How binge-watching has lost it cultural kudos, according to Anglia Ruskin University TV academic
Planning to binge-watch a series this weekend?
The practice of sitting through back-to-back episodes of a TV series once had a degree of cultural kudos about it - but that is fast disappearing, according to an Anglia Ruskin University academic.
Dr Mareike Jenner, a senior lecturer in media studies, argues binge-watching is “becoming something to be frowned upon rather than celebrated” by commentators.
While those who could afford box-sets of quality US dramas like The Sopranos were once considered to be engaging in high culture, now the practice is so normalised – low-brow, even – that entertainment platforms are starting to distance themselves from it.
“Disney+ just launched in the US and their model is to publish one episode per week,” Dr Jenner tells the Cambridge Independent. “Disney is calling it a boutique model. It’s something more elite, something people who have more control over their own habits do.”
In an article published in the academic journal Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, she traces how the connotations surrounding binge-watching have followed a similar trajectory to channel-surfing.
While this became popular with the advent of TV remote controls, it ultimately became the kind of activity enjoyed by “couch potatoes”.
“Binge-watching has been a popular activity for a really long time – from about 1985,” she tells the Cambridge Independent. “But that was really fan activity and relatively marginal. It became more of a thing with DVD culture in the early 2000s.
“When that came up it was largely in connection with American quality TV drama. DVD boxsets were relatively expensive and there was a lot of anticipation involved and there was a lot of cultural capital that came with that.
“Binge-watching was something people did if they were the gate-keepers of society – a lot of journalists, academics, teachers, and because of that it had a relatively high culture status.
“People would talk about the wonderful aesthetic quality of The Sopranos or the intricate narrative structures.”
At that stage, it was “considered like novel reading – like spending the entire day reading Dickens”.
Today, it’s less Dickens and more Mills & Boon.
“The word ‘binge’ always had negative associations, but in relation to binge-watching, particularly among TV journalists when it first came up in the early 2000s, there was always a tongue-in-cheek use of it. People didn’t really take it that seriously as a destructive practice.”
But this all changed with the advent of Netflix, which gave everyone access to large quantities of TV for a low subscription price – and not of all of it would be described as quality TV.
“It’s a bit like binge carrot-eating. Now in the buffet, yes, there’s still a lot of carrots, but also chocolate and cakes and things that are not necessarily as good for your diet…” suggests Dr Jenner, the author of Netflix and the Re-Invention of Television. “There was an almost inevitable backlash from the cultural commentators and trendsetters, probably fuelled by a large dollop of snobbery. Their elite activity was now being enjoyed by everyone.
“This normalisation of spending evenings watching back-to-back episodes was quickly followed by demonisation and moral panics as we got into the ‘what if our children watch this?’ debates, which we saw around the controversial series 13 Reasons Why.
“Now the more restrained you are, the more sophisticated you are.”
In 2019, actor Guy Pearce revealed he had been instructed by Netflix not to use the term binge-watching while promoting The Innocents.
“The fact Netflix are telling their actors not to use the term in public means that binge-watching is becoming something to be frowned upon rather than celebrated,” says Dr Jenner.
This has prompted a number of streaming services like Disney to go back to a once-a-week format, like traditional TV.
But Dr Jenner argues this is unlikely to mean the return of the ‘water cooler moment’ in the office discussing last night’s episode
“I’m not entirely sure we can ever go back to that. We are in the era of what the head of NBC called ‘peak TV’. We have more TV than ever before.”
Only the BBC, as a national institution, still has some capacity to grip the nation weekly with a series like Bodyguard, she says, but that is a model less attractive to younger viewers.
“We’ve got used to binge-watching approach so if someone recommends something, we watch the whole season and then we have a discussion about it,” she says.
As for Dr Jenner herself, she freely admits to being a binge-watcher.
“I largely watched DVD box sets from 2005 because I moved around a lot in different countries and the release schedules differed quite significantly,” she says.
“I’ve just watched a really nice Norwegian series on Netflix called Home for Christmas. It’s really sweet…”
The technology of streaming, she argues in her article, fits in with neoliberal notions of deregulation and the coming down of barriers, and can enable viewers to ‘self-educate’ by seeking out ‘good’ TV. But the widening of access to all kinds of content rather undermines this ideal.
Binge-watching, then, may not have the cultural capital it once had. But it’s not likely to go anywhere just yet.
More by this authorPaul Brackley