A couple of pop press TV critics have proposed an interesting hypothesis about binge watching TV shows made possible through new delivery forms from Netflix and Amazon. Take what appears to be the first mention of the hypothesis.
I think binge-watching steamrolls flaws. It’s like driving down the highway extremely fast. If the scenery is mostly bucolic, the open sewage pit you flew by that one time barely registers.
Another critic picks up the hypothesis in his analysis of the House of Cards series from Netflix.
Netflix’s “House of Cards” kicks off its fourth season on Friday, and it appears the buzz has noticeably cooled. Sure, it’s natural for a once-hot show to fizzle over time. But maybe it’s also because last season, despite typically strong performances from Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, the show featured unnecessarily complex storylines, deadly boring political shenanigans and questionable subplots that served no real purpose.
Although when you think about it . . . the first season had similar issues. The second season did, too. So we have to ask: Did “House of Cards” sharply decline? Or has it always been this bad?
The latter is plausible, especially when you consider the Binge-Watching Steamroller Theory, an idea from Slate TV critic Willa Paskin. Reflecting on the sheer amount of television last year as the culture hit “peak TV,” Paskin argued that you’re much more likely to heap lavish praise on a problematic TV show if you watch it really, really fast. Especially one that is beautifully shot and has compelling actors.
Because you can continuously run a TV series on a screen, you can binge on the show. Prior to the massive on demand streams, you had to wait a week between episodes. According to the binge watching hypothesis, that delay allowed viewers to watch a show more carefully, think about it more effortfully . . . in other words, go High WATT on the Central Route, seek and scrutinize Arguments about the show, then engage the Long Conversation in the Head to arrive at a deeply networked set of attitudes, beliefs, and values.
Binge watching, by contrast, runs the viewers through the persuasion of the show so fast that they automatically hit the Low WATT switch and allow themselves to be bedazzled by all the writing and production spangles, shimmies, and shakes. They miss all the Arguments that prove the show is bad and surf all the Cues that prove the show is good.
The binge watching hypothesis is interesting, but I’m not sure it is true in most Locals. Generally speaking, the persuasion research literature strongly demonstrates that the more opportunities Other Guys have to evaluate something, the more likely it is they will hit the Central Route. The best example of this effect occurs with message repetition (scroll through half of the post). Run a weak Argument or a weak Cue often enough and eventually the Other Guys will see it and react accordingly. Thus, I think the science on this strongly contradicts the binge watching hypothesis.
Anecdotally from my experience, I can think of two awful examples that support the research literature and not the TV critic binge hypothesis.
Many years ago, the Fox network ran a clever new TV series, 24, that rolled out a story in 24 episodes, each one hour long, that portrayed a 24 hour fictional event. The show was quite popular, especially for a cable TV show. I did not watch it when it first hit the airwaves, once a week, but then got the first season on DVD from Netflix. Of course, I binge watched it and my experience proved the research lit.
The first thing that I observed was that each episode, while obviously not one hour long (commercials), did not even depict 45 minutes of original material. Beginning with the second episode, the show started with several minutes of review material that played back key moments from the prior episodes. Thus, the 24 episodes of one hour each in a 24 fictional event only presented about 30 minutes of new material in each episode. The title of the series should have been, 12.
This repetition of past material became painfully obvious only because I was binge watching continuous episodes. If you waited like a good guy for a week to pass, all that review at the beginning of a new episode was useful. Who remembers in detail the contents of a TV show from a week before? So, in the normal presentation of once a week, 24 did feel like a 24 hour event unfolding 1 hour at a time. Viewed continuously, however, it felt like nothing but review.
My second example comes from the highly esteem, praised, and awarded TV series, West Wing. We’ve looked at the persuasion properties of that show in several PB posts. In one post, only because I had been binge watching the first season, did I become acutely aware of the writerly and production shimmies, shakes, and spangles that persuaded viewers West Wing was a great show while at the same time making the most persuasive characters in the lineup, Mandy, disappear.
West Wing presented itself as smart liberalism that persuaded through soaring rhetoric and strong Arguments on the Central Route. Mandy, however, was a genuine persuasion panther who could see around corners and knew how to hit three rail pool shots to create change at a distance. Mandy was one of the all time great panther portrayals on TV.
But she lasted less than a year and went off the Mandyville, the place where unwanted characters just disappeared from West Wing without explanation. I think the reason Aaron Sorkin banished Mandy to Mandyville was precisely because she was a panther who exposed the ardent and earnest Sincerity of everyone else on West Wing, making them look entirely unsophisticated, self-absorbed, and a room of mirrors. Just great speech writers and givers. Mandy looked and acted like the only adult with a true understanding of politics and government while everyone else was a bunch of amateurs wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
Again, I only noticed this because I binged watch that first year of West Wing. Watch episodes only once a week with all that mess of life in between and you cannot easily see the patterns in Sorkin’s writing or easily observe that a major character has just suddenly disappeared from work without even a note from her physician.
I’ll now speak out of all sides of my jaws in true panther fashion. As the Rule observes: It Depends on the Local. If Other Guys sit down to watch six episodes in a row with the expressed desire of escapism, then we’re starting with Other Guys as Low WATT surfers on the Peripheral Route. Sure, bingeing will cause them to miss crucial pieces of evidence about the quality of the show or script because they don’t care about that. They want to go Low WATT. So, in that Local, yeah, binge watching encourages even stupider viewing.
However, if Other Guys bring any amount of openness and interest to the binge, then I think you will see the research lit on repetition. The more you watch, the more you will see until it burns you out. You’ll catch all the errors and reviews and omissions.
Thus, either position is possible. We already know that TV has been a vast wasteland since 1962. Bingeing on a wasteland requires either: You don’t care or that you suddenly realize you’re in the desert.