Streaming services changed the way we watch our favourite shows, but could it change how we tell stories? Write the Talk’s Mitch Pike discusses the phenomena of binge watching, and what it could mean for the next generation of storytelling.
We recently witnessed the end of an era with the final season of HBO’s fantasy epic, Game of Thrones. As a long-time fanatic of the books and the show, I say without a hint of shame that I re-binged all seven of the preceding series to get myself ready for the finale.
More recently, I’m fresh from a weekend of blitzing the entire Season 4 of Netflix’s devilishly entertaining Lucifer, and this Saturday, I’m planning to catch up with the series-adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s chilling dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Binge watching is fairly common these days, and I think it’s a pretty fantastic trend. Like a film but with the added benefits of longer screen time and greater depth, it lets us experience the narrative arcs of our favourite characters in one, almost entirely uninterrupted sitting.
“Are you still watching?”
I’m so used to mechanically confirming that yes, Netflix, I am still watching the same show I’ve been watching since 4am this morning, thank you very much that I don’t even know what the other option is.
I hit ‘continue watching’ like there couldn’t possibly be any other option. And for many of us, there simply isn’t – according to science, binge watching our favourite shows is one of the best ways to satisfy our increasingly dopamine-dependent lifestyles.
Just one more episode…
A few years ago, reports indicated that when we binge watch the shows we love, our brains are producing vast amounts of dopamine. Most folks know it as the ‘joy’ chemical, which probably goes some way to explaining why it’s so easy to rationalise that ‘just one more episode’ craving – it’s a perpetual feel-good feedback loop where our bodies reward us for doing things that make us feel good, which makes us to do it more often.
It relieves stress, stimulates brain development, and can even improve your social life through shared interests – providing you take a break every now and then to actually, you know, go outside and talk to people. The horror.
I think there’s more to it though – something about our primal need for closure, our intrinsic desire to reach a satisfying conclusion. Sure, being forced to wait a week or more for the next episode and the promise of an eventual exposition certainly builds tension and excitement, but the truth is that binging is more enjoyable in the short term.
I’ve known people wait until a run of weekly airing episodes has finished completely, just so they can then binge them all in one sitting. Why? Dodging spoilers on a weekly basis sounds like a nightmare to me, but the only conclusion I can draw is that some people simply prefer the uninterrupted experience of binge watching.
The winds of change
The fact that there have been efforts made by some streaming services to drip feed episodes weekly to counter binge culture says a lot about how binging is changing people’s watching habits.
I think it’s unlikely that the way stories are constructed will change based on the binge-trend, but if the new standard for our beloved drama series is verging closer to a mega-feature-length cinema experience than the more traditional weekly episodic, we might start to see subtle changes in pacing and exposition.
The future of storytelling?
Storytelling is ancient and goes back to the dawn of human communication… but streaming is still young, and the binge watching trend is even more recent. So how is it having such a huge impact?
In November of 2013, Harris Interactive issued a survey to 3,000 US adults on behalf of Netflix, which revealed a few interesting statistics about how we stream…
• Over 75% of streamers say watching multiple episodes of a great show is a welcome refuge from their busy lives.
• 65% of TV streamers said that if they took a digital time out, they would still want to watch TV.
• 80% of TV streamers say they would rather stream a good show than read a friend’s social media posts.
What does it mean?
What this tells us is that people are growing more dependent on drama-as-relief than ever before. We want to unwind and be entertained, and that means there’s a high demand for high quality entertainment that is instantly accessible, to satisfy all our narrative needs.
I could wax lyrical about how my generation is obsessed with instant gratification culture and, in many ways, that’s true – we’re the product of a society where the dominant themes of consumerism we’ve been exposed to for the majority of our adult lives are ‘digital’ and ‘next day delivery’.
So, I ask you – why wouldn’t we also be obsessed with fulfilling that same desire when it comes to watching our favourite shows?