highs of binge-watching and prevent its downsides?

To those already hooked, the advice may be easier said, but experts suggest some ways.

  • Setting clear parameters of time by making a commitment to stop watching after, say, two or three hours
  • Limiting yourself to watch a small number of episodes of a show at a time
  • Finding a balance between binge-watching and other activities, such as exercise, reading, a hobby, or spending time with a friend
  • Making it a social thing by watching with others, which would make it unlikely for you to be trapped into watching all the episodes
  • Not sacrificing bed-time
  • Snacking healthy while binge-watching

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