City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Binge Watching contemporary TV

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Mark Lawson recently wrote about the joys of watching DVD box sets. Always a delight to see the popular press turn up late to the party (lurching towards the table with a cheap bottle of plonk, leering at guests with a lopsided grin). This mode of consuming TV, which I prefer to call binge watching, has been on the rise for years now. It's certainly the preferred method in this household, and in many others we're familiar with. We don't watch TV on a TV anymore, basically. The contemporary 'TV guide' looks pretty much like a shelf of DVD boxsets; as Lawson has it: "box sets are stacked high and wide in a Manhattan skyline of old programmes". Lawson is pretty good, as ever, on the basic and self-centred delights of watching TV shows via DVD boxsets. It's not really the extras, despite the occasional illuminating commentary, Watching bloopers and deleted scenes serve only to reinforce why they were deleted in the first place. It's certainly not the god-awful 'quirky' interfaces DVDs often have. It's basically the ability to mainline a show, episode after episode, at a pace that suits you, rather than a broadcaster's schedule. It should also be noted that Bittorrent-based TV watching provides the same basic promise, yet Lawson doesn't. Whilst fiddly and not as instantly gratifying, the same level of control is there, to watch show after show, sans-ads and disaggregated from increasingly irrelevant global release dates. It produces the same effects.

Binge watching may well become the preferred mode of consumption for any episodic TV (outside of soaps, where a daily rhythm seems more apposite.) Certainly, for the higher quality shows or documentaries – the usual set of multi-threaded narrative dramas dissected best in Steven Johnson's 'Everything Bad Is Good For You', with the odd non-US drama like 'Bleak House' or 'State Of Play' chucked in – the rush of watching 2 or 3 on the trot is seriously addictive. We've even constructed terminology for aspects of this experience, such as 'The Bridge', in which you watch the last episode of one season and go straight into the first episode of the next, the Ashtanga-like language indicating the sheer physicality of experiencing a cliff-hanger and resolution directly after each other.

So what's going on here? I don't think it's just the instant gratification that clicking play on the next episode affords. When binge watching really kicks in, the form of the content itself is implicitly involved, as I'd suggest that the tighter the 'universe' the show inhabits, the higher the levels of intensity involved. In other words, with a show like 'The West Wing' – of which more later – the same set of characters inhabiting largely the same few spaces of the same location over seven seasons creates a gravitational pull which is difficult to escape from. Similarly, 'Lost', in being confined by an island, builds up a fictional universe one is immersed for most of the episode, with flashbacks off-island simply a counterpoint to the resolution of returning to that natural prison. Arguably, most successful TV shows have attempted to create a tightly defined universe, whether that was Albert Square or Seinfeld's apartment. Yet combined with an ability to stay immersed in this world by simply clicking 'next episode', the binge tendencies are surely heightened.

(Reminds me of my latest business-idea-never-to-be-realised: a beautifully produced 'coffee table' book featuring cutaways, scale plans, projections, sections, maps of the fictional architecture and locations from popular TV shows. Rendered with the same loving detail that this book lavishes over Villa Savoy et al, this book would have richly-detailed spreads and diagrams of, for example: the horrendous houses, restaurants and offices of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm', surely the most consistently appalling architecture and interiors ever seen on screen; the 70s concrete brutalism of the bunker systems from 'Lost'; the actual layout of 'The West Wing' building, which we really only see in fragments of tracking shots; the layout of the 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip' theatre and studios; a cutaway of the ludicrously constructed Bluth House from 'Arrested Development', and so on. Maps of Seinfeld locations and The Simpsons' Springfield already exist online, but I'm also thinking of the amazing Sketchup of the Brady Bunch house, rendered as if real even though it only ever existed as a set. This would be as a counterpoint to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater being rendered by video game engines – a real house treated as if fictional game architecture. This would be treating fictional architecture as if it were real. This, subsconsciously inspired by Geoff Manaugh's brilliant post about architectural criticism needing to address the built environment of video games, now I come to think of it. So should architectural publishing. Of course, a book featuring increasingly sophisticated video game maps and architecture would be equally appealing.)

