Tag Archives: Binge-Watching

The “Real” Purpose of TV (& Movies): Education, Inspiration, and Storytelling, Part 2

A few years ago, I wrote a post about the purpose of TV and I think I sold it (TV) short. That is, in that post, I essentially decried TV:

Watching TV is a mechanism that allows people to stay at jobs that they are otherwise less pleased about. Being able to tune into a created reality (or sometimes an actual reality) of a situation that they envy or can vicariously live through is something that I think allows people to feel better about themselves and by extension their life. Feeling better about one’s life makes one less likely to reflect on the things that aren’t going as well as they would have planned in life. So, like I said, I don’t proclaim to know the real purpose of TV, but I think that it can be argued that a fair majority of television is meant to entertain, allow for escapism, and sustain employment.

While I still think that there’s some truth to what I wrote over 4 years ago, as I indicated earlier, I think I’ve sold TV short. And while we’re at it, movies, too. Maybe there’s more to TV and film than entertainment, escapism, and employment. Well, of course there is, but let’s get into it.

Maybe there’s also an element of education to it. Remember my post from the other week on fictional presidents and the sunk cost trap? If the the script were written differently, that could have shown viewers the more optimal choice.

Or what about the idea that watching a TV show or a movie can inspire us? Last year, Reese Witherspoon starred (and was rightfully nominated for an Oscar!) in the movie Wild. The movie was based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir regarding her trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. Importantly, the movie didn’t give viewers misconceptions about hiking 2,500 miles. It’s hard. With that being said, consider this:

“People are definitely worried about the ‘Wild’ effect, though we can’t really figure out what it is yet,” said Dan Moe, a baker from Portland, Oregon who’s hiking this year.

He said while he thinks there are more hikers on the trail this year, he hasn’t yet met anyone who’s out there because of the book or film.

“At least they don’t admit it,” he said.

To add to that:

Before the book was published, about 300 people would take out permits to attempt the full hike, which usually takes four to five months. It’s not yet known how many will try this year, but estimates range from 1,600 to 3,000 — 10 times the number who tried before the book came out.

So, while we may be wrong to infer causality here, there certainly appears to be a correlation worth noting.

There are two more things I want to address. The first, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” This is the motto of a movie/documentary of which I’ve written about many times before: Miss Representation. There has certainly been a lot of progress (at least there appears to have been) since that movie came out, with regard to women having more prominent roles, but similar to the anecdote from above, I’d caution on inferring causality. However, I will say that I’m glad to hear that it appears that there’s this concerted effort arising. For instance, did you know that there’s going to be female Thor? Or that they’re bringing back Macgyver as a female?

Lastly, there’s the idea that TV is a mechanism for storytelling. While that may seem obvious, consider the time before movies, TV, and radio, when we’d have to sit around the fire and tell stories to each other. This was the way that many things were passed on from generation to generation and now we have things like the Internet where we don’t even need to hear the story from someone — we can read all about it (and the blatant hyperbole contained within).

There was a great article on Vox a couple weeks back with the main thesis that the recent string of superhero movies have been an attempt to rewrite the images of 9/11. It’s really a very interesting read and I encourage you to check it out, but I think this adds to the idea that TV (and movies) are and can be much more to us than a place to escape. They can also be a place where we heal. That may seem somewhat ironic given that the average American spends 3 hours a day watching TV (and, in a sense, accelerates their ageing/death because of sedentariness), but maybe it’s time we have a bit more compassion for those among us who would rather go to the movies or binge-watch a season of Star Trek.

How to Stop Binge-Watching

Thirty-years ago if you told someone that you ‘binge-watched’ MacGyver over the weekend they would have looked at you funny — mostly because binge-watching wasn’t really common parlance, but also because you couldn’t binge-watch in the 80s the way that you can now. Today, you can fire up your computer (or set-top box) and stream episode after episode. Heck, you could even watch episode after episode on DVD or blu-ray, if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s become so easy to binge-watch shows and in part, is contributing to people actually binge-watching more shows.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t binge-watched a show. In fact, that was part of the reason that I first signed up for Netflix in February of 2013 — to watch House of Cards. And did I watch one episode and then wait a week? No. I finished the first season in a weekend. I also finished season 2 in a weekend, but who’s keeping track. Well, since we’re confessing, I also caught up on four and a half seasons Breaking Bad relatively quickly (4 or 5 weeks?) before the last half of the final season was to begin.

I should make it clear that I’m not encouraging binge-watching, but simply providing evidence that I’ve got plenty of experience with it, which brings me to my point:

How to stop binge-watching.

I don’t remember how I stumbled on this little trick, but it has certainly helped me when I needed to pull myself away from a set of gripping episodes. This method works particularly well for a show that uses a lot of cliffhangers or plot twists near the end of an episode (Scandal is a good example, however the finale to season three, which was essentially three season finales in one, might confound this). Instead of watching the whole episode before calling it quits for the night/afternoon, you’ve got to stop the episode well before they introduce a new plot twist. One way to do this is to “hang up” very near to the reveal of the climax. It’s in the falling action where they get you!

I realize that the show isn’t meant to be watched in this way, but I’ve found myself, on many occasions, where I wanted to stop watching, but kept getting sucked in at the end of an episode. After enough times of this happening, I realized that I needed to end the episode before the end of the episode. Hence, stopping the episode somewhere after the climax (usually somewhere two-thirds into the episode).

One of the potential criticisms to this method is that you’ve got to “fast-forward” to the point where you’ve left off. That’s true only if you’re not using something like Netflix. When you end an episode with Netflix part-way through, it picks up where you’ve left off (in fact, it rewinds it a few seconds sometimes). Since this is pretty much the only way I’ve binge-watched shows, I can attest to it working splendidly.

Should We Be Reading Instead of Binge-Watching?

If you’ll recall from yesterday’s post, humans are wired for binge-watching. I wonder — are we spending too much time “vegging out” binge-watching when we’d be better off reading?

The map above comes from a post from Gizmodo earlier this month. It might be a bit hard to read the numbers, but it shows the average amount of time spent by each country reading. India comes out on top reading, on average, 10 hours and 42