Film & TV Writer Muireann O’Shea examines the ever-changing landscape of television and the cultural frenzy of binge-watching.
Have you seen the latest advertisements for Sky’s Box Set streaming service? They carry the brazen tagline: Lose Yourself. Is that supposed to entice us? Is our desire to dissolve ourselves into fantasy television worlds that obvious? Hippies of the seventies went on epic drug induced quests to ‘find themselves’. Nowadays we would rather lose ourselves in the wars of Westeros or Washington DC. But is it such a bad thing?
Millennial, and the television shows we watch have a bad name. We, the fickle and mindless youth of the world are shamed for our screen shaped eyes and ten second attention span. It’s always pegged as the plight of the latest and youngest generation and it’s never true. The quality and realism of current television is extraordinary, brimming with stunning visuals and complex plots. Yes, bad content still exists, but why is watching television still considered to be IQ deflating? Try watching Mr. Robot or Game of Thrones with the same amount of attention that you give to Keeping Up With The Kardashians and see how far you get.
To binge, or not to binge, that is the question. Netflix has 83 million subscribers, which equates to over 200 million people having access to an account. 70% of them binge watch regularly. Psychologists agree with Sky’s advertisement, we binge watch to escape, to forget the monotony of a life smothered by conversations about Donald Trump and the ever rising price of Freddo bars.
Viewers themselves provide a few different answers. Many say that total immersion in a TV show improves the overall experience. Shows like Orange is the New Black are written to be binged, so watching it in 45 minute fragments punctures holes in the story. Another reason is a fear of pop cultural exclusion. It reared its ugly head this summer, brandishing the threat of social pariahdom had you not seen Stranger Things.
Others claim that they binge watch to have control. In which case, perhaps ‘binge’ is the wrong word to use. Its connotations are to that of a loss of control, when in fact binge watchers have more power than any other viewers. They choose when to stop. They cannot be duped by cliff hangers or disappointed by filler episodes, because the next episode is never far away. In the case of whodunits, there is a lavish sense of completion to bask in when the mystery is solved. We are not compulsively bingeing, but joyously feasting.
Television seems more popular than cinema right now, although it’s hard to compare the two worlds. Films function through box office, industrially rated by how much above their budget that they earn. Whereas television runs on ratings and viewing figures. But consider this: over 100 million hours of Netflix are watched everyday. A staggering statistic like that is only made possible by the modern technology which allows us to carry our films and TV shows around with us in our pockets. Binge watchings biggest motivator is its convenient mobility. To put a seventies classic in the context of the 21st century; the Internet killed the Video Star.
Even though binge watching abducts large chunks of our days, it’s not an all-consuming activity. 20 million people still tune in to watch The Walking Dead live. Fans of Sherlock survive, miraculously, with three episodes every few years. We are not obsessed, but dedicated. Perhaps Sky’s advertisement is true, but we have not yet lost ourselves to television. We still go to the pub and complain about the weather and want to repeal the eighth. The only difference is that we’ve watched all four season of House of Cards in the meantime.
Muireann O’Shea | Film & TV Writer