There is something perfectly-formed about the length of TV shows – often between 20 and 45 minutes, particularly when stripped of adverts as they are via DVD or Bittorrent – which also facilitates this binge watching. This seems a particularly natural rhythm, the ability to take a breath in between episodes enabling 2 or 3 to be stacked effortlessly. Stopping and starting when you like is appealing too, enabling Wikipedia/IMDB lookups either during or inbetween episodes: "What's this OEOB they keep talking about?" "What's she been in?" … In this sense, the control over playback also means that DVD/torrent-based watching fits into almost any gap. However, Lawson mentions that these shows, often originally made to host several commercial breaks, seem oddly disjointed when glued back together without the adverts:

"When you watch The West Wing, Lost or Shameless at home, each episode seems to have a false climax or cliffhanger every eight to 12 minutes, which is resolved or resumed too quickly."

So we're OK with disjointed playback when we're doing the disjointing; will TV increasingly be made with boxset or torrent in mind rather than advert-supported TV, to the extent that it flows properly without adverts? With more bandwidth, even the friction of buying a physical object—the boxset—disappears. The show is simply on-demand, and consumed at the rate the audience desires, rather than the artificial constraints imposed by broadcasters.

There was an angry, fascinating article by Nigel Andrews in the FT magazine a couple of weeks ago ('The Guess Men', 11 November 2006) on the form of contemporary mainstream film, suggesting this mode won't simply be confined to TV shows:

"Tomorrow we will watch films, or moving images with sound, in the same way that we read paperback books. We will do it on the bus or train. We will do it in the bath, the guym, the fast food restaurant. We will snatch and snack. We will develop as an evolutionary attribute the ability to stop and start viewing, just as we stop and start reading books, without losing the story momentum."

This is a rather bleak thought for those of us who enjoy the immersion and discipline of the two hour movie, watched straight through, with focus. But it seems this other mode may be hard to resist. A warmer thought about boxsets is that at least it's a transaction where people are paying directly for content. Lawson's piece is pretty good on the fundamental economic shift behind the boxset; Johnson's book also talks about this – about how the increased complexity of shows increases the potential for repeated viewing, and therefore the ability to re-sell shows direct to consumers as a boxset, having already sold it once to television networks.

Anyway, binge watching reached an apogee chez cityofsound when we ploughed through the entire series of 'The West Wing' in a matter of months. The pressure-cooker intensity and claustrophobia of the White House is perfect binge-fodder. And boy did we binge. It is, of course, utterly majestic television, even though the entire series could be seen as 'Democrat porn', creating a (Second) life-like alternate universe in which a good Democrat president resides in a well-meaning White House throughout much of George W. Bush's real world reign. It's as if Democrats viewers could shut out said real world and watch President Bartlet generally Do The Right Thing, enabling them to abdicate responsibility for the actualité going to hell in a handcart. Even the final Republican contender in the show, played by lovable Hawkeye, is pro-choice and essentially a decent guy. A Republican a Democrat could like. No hawks here. When storylines drifted from the real universe to the fictional one, refracted through the scriptwriters' prism to shift a conflict a thousand miles to the south or an issue a few degrees to the political right or left, they generally resolved in ways we could live with, entirely unlike the contemporary reality. However, leaving this aside – for it is not necessarily the show's fault – it is certainly one of the greatest television dramas ever produced, with immaculate writing, generally superb acting and no fear of setting the intellectual bar high. So coming off 'The West Wing', having watched 155 episodes in relatively quick succession, is something akin to TV cold turkey. So it's with some pleasure that we've started to watch Aaron Sorkin's latest venture, 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip', which is essentially a methodone-based substitute for 'The West Wing's' smack. Thus far, it's a bit lite in comparison, despite a superb 'Network'-style outburst by Judd Hirsch setting the tone, and the considerable presence of Bradley Whitford, Ed Asner, John Goodman and others. Yet occasionally the quality of Sorkin's writing and thinking shines through.

