Why We Binge-Watch Our Favorite Shows And How It Impacts Us

ILLUSTRATION - The English word "binge-watching" spelled out in Scrabble letters in Schwerin, Germany, 5 November 2015. The expression, describing continuous television viewing, was named word of the year by the British Collin's dictionary.
Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images

Earlier this year, Apple TV released Ted Lasso, starring Jason Sudeikis as an American college football coach who is hired to run a professional soccer team in England. Unfortunately, Lasso doesn’t know the first thing about soccer. Having spent the last year living in the UK, my wife and I felt more than prepared to immediately start watching, being all too familiar with the “football” faux-pas which Lasso was about to experience. The show seemed like nothing but fun. And it was, at first.

After watching the first three episodes in quick succession, the fourth episode didn’t appear on the screen during the credits. Thinking our TV was broken, we restarted the system, only to come back to the menu and see — in a terrifying, tiny font — “Episode 4 Releasing in 7 Days.”

What sort of nonsense is this? We don’t get to watch the entire show right now? We have to … wait? Well, waiting is what we did. Excruciating week after excruciating week, we sat down on Friday nights at 5pm to watch what had quickly become one of our new favorite shows.

In the process, we realized that something had changed, and that our usual routine of binge-watching entire seasons had altered the way we viewed television, creating a new set of wants and desires that were now left unfulfilled.

Americans’ New TV-Watching Schedule

Television shows now resemble a JG Wentworth commercial—“It’s my show and I need it now.” We want to watch a lot at a time, and we want to watch it on our time. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends roughly 2.7 hours watching TV per day, which adds up to almost 20 hours per week.

Given the amount of time we spend in front of our screens, is it surprising that a Netflix survey found that 61% of users regularly watch between 2-6 episodes of a show in one sitting, and another study showed that most Netflix users choose to binge-watch a series instead of taking their time (finishing on average one season in one week)?

If we look at these findings, it’s clear that we have specific demands regarding when we want to watch what we want to watch. If a show lies outside of my schedule (i.e. having to wait until Fridays at 5pm to watch Ted Lasso), it’s more likely that we won’t keep watching. But our expectations for timing also bleed into what we expect from the type of content we want to watch.

Viewers’ Expectations

Another strange result of the binge-watching phenomenon is the way that television show producers rely on “hooks” to draw viewers in, and then keep them watching. For example, 361,000 people watched Season 2 of Stranger Things on the first day it was released. This is, at least in part, the result of the consistent use of cliff-hangers which makes it almost impossible for viewers to wait beyond the allotted 10 seconds before allowing the next episode to play automatically.

Another strategy which drives viewers to keep watching is demonstrated by shows like Broadchurch, which present viewers with an intriguing and unanswered question in the first episode. If you want to find out who murdered 11-year-old Daniel Latimer, you will have to wait until the end of the show. Instead of relying on consistent and repeated cliffhangers, shows like Broadchurch keep viewers engaged by capitalizing on our desire for closure.

As Gayani DeSilva, a psychiatrist at Laguna Family Health Center in California, explains, “when watching a TV program, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same as when experiencing a live event. We get drawn into story lines, become attached to characters and truly care about outcomes of conflicts.” Binge-watching eliminates having to experience uncertainty. We no longer have to wait to find out what happens, and can simply keep watching.

The symptoms of our newfound impatience are not limited to binge-watching our favorite shows. When we want to know the age of a certain actor, or what other movies they’ve been in, or their net worth, we don’t call a friend who knows a lot about movies and actors, hope they pick up the phone, and hope they know the answer. Instead, we can just ask Google and immediately quench our thirst for knowledge.

In the same way, binge-watching gives us what we want now. Not only does binge-watching fulfill the expectations we have for conclusion, and the closure that comes with it, but it also creates a certain set of desires that we now need to fulfill.

How Binge-Watching Is Driven By and Drives  Our Desires

After a difficult day, tuning out in front of the television and binge-watching your favorite show feels like a reliable stress reliever. Our brain releases dopamine — the chemical associated with pleasure and happiness — which reinforces continued viewing and the perceived enjoyment that comes with it. 

Therefore, viewers want shows that make them feel good…literally. We’re not just looking for happy television. We’re looking for shows that give us the dopamine hit that comes with them. If the show is binge-worthy, then that dopamine hit becomes even easier to source. Frankly, it’s not unlike a drug user looking for that next hit. As clinical psychologist Dr. Renee Carr explains:

“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 favorite 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 neuronal pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as an addiction to binge watching. Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.”

We binge watch television shows because we crave the fulfillment that comes with being entertained. In isolation, that’s not necessarily a bad thing — who hasn’t wanted to zone out after a long day? — but it does mean that entertainment industries are now prioritizing shows based on our desire for dopamine-heavy binge-watch sessions. 

Looking at data from 2018, 43% of Netflix’s upcoming productions fell into the comedy and sci-fi/fantasy genre. Considering the types of shows people are likely to binge, this isn’t a coincidence. Amazon, on the other hand, focused 25% of their producing efforts on dramas. While these two streaming giants continue to lead the way in modern entertainment, when we consider the focus on delivering binge-worthy content it’s not hard to see why Netflix continues to stay ahead, with 190 million viewers compared to Amazon’s 150 million.

Given this growing focus, we have to wonder if shows like Ted Lasso are going to survive. In our modern environment of entertainment, success has less to do with the quality of the content, but everything to do with the delivery. Gone are the days where people tune in for their “Wednesday night drama.” We watch our shows on our schedules. If a show doesn’t fit with our schedule, we will look to replace it with one that does.

The Role of Societal Pressure

In addition to fulfilling your own desires, there is also pressure on a societal level to keep up. If you didn’t finish entire seasons of Stranger Things within the first weekend of its release, you were left out of the conversation. As clinical psychologist and professor, Dr. Ariane Machin explains, “Cue the ‘This Is Us’ phenomenon and feeling left out if you didn’t know what was going on! Binge watching can make us feel a part of a community with those that have also watched it, where we can connect over an in-depth discussion of a show.”

Put simply, are we willing to wait? COVID-19 has consistently pushed back movie release dates, and one has to wonder what sort of impact this will have on future viewership. Will people flock back to the movie theaters, eager to see these long-awaited new releases? Or will everyone stay content with what they already have at their fingertips in their own home?

Ending the Binge-Watching Trend (at Least Some of the Time)

What’s interesting about Ted Lasso is that my wife and I finished the entire season. Starting with the fourth episode and going all the way to the finale, we never missed a week. We either tuned in on Friday nights or found some time over the weekend to watch. What was a frustration at the start — “Why won’t the TV let us keep going?” — actually became a source of joy.

We began to look forward to the next episode, eagerly anticipating what was going to happen, even to the point where we would attempt to predict what would happen to various characters throughout the week. When we finally did get to watch the next episode, that time was cherished and appreciated. Often, we found ourselves rewinding to re-watch the funniest moments because we knew this was all we had for the week.

While I’m not prepared to say that binge-watching needs to disappear, there is something special about delayed gratification. There’s something powerful about looking forward to the next episode and learning to enjoy uncertainty for an entire week. 

Weekly installments instilled in me a sense of wonder, excitement, and energy that I hadn’t felt for a television show in a long time. So, maybe, just maybe, some shows are worth the wait. Or maybe, it’s not the shows that are worth it, but merely the act of waiting.

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