What It’s Like to Set the World Record for Binge Watching

I watched along while one guy broke the record to see how unlimited streaming affects us all.
April 12, 2016, 5:39pm
The clock at around 7 hours into the record attempt. Image: Louise Matsakis/Motherboard

Last Friday, I spent the entire day watching TV.

I was sitting in a cramped, one-bedroom AirBnb in Manhattan while a random stranger ensured that I kept my eyes on the screen if I attempted to reach for a bag of popcorn. Each time I accidentally looked down to adjust my sweater or spent an especially long time blinking, the stranger made a note. In front of me, a slew of cameras recorded my every move.

I started watching at 8 AM, and 10 hours of Battlestar Galactica and The Twilight Zone later, I finally stopped. The two brave souls next to me, Alejandro "AJ" Fragoso and his friend Molly Ennis, still had 83 hours to go.

They were attempting to break the world record for the longest TV marathon, and on Tuesday morning—after nearly 100 hours of eyes glued to the screen—Fragoso succeeded. I was there to see how long I could hang out, before starting to go crazy.

Ennis was disqualified for looking away from the screen, but her friend suffered through almost four straight days of watching everything from Bob's Burgers to Curb Your Enthusiasm, and successfully broke the previous record of 92 hours of straight TV-watching. The stunt was sponsored by CyberLink, a software company that makes a media player called PowerDVD, which was used to watch the shows for the record attempt.

The scene where the record break took place. Image: Louise Matsakis/Motherboard

After my comparatively puny 10-hour run, I felt strange. My eyes were exhausted, but my mind felt oddly clear. Scientists don't quite know what's happening when we're zonked out in front of the TV, but EEG studies of the brain show that areas responsible for reasoning, like the neocortex, seem to shut off when we're engrossed in the latest Game of Thrones episode. Meanwhile, the brain's visual processing center, the visual cortex, remains highly stimulated.

In other words, our brains are in an in-between state when we watch television: Our minds are not resting but are not fully alert either. I rarely watch TV, and couldn't get over how weird I felt. I chalked it up to the sheer volume of shows I had watched, and was surprised to discover that I only watched the amount of television that the average American does in two days, according to data from Nielsen.

In fact, Fragoso's entire record-breaking run was equivalent to the amount of TV that Americans watch in two and half weeks. Each month, the average American spends more than six full days watching TV, or almost five hours each day, although some surveys estimate the number may be closer to three hours. The higher estimate comes from Nielsen, which relies in part on TV ratings and data collected directly from people's TV sets, in addition to surveys.

The discrepancy in these estimates likely comes from differences in the way that data is collected. The shorter estimate comes from a 2015 American Time Use Survey in which participants were asked to self-report how they spent their time. There's a stigma associated with watching too much television, because many perceive the activity to be a sign of laziness.

Indeed, many of the people I spoke to about their binge-watching habits expressed discomfort and embarrassment about how much television they watched. It's not unreasonable to think that people lie about or misremember how much they watch in self-reported studies.

Increasingly, all that content is being viewed on streaming services like Hulu, HBO GO, and Netflix, which allow for viewers to consume as much of a series as they can handle, whenever they want. It's likely due to the proliferation of these services that the term binge-watching entered the modern lexicon in the first-place.

According to a survey from consulting firm Deloitte, 68 percent of consumers engage in binge-watching, defined as watching three or more episodes of a show in one sitting. Of those, 31 percent admit to engaging in the habit at least once a week.

Binge-watching TV shows is changing the way we think about entertainment, it's altering the way screenwriters and producers design their stories, and it's taking up crazy amounts of our days. The allure makes sense: In one sitting, you can watch the entire saga of a character's existence, without having to wait for the next installment.

Fragoso when he succeeded in breaking the record early Tuesday morning. He is now taking a tap. Image: Tim Williams

In order to abide by the Guinness World Record rules, my fellow participants and I were only allowed to take breaks to use the bathroom or check our phones for up to five minutes an hour. The majority of the time, paid "witnesses" were tasked with making sure that our eyes never wandered.

By the end of the day, my eyes ached from looking at the TV, and I was in a terrible mood. Watching all those episodes, especially scenes where characters were getting along particularly well, made me feel lonely and isolated. Towards the end, funny scenes failed to garner much of a response in me.

The most overwhelming emotion I felt was numbness. I felt nothing.

The most overwhelming emotion I felt however, was numbness. I felt nothing. It makes sense that binge-watching can evoke this empty feeling: Engrossing dramas like the immensely popular Netflix series House of Cards offer a reliable form of escape. And it never has to end. There's always something else that can be watched.

A study from Syracuse University about binge-watching via streaming versus traditional television schedules confirmed this idea, finding that binge-watching better delivers a feeling of escapism than regular viewing.

Many of the people I spoke to about their binge-watching habits expressed doing it regularly, despite admitting it wasn't even necessarily an enjoyable way to spend their free time. Some cited binge-watching as one of the ways that they dealt with stress, anxiety and other negative emotions. Instead of turning to other forms of release like exercise or socializing, devoting a couple of hours to the new season of a favorite show was more appealing.

Perhaps because of this tendency to use binge-watching as an escape from daily stress, a 2011 study from the National Sleep Foundation found for example that 60 percent of Americans watch TV immediately before going to sleep every night or almost every night. However it's still not clear how watching television before bed actually affects our sleep.

The reality is, we just don't know enough yet about how binge-watching affects us. What we do know is that many people increasingly don't know how to quit.

I'll bet it won't be long before the record is broken again.