Once upon a time, the only way to watch your favorite TV show was by firing up the tube at the correct time and date. The inconvenience of having to orient your life around the airtime of new episodes of Survivor (or whatever it was that people watched before Game of Thrones) laid the foundation for Netflix, the alpha and omega of video on demand. Although it originally seemed doomed to obscurity as a mail-order DVD service, in the past decade Netflix has fundamentally changed the way we watch television by making every episode of a TV show hosted on the platform available at once.
In other words, Netflix enabled us to gorge ourselves on premium TV content for hours on end, a phenomenon that has become known as binge watching. But according to a new study published this week in First Monday, binge watching your favorite TV show makes it less memorable and less enjoyable than watching it on a weekly basis.
A 2014 Netflix survey found that about 61 percent of its users reported that they binge watch TV regularly (most respondents defined this as watching two to six TV episodes in one sitting). Given this ostensible preference for binging on television, one might expect that this mode of consumption somehow improved the viewing experience. Indeed, according to TV binging advocate Kevin Spacey, the practice is merely an effect of viewers being fed high quality stories (like House of Cards, presumably).
"When the story is good enough, people can watch something three times the length of an opera," Spacey said during the MacTaggart lecture at the 2013 Edinburgh Television Festival. "If they want to binge then we should let them binge."
But according to new research by Jared Hovarth and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne, binging actually appears to diminish the quality of the television show for the viewer. This conclusion is based on a self-reported study incorporating 51 graduate and undergraduate students at the university, who were split into groups of 17 to watch a television show at different frequencies. One group watched the one-hour show on a weekly basis, another watched it on a daily basis, and another group consumed the first season of the show in one sitting, amounting to about 6 straight hours of TV.
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Each group was watching the highly acclaimed first season of the BBC Cold War-era drama The Game. The season consisted of six episodes, and none of the participants had previously seen the show. Each of the test subjects would watch the show in Hovarth's lab according to their assigned schedule. To ensure they were paying attention, the study participants were asked to press the spacebar on a keyboard any time a character in the show lit a cigarette or poured a drink.
After finishing the season, all respondents filled out a questionnaire to gauge how well they understood the show. 24 hours later, they returned to the lab to take a retention quiz to see how well they could remember details from the show. Two more retention quizzes were given a week and 140 days after finishing the season to see how memory of the program changed with time. The quizzes consisted of short answer questions, such as "In episode four, what was delivered to Arkady's secret mailbox?" as well as multiple-choice questions about plot points in the show.
As the researchers found, the mode of viewing had a significant effect on the study participants' ability to remember the show. For instance, binge-watchers had the strongest memory performance the day after watching the show, but this retention also had the sharpest decline over 140 days. Weekly viewers on the other hand, showed the weakest memory performance 24 hours after finishing the show, but also demonstrated the least amount of memory dilution over time.
Moreover, the researchers found that on all three follow-up questionnaires, binge watchers reported enjoying The Game "significantly less" than those who watched it on a weekly or daily basis. Overall, those who watched the show daily reported the greatest amount of enjoyment over time.
As Hovarth and his colleagues note, "this is perhaps a counterintuitive finding, given the increased popularity of binge watching." However these results may be attributed to the fact that the binging group was watching six hours of television in a lab, rather than in the comfort of their home. Additionally, the researchers noted that the choice of show also likely had an effect, since shows that are 'made for binging' are structured differently than those that are intended to be serialized (more flashbacks, etc.).
To get a better understanding of the effects of TV binging, Hovarth and his colleagues want to do more research using different styles of television and modes of viewing. In the meantime, however, it might be best to save that next episode for tomorrow.