I’ve got some friends who have subscriptions to Netflix, Prime Videos, Voot, Hotstar Disney+, and Zee5 (some have subscriptions to all of these, yes!), among other OTT and online streaming platforms. It is also interesting that these friends are always up-to-date with all the new shows and movies on these platforms and about the characters as well as the actors who are playing these roles. While I am happy to use their subscription to consume some content myself, I feel terribly anxious when I am not aware of a show that all my friends are talking about. But then I also wonder about the side-effects of binge-watching.
Binge-watching can be easily be called one of the biggest pastimes of the 21st-century. With streaming giants like Netflix and Prime Videos creating original content while also purchasing some of the most-watched content, subscribers (like me and my friends) are more than eager to continue watching through the lockdown and the pandemic. Originally a negative word, which means to do something in excess - “binge” is nowadays used in a positive sense.
This kind of viewing behaviour - binge-watching, binge-viewing or marathon-viewing - has been an accepted form of consuming entertainment content. These terms were, however, more commonly used in the context of watching movies. This was before online streaming applications and the eventual content overflow.
Even though online streaming platforms are one of the causes, the intention to let these mediums rise was to give the audience what they want i.e. to watch when they want to and to maybe reduce piracy. In 2013, actor Kevin Spacey implored TV executives in the MacTaggart Lecture to give audiences "what they want when they want it. If they want to binge, then we should let them binge".
What is binge-watching?
Even though Oxford defines the word as “the practice of watching several episodes of a TV show on one occasion, usually by means of DVDs or digital streaming,” many scholars and entertainment industry experts are still negotiating the terms of the definition. It is, however, generally believed that it is an activity that can be termed as ‘binge-watching’ if a person watches 2-6 episodes.
More often than none, we hear our friends say, “I binged hard on Friends” or “This weekend, I am going to binge on Star War movies.” While there is nothing wrong or offensive in using the word “binge,” it is just that we don’t usually mean it the way it is intended. The definition of ‘binge’ is “a short period of time when somebody does too much of a particular activity, especially eating or drinking alcohol.” It is important to note what while we casually use the word when combined with another activity like binge-eating, binge-drinking or even binge-watching it usually means an excessive consumption of something harmful to the body even though it may seem like a treat. According to a recent study, binge-watching makes people feel "transported" into the show. This thereby increases the subscriber’s viewing satisfaction and makes them continue watching or encourages an increase in the frequency of binge-watching.
Numbers don’t lie
According to mental health experts, binge-watching is a relatively new type of ‘behavioural addiction’. In a study conducted in 2019, it was established that more than 7.1 per cent stream videos for around five to seven hours, while about 2 per cent stream for 10 hours.
The pandemic furthered the addiction which has caused an increase in media consumption around the globe. Compared to spending time reading newspapers and magazines or listening to the radio, time spent on social media and online video streaming grew substantially.
Lesser devil - online streaming or TV?
Do you remember the times when families would sit together in front of the television sets to watch their favourite shows? Well, that was unsurprisingly possible because there was only one TV set. There were even times when, we as kids, would squabble over who would get the remote and which show or movie to watch. Then there were ad breaks, even though very effective, they were breaks for family members too! One would go to the kitchen to get water, someone would run to the washroom, others may argue or agree with the content they were consuming. All in all, it was a wholesome experience which satisfied the motive – entertainment.
According to a 2014 study , couple of years before Netflix’s advent in India (2016), it was revealed that at least 27 per cent of Indians binge-watched TV programs daily. So, obviously over the years, TV also became a much-debated topic.
Schools asked students to debate whether ‘TV is a boon or a bane?’, while the society termed it like an idiot box and one of the reasons was it was taking up all the “family time.” We bet they didn’t know something more advanced would turn up! A Forbes article even goes on today that “Television served its time in this role and has reinvented itself as a positive societal force.”
Now, with great internet services, 4G and 5G data in India and other parts of the world and over 696 million smartphone users in India (and 6055 billion in the world in 2020), it is becoming easier for the ‘fans’ to watch their favourite series/movies on OTT and online streaming platforms. However, while fans prefer to watch specific shows, subscribers of online streaming providers constantly look for something new to watch to fill the gap created after completing on series.
Take, for example, The Vampire Diaries, which was telecasted to The CW channel (and became a rage), was later picked up by Netflix, but when it ended it left a space. The ‘emptiness’ was replaced with the sequels and spinoff - The Originals and The Legacies (which are available on Netflix and Prime). But fans would stop at Legacies. A heavy binger may further look for other related shows on supernatural and may hit a jackpot with Fate: The Winx Saga, Teen Wolf, and Merlin, among many other shows. The interesting thing about online streaming platforms is that they adapt to the viewer's interests. It then suggests similar content, which gets the viewer more indulged.
Apart from the fact that online streaming platforms have a smart algorithm to figure out interests, there is also an incentive of having a cheaper subscription rate. There is an option to watch ad-less and non-interrupted content on a roll!
Indians are the second-highest public bingers in the world (88%), suggests a Netflix survey. With more and more platforms coming up (not only locally, but internationally as well), they are innovating in ways to reach their audience. Many platforms like Netflix, Prime and Hotstar, among others are available across mediums including set-top boxes. And because of considerable downloads in India and other countries, it is logical that international streaming apps look at local content as well, which further interests the audience.
Compared to this, regular TV programming in India don’t have much content that could engage the millennials. Agreed, that the content on the newer platforms is comparatively more inclusive and has more or less responsibly shifted to better plots and this is one of the things that appeals to the major population. And it’s a plus to have good content in your language, isn’t it?
There is also evidence that indicates that when handled responsibly, the content available for online streaming can add value to the viewer. The online platforms are full of documentaries and docu-movies as well. There are arguments too, that with TV programs still following traditional plots, online streaming provides a wide choice in terms of content.
Social acceptance of binge-watching
In India, however, the trend started to formally make an impression in 2018 when the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, admitted a 26-year-old man for online streaming addiction. According to a Times of India report, the patient was unemployed and spent more than seven hours streaming. The report quoted the patient, Harish K, who said, “Back in college, we used to compete with each other to finish watching a series as most of our conversations revolved around them.”
Many a time our friends come to us to talk about a recently-watched series, or the characters or the themes of the series/ movies. It is quite common and to some extent even an accepted conversational topic. While those who have already binge-watched the series talk about the content, the ones who have not to make a note to watch it. A study, supporting this statement, suggests that the heavy binge-watchers most probably become ‘opinion leaders’ and may ‘experience Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)’. This fear makes binge-watching an acceptable behaviour, even though it is as bad as any other addiction.
Many reports and data-based research works suggest that are many cons to binge-watching including ill-effect on physical and mental health, social life, economic implications, and interpersonal relations, among others. While it is understood that viewers can binge-watch television programming as well as stream content online, it is imperative for society to weigh the pros and cons of the mediums – TV and online streaming content.