Finally, you might note that many of the above references are to American TV shows, which might appear odd in our Anglo-Australian household. There are British TV shows which produce similar effects – see some of the list at the bottom of Mark Lawson's article, for example. However, you don't need me to tell you that American TV is extremely good at the high-end of this medium, particularly the long-running serial drama. It's also particularly bad at the low- and mid-range. But there's possibly something else going on here too – and that's that the art produced by a declining empire is often pretty compelling.


16 responses to “Binge Watching contemporary TV”

  1. marty Avatar

    This has got to be the longest self-justification ever written to explain the purchase of the Knight Rider box set – admit it!
    I’m still waiting for the second series of Twin Peaks to make it to DVD.


  2. Dan Avatar

    Ha ha. I will admit to watching the entire series of ‘Alias’ … but ‘Knight Rider’? Never! I must watch ‘Twin Peaks’ again one day though …


  3. David Hayward Avatar

    I like the Nigel Andrews quote; having net access has fundamentally changed the way a bunch of my friends consume media.
    I’ve been discussing it with them recently. I got rid of my TV a few years ago and have been binge watching ever since with an unusual degree of… tenacity, I suppose.
    Flexible working hours and downtime seem to reinforce the habit: I once mainlined a series of 24 in 20 consecutive hours. Games too; NOLF 2 was a single session of “staying awake because I needed to alter my sleep cycle”.


  4. k Avatar

    I wonder if you could link this more to the concept of flow – pleasurable immersion in a task?
    I’ve been watching shows this way for five or so years now – since Buffy on VHS, in fact! – and it’s to do with… being in the narrative, and also no distractions. It’s a similar feeling to getting immersed in anything, from work, to reading, to a game, actually.


  5. Alan Connor Avatar

    It’s certainly not the god-awful ‘quirky’ interfaces DVDs often have.
    Even Tom Quinn himself would have trouble on an “op” that involved finding the material on some of the Spooks DVDs. Note to Kudos: include a “vanilla menu” option.


  6. Jem Avatar

    an unfortunate time to recall the whims of kramer but of course you reminded me fondly of hisunfeasible coffee table book ideas.
    what was your point at the end though.
    americans are bad at mid to low end tv.
    what ? is that a quality sliding scale or a cost sliding scale. bad at making bad tv ?
    bad at making unsophisticated tv ?
    was doctor who, cathy come home, avengers, the prisoner, til death us do part and the golden age of brit tv due to us being a “declining empire” in the 50s/60s or is that point just you being cheeky.
    great piece btw. good counterpart to lawson’s 3 pager which i also enjoyed. i reckon if he could find a bit torrent friend he’d be at it like no tomorrow but i wager he gets sent all the (new) us stuff anyhow so doesn’t need to.


  7. Max Avatar

    AH! I can’t believe it, I’m so happy to read this article – so I am not the only one! I totally agree with everything.
    I’d say I dare you all, but David already wrote that he did 24 in 20 hours too… But I did 10 years of Friends in 10 days! my personal record (though with a lot of doping, admittedly… the only way to endure the triplets) and all seasons of Alias, each in a few days.
    But obviously The West Wing, which I too watched in a matter of weeks, deserves the crown…
    And Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip! I usually stay up all sunday night, just to get it the moment its out… smack TV…


