Answers to Questions About Binge Watching

Do you believe television narrative will be influenced by binge-watching television?

First we need a working understanding of “binge watching.” If you mean 8-10 episode marathons, I think that is an outlier behavior and it would be foolish for television producers to create texts with that experience in mind. If “binge watching” entails watching one or two episodes at a sitting over a reasonably compact time frame (a few weeks), then that is a viewing experience that might adjust narrative practices. I’d also note that doesn’t seem much like a “binge,” but precisely how novels have been consumed.

It would make sense that series developed for original distribution on portals such as Netflix and Amazon Video would adjust their narrative structure toward that viewing behavior which is most commonly observed (data only they have). Not only are series created for a first window on these services, but many are being purchased for ten-year-plus deals and with international rights so that the shows will live in these services’ libraries for their effective lifetime—not just as a first window. I imagine that these services are learning about how viewers watch different shows and different types of shows and that they would be wise to suggest to creators how their show is likely to be consumed. How difficult a thing it must be for those writing for shows produced for these outlets to try to craft a narrative that works “as a 10-hour movie,” as 10 one-hour installments, as 5 two-hour installments, etc.? In some ways, the constraint of the linear system seems preferable—at least creatives knew how audiences would experience their work. Or maybe creatives start providing audiences with guidance—“I constructed these episodes to be watched in two-hour chunks.”

It doesn’t make sense for series distributed on a linear schedule to adjust narratives for binge watching.

Do you see any dangers in binge-watching from a production sense and a societal sense?

Danger? No. Do new forms of distribution and audience access call into question wide ranging industrial norms that, if changed, call into question yet other wide ranging industrial norms—absolutely. Many of the practices that govern “television” aren’t specific to the medium, but are norms that developed in relation to the practices that emerged according to the affordances and constraints of the distribution technology of broadcasting and then cable/satellite. The different affordances of internet distribution warrant new production processes and will yield different textual possibilities.

I don’t have a lot of patience for the nostalgia for some, now past, era in which the technological constraints of broadcast television led to coterminous viewing that was somehow “better” for society. The corresponding industrial conditions led to the telling of very few stories, which left out the experiences of many. Of course it remains the case that many are left out, but I find normative evaluation counter productive. As someone who studies media from a cultural perspective, my purpose is to understand and explain.

Do you believe audiences have connected more with narrative television currently, and why do you think this, in comparison to traditional television?

I know better than make an argument about the audience without actually studying the audience. Even imagining the methodology to explore that question is difficult. What does it mean to “connect”? If a measure for such a thing could be determined, I suspect “connection” might be just as much a function of a broader array of character types, depth of characterization, and range of stories as from narrative structure.

Do you think there will be a place for network television in the future?

I assume “network television” means television produced for and distributed by broadcast networks? Even though my research focuses on prime time and scripted television, I think we have to remember that the television day is much longer. Broadcast networks could disappear and I wouldn’t much notice, but that isn’t the case for most viewers. Morning news and talk, evening news, late-night—these are all also part of network television that portals haven’t substantially replicated. There are other motivations for television viewing—it is often there in the background or part of daily rituals. In my house, radio serves those purposes, but television—and specifically broadcast television—remains part of those rituals for many.

This is also a fairly U.S. centric answer as our broadcasters have aims every bit as commercial as the cable channels or portals. The perpetuation of broadcast networks with a public service mandate is of clear social importance in other places. Commercial portals do not replace the social value and good produced by public service media.

To answer this question with a question, I think the answer has to do with whether there are things that broadcast distribution does better than internet distribution, and then whether a national network is needed for those things. I think a lot about how radio evolved at the dawn of television. Unable to compete with television’s ability to give stories sound and image, radio in the U.S. returned from a nationally networked system to a more local medium and focused on programming that took advantage of its aurality. Radio had the advantage of being something you could listen to while doing something else. Right now, the U.S. internet architecture is not robust enough to move all television distribution from broadcast and cable. Until that changes, there will be a place for network television.