Why Live Television Doesn't Stand a Chance Against Binge Watching

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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

I hate to bring up Pretty Little Liars again (just kidding, I don’t hate it at all, but you might). The season 4 finale was the number one tweeted show of the year, according to Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings, but, unlike a few months ago, I wasn’t there cheering my favorite high school girls on as they figured out the ever-baffling mysteries of Rosewood, PA. Between season 4A and season 4B, I got knocked by the mid-season blues and nothing that the Liars said or did could get me to pay attention to them again.

Liars had a break last August until October and then only aired one episode (a plot-stalling Halloween edition) until January. That is basically going for four months with no Liars and, by the time that season 4B began at the beginning of 2014, I had no idea what was going on with them. Sure, there are recaps, but I felt completely disconnected to the four girls’ emotional states. Who were they really in love with now? Who were they kind of mad at and why? Who did they trust at this moment and who was up to something shady? In a way, following a TV show is like having a long distance relationship; your partner has to check in regularly and have a consistent personality. But for this show (and many others), the plot is too shifting and complex and the characters are too inconsistent and fickle for the show to disappear for so long in the middle of a season, which supposedly has some sort of arc.

I'm not alone in this feeling. Numerous friends have lost interest in equally gripping shows during mid-season breaks: Nashville, Scandal, Glee, etc. There are plenty of legitimate reasons why shows go on hiatus during the middle of a season (presidential debates, huge sports events like the Olympics, holidays, and more internal things like labor contracts for writers and actors). But one of the major reasons that there are breaks is because networks prefer to not air a show if the timing might affect their ratings (because viewers are doing things like spending time with their families during winter break) or this thing called sweeps, in which Nielsen does intensive viewer diaries every quarter that will affect overall ratings. Networks stretch out their seasons so that episodes can fall during those months of sweeps.

This makes sense; a TV show won’t live on if its ratings aren’t decent, but it seems that altering a TV schedule to get better ratings harms a viewer’s personal connection to the characters. Apparently, overall ratings aren’t hurt by the breaks (again, Pretty Little Liars was the most tweeted about show of the year), but with the rise of original streaming programming from Netflix and Hulu, we’re seeing that binge watching is changing the way that we enjoy TV.

To figure out how being able to stream a whole season of your favorite show affects viewing habits, Netflix employed cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to study and interview viewers while they binged on television. The definition of binge watching differs, but McCracken defines it as watching two to three episodes per night and finishing a season in a week. With this kind of approach, watching television became more deliberate, more focused, and a more contemplative activity. Instead of surfing channels out of boredom, binge watchers develop a more critical point of view. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that watching a lot of TV at once is going to make us smarter, but the form of dropping a whole season at once allows shows to be more coherent, cinematic, and meaningful.


Network television might be set in its ways, but, if history is any indication, that won't be enough to stop a business model shake-up. Take the serialization of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, for example. Installments of the novel appeared each week in a journal and readers had to wait to find out what happened. The serial novel was popular in those days for many reasons including low literacy rates (people paid others to read the chapters out loud to them) and the fact that it was cheaper to pay a little each week instead of paying up front for a whole novel. Tale of Two Cities was so popular that, towards the end of the novel, the public waited impatiently at the dock for the journal to be delivered from the publisher. There were even reports that people jumped into the water to swim to the ships that were carrying the final chapter.

Whether people really endangered their lives in order to be the first to read the end of a story or whether my high school English teacher, who first told me the legend, was just trying to get us to care about reading, the style of reading eventually changed. Now that literacy has grown and consumerism has taken on its current form, we rarely see serials, which have been very clearly replaced by novels (except a few exceptions by horror novelists Stephen King and John Saul). We can read a whole novel at whatever pace we choose. We are not at the mercy of the next shipment.


The change in TV is similar to the change in book publishing. Watching live TV is like waiting for that boat. Sometimes we wish we could jump in so we can get there first, but we have little control over when it will arrive. But binge watching a show is like reading a whole novel in one sitting. It allows us to get caught up and lost in a world without interruption. For the creators of television (writers, directors, actors), this is a huge advantage as well as a challenge to be better. It allows their work to open up to a larger scope and vision; it allows it to be experienced as something continuous. It also demands that a show be completely consistent and seamless, which leads to a better representation of reality with truer characters. "There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts," Dickens wrote in Oliver Twist. With streaming TV, there is less focus on an engrossing pilot and a cliff-hanging finale like those books. Viewers are hooked for the whole journey.