  8. Dan Avatar

    Jem, ta for the comment. My poke at the empire thing was a half-formed thought about America being in economic decline – as increasingly looks the case, reading The Economist every week – and how much of the great, late-20th century American art has been about this culture picking itself apart, from ‘Taxi Driver’ onwards. That, as opposed to the great energy rush of architecture, photography, advertising, literature and painting of the mid-19th century up to, well let’s say Vietnam for simplicity’s sake. There, we see an empire breathing life into itself, only occasionally pausing to reflect on the growing pains (Steinbeck, WPA etc.). There’s the difference. Certainly, most quality programmes we’re talking about here – whether it’s Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Studio 60 – are at least implicitly about tensions caused by the American Dream. So I was briefly thinking about other empires and republics crashing – from the fall of the Roman Republic, say, to that of the middle-European City States and the Renaissance, and to the Weimar Republic in 30s Berlin (Degenerate art, George Grosz, Steppenwolf, Bauhaus etc. etc.) A torrent, no pun intended, of obscene reveling or creative reaction is often involved. Which is what I meant by compelling. And I was thinking also of the abiding sensation from these quality US shows: the sheer sheen of quality. Does the money spent on a production of ‘Lost’, say, seem obscene in the same way?
    As for Britain, I had wondered about the 1950s/1960s culture, as the empire unraveled here too, I’d actually suggest we’re not that good at the distinct TV programme, with some exceptions. We’re certainly good at providing a television service – a scheduled series of offerings, over brands that appeal to citizens, providing something greater than the sum than the parts – but the individual programmes themselves? Heresy, I know. But just a half-formed thought. Britain’s traditional offerings, as a country in thrall to literary forms, may hover around literature and theatre – and so on this empire point, perhaps we’d look at Sillitoe, Osborne, Pinter and the angry young men who picked apart the fraying ends of a society borne of empire … Possibly Graham Greene, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Colin Macinnes. Possibly also newspapers and magazines. Daily Express, The Sunday Times magazine, Private Eye. TV has, and had, weight here, but Britain has a far more even media landscape, in terms of different forms. Gross over-simplifications of course.
    Not exactly Robert Hughes, am I? 🙂
    Whereas the US seems born to produce TV programmes and formats. If TV wasn’t born in the USA technically, that’s where it emerged as a meaningful cultural form of immeasurable influence. It is particularly good at the high end. I don’t think there can be any argument there. Equally, that golden age of television in the 60s and 70s that people allude to never really existed, save a few exceptions – such as those you list, and ‘Mash’, ‘Taxi’ and others in the US. Most TV at the time was terrible. Johnson is good on this, again, and on the start of a new era with ‘Hill Street Blues’.
    What I meant by the low-end isn’t that they’re bad at bad TV, but that they make bad TV at anything other than the high end – that they are not good at what TV strategists would call ‘the middle’. The blockbusters are fine, but they are the tip of an iceberg of frozen crap. ‘Date My Mom’ indeed. In British and other TV markets, a more even spread of quality is dispersed across the schedule, irrespective of budget to some extent. Some daytime programming is good television, public service or commercial, as is a fair amount of programming either side of the evening peak time. Again, generalising hugely, this isn’t the case in the US, where those shining beacons of quality programming draw the eye in a thick fog of utter dross.
    However, due to boxsets and torrenting, that gleaming content is increasingly freed of the schedule. (Note: this affects television way more than radio, where one can still see a long-term future for linear broadcast radio.) I’m interested in what television, as a medium, turns into. An A1/B1 consumer will happily pick at the blockbusters, produced with Hollywood budgets, and sold direct via DVD or IP. But what of the rest of the population, or at those times of days when watching ‘The Sopranos’ just doesn’t feel right? Does that just subside into a morass of low-quality programming – as that content is disaggregated from its money-spinning siblings at the networks? Or does TV withdraw from that space altogether?
    As for other comments, thanks also; Kim, the idea of ‘flow’ (as in Csikszentmihalyi, yes?) certainly makes sense. Particularly when watching on a laptop, as we tend to. Reinforces that sense of immersion; and as you say, formally that means shared characteristics between games and these TV shows. With the 15″ screen a few feet away, the level of focus is almost that of a cinema, yet without the other annoying people. Again, there are certainly times when watching with a crowd makes a positive difference, as Nigel Andrews also noted in that FT article. But generally not. And Alan, the ‘I’m Alan Partridge Series 2’ DVD boxset interface is totally insane. A menu revolving around an air-bass playing Alan. It’s actually funny, it’s so ludicrous.
    As for the other comments, you guys watch a lot of TV 🙂


