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How does 'binge watching' affect the way we enjoy TV?

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Written by Patsy Keating / February 25th, 2016, 12:03pm

A friend recently posed a question to me; "Do you think it’s possible for people to watch Lost now that it’s on Netflix and still enjoy it like people did when it was first on TV?" What an interesting question, I thought! I sense a blog post coming on here.
One of the things that made Lost such a cultural phenomenon when it first came out was the fact that an awful lot of it didn’t really make much sense. It aired on a weekly basis, and understanding was highly dependent on tuning in to watch every week. There was an awful lot going on, cliff-hangers all over the place and plots that spread over the entire six seasons of the show. I personally gave up watching religiously around season two and only caught the odd episode after that... which was just really confusing. Did they ever find out what the smoke monster was? Why did they have to keep pressing the button in the hatch? Time travel? What is this show about? But I digress. The point is: people went crazy for Lost.
This drawn-out mode of storytelling is a bit of a crowd divider, I think. There are people like me, who aren’t patient enough for the ultimate pay-off and get frustrated by the ongoing plot threads which take forever to resolve, ultimately giving up when things get too convoluted... and then there are The Others. The Others are the ones who finish each weekly instalment and immediately trawl message boards on the internet with questions about what they’ve just seen, desperately trying to theorize and predict where things are heading, banding together in emotional turmoil at unexpected deaths (NOT PENNY’S BOAT) and generally debating with fellow obsessi- erm, enthusiasts. Some people love the waiting and discussion in the week between each episode – Lost had hundreds of dedicated fan sites and message boards – in fact I’m sure it still does (honestly, did ANYBODY understand it?).
But now we have online streaming, and this is where things change. If you wanted to, you could easily watch the entirety of Lost in a week. I wouldn’t recommend it - you know, for health reasons - but you could if you really wanted to. This has been dubbed ‘binge watching’, and it offers a very different experience. Of course, binge watching has been possible in the past, what with DVD boxsets and the like (DVDs! Remember those?), but the internet makes it easier than ever. Your interest is held in different ways here – instead of taking time to digest and look forward to the next instalment, it’s exciting to know you get answers almost immediately – an instant payoff. Then of course we have shows like Orange is the New Black, which have entire seasons released at once. There’s much less opportunity for discussion with other viewers in this situation I think; we all watch at different rates which can make it hard to talk to fellow fans, and you don’t get the water-cooler chat opportunities about each week’s episode... but this doesn’t seem to hinder people’s love for the show – it’s currently the most watched Netflix original series and has received much critical acclaim. I wonder if it’d be received differently if it were broadcast in the traditional way. Would there be the same level of online dedication and word of mouth as there was for shows like Lost in the past?
I suppose it could be argued that a good show should be able to retain your interest no matter how you choose to watch it, and that’s true. At the end of the day, it really seems to come down to a matter of personal preference. Although binge-watching certainly offers a very different viewing experience than watching on a weekly broadcast basis, it’s not necessarily any better or worse - just different. It definitely highlights how impatient we’ve all become though, that’s for sure.
Oh, and if anyone’s wondering, the friend from the beginning of the story (an avid Lost fan who watched it all on its first UK broadcast) concluded she wouldn’t enjoy the show as much viewing it as a ‘binger’ because she’d miss all the theorising and suspense. I think I’d enjoy it more if I got to watch it the immediate way, because I’m much more likely to give up on a show if it keeps me guessing for too long. Yes, I know, good storytelling isn’t supposed to give everything away at once, whatever. But I get very invested in characters, and cliff-hangers make me anxious, alright?
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