  9. David Hayward Avatar

    I’m unsure about application of flow here, but then again I think even Csikzentmihalyi over-applies the concept when he hits aesthetics 😉
    One of the axes is challenge, which I certainly get from games in which I sometimes lose myself, but immersion in other media such as TV or music seems to be a very different experience.


  10. Alice Avatar

    Just finished: Veronica Mars, S1, Lost S2, Desperate Housewives S2, Battlestar Galactica S2. Just started: Veronica Mars S2. Just arrived: Alias S5; in the post: 24 S5.
    I’ve got Battlestar Galactica S3 and Prison Break S2 arriving weekly on the PVR, and I have to say, watching in dribs and drabs is just no. fun. at. all.
    Veronica Mars is pretty good, btw. Good Buffy replacement: even has Joss Whedon doing a cameo.


  11. smithylad Avatar

    I get a similar buzz from box sets as I do from the World Cup, the European Championship, the Olympics, and Test Cricket when it’s on at normal hours. Similarly, it feels the same as the 24 hour volleyball marathon I took part in at school, the trade shows like London Book Fair that I attend for three days once a year, and jury service. There’s a sense of being immersed in an event, of slipping out of routine, of being able to leave all the everyday stuff behind, of everything except the event itself being on hold for the duration. It’s like being on holiday. I just read the Red Riding quartet by David Peace, and felt a similar compulsion: I couldn’t allow myself to look at another piece of fiction until I’d read all four. I actively sought out friends who had been through the same quartet, asked for their opinions, felt a kinship with them. I went through the same thing with Maupin’s Tales of the City.
    The box set is a boon to people with busy lives. To commit to being in the house on, say, every Tuesday night at 10pm every week for half a year with first dibs on the screen in order to consume a whole series of Lost one by one is almost impossible. The video or SkyPlus or EyeTV kick in here, in order to catch performances when you’re out, when your spouse or kids want to see something because the other TV isn’t linked up to your Freeview box, when you have more important things to do. It’s a lot of work to follow a TV series in its programmed schedule: it’s so much simpler to wait for the complete series to be released on DVD. I enjoyed the first two series of Lost, and it’s one of the few series I’ve made an effort to keep up with week on week. But knowing that the Network has exercised its option to commision another one or two series means that the resolution I was after didn’t happen. I won’t buy Sky just so I can be strung along for another series, with no guarantee that an end is in sight. I will, however, buy the box set when it comes out, and in the meantime I’ll fiercely avoid any mention of Lost in case I pick up any spoilers. And when I finally do sit down to watch it, I’ll consider it a triumph of patience over exploitation. The case of Firefly, cancelled mid-season, only to be completed as a feature film after pressure from its fans, shows that the people funding these shows only love them while they’re making money – as soon as the advertising income dries up they’ll pull the plug. It’s not inconceivable that the Producers of Lost might be given perhaps three episodes in which to bring about a denoument once they consider the series is no longer worth the investment. For an ordinary person with a limited amount of time, it’s annoying to think that something I have come to love can be taken away at short notice, and as such the box set is useful because I can see what I’m committing myself to. I also think having the box itself is important – it’s a medal, a badge, a certificate, a trophy that tells my guests that I underwent the GBH marathon and lived to tell the tale. Our music, film and book collections are primitive Entertainment on Demand systems, and they speak loudly of our tastes.
    Box sets (is it boxed sets, boxsets, box sets?) are social affairs, and much like having a drink, they are best experienced in company – somehow, I feel seedy when I do them on my own. To watch a series end to end in league with another (as my wife and I did with 24, and my wife, our friend Tracey and I did with Spaced over a curry a couple of Boxing Days ago) somehow feels delightfully naughty. We’re in a position to spoil ourselves, and to indulge ourselves in such a harmless way can be a source of fun in itself.
    As for bittorrent, after several tries, I haven’t ever been able to download anything with any success. Any suggestions on how to make it work?


  12. Michal Migurski Avatar

    I’ve had the binge experience with a few, non-episodic shows – The Simpsons, Kids In The Hall, Monty Python. The Simpsons are less funny in DVD format, the jokes fly too quickly and the episodes are too obviously short. Sketch comedy works very well, though.
    Lawson’s comment about disjointedness makes me think of the Audrey/Maturin books, which also have high-frequency plots. Situations & characters are often introduced, explained, and resolved in the space of just a few dozen pages, though there are also plotlines that stretch between several books. This blurring of the book boundary makes for a more interesting read when you’re book-binging on the series.


  13. Dan Avatar

    Thanks all.
    Jason Kottke and Adam Greenfield pointed out to me that a book of blueprints of the fictional architecture drawn from TV shows already exists. Put together by artist Mark Bennett:
    TV Sets: Fantasy Blueprints of Classic TV Homes [Amazon UK | US]
    Thanks to Jason and Adam. I’ll check it out. However, it’s not quite what I had in mind. It’s squarely a nostalgia piece, drawing from shows from the 50s and 70s – I Love Lucy etc. – rather than current TV shows. And nostalgia is the wrong impulse, in this instance. If architectural criticism does take this on, it would mean covering the new architecture of stuff like ‘Lost’ – the bunker series etc., even if that is 70s pastiche stylistically – as it’s broadcast; as if they were new buildings being unveiled, exploring the references, advances and influences and so on. Similarly, video games, which are perhaps even more architecturally-focused (due to the increased need to create a space; define the built fabric.) I’d love to see this in something like ‘Architectural Review’ or ‘Domus’.


  14. Nick Reynolds Avatar
    Nick Reynolds

    Great post Dan, really interesting.
    Although as you already know I disagree with you about the merits of US TV v UK TV. There’s no doubt that the US is good at high end, high concept shows spread across many series, and that UK TV hasn’t yet mastered this (with the honorable exception of Bleak House). But for shorter series and one off dramas UK is usually better. And still say that at its best UK TV has a depth and intelligence that US TV rarely touches.
    But the dynamics of binge TV watching are fascinating. What are the implications of this for how you make the stuff in the first place?


  15. Garuda Avatar

    I note the lack of reference to Alias 😉
    But having just spent a weekend catching up with Joss Whedon’s Firefly and a month coming to grips with Battlestar Galactica’s intense, claustrophobic, dysfunctional and post traumatic stressed universe I can’t help but agree in spades. This is TV as novel. In as much as Babylon 5 was Lord Of The Rings done properly (albeit in space with appalling actors) – ie: it gave an epic narrative time to breath and develop in a way that a mere 8 hours of cinema never could. Are we staring down the barrel of a new form of media consumption? Dickens, remember, was originally published in SERIAL form. See the connection? I love it, even though I never get enough sleep.


  16. Phil Gyford Avatar

    “a beautifully produced ‘coffee table’ book featuring cutaways, scale plans, projections, sections, maps of the fictional architecture and locations from popular TV shows.”
    I always wanted to see a book/site that showed what the fourth walls of popular shows looked like. What was on the wall of Friends’ or Frasier’s apartments that we never saw? Or the Cheers bar? etc.
    We have two seasons of Deadwood to watch over Christmas, which I got out from the library. A bargain at five quid, and easier than downloading over BitTorrent on this occasion. I can highly recommend ‘The Wire’ if you’re stuck for something to watch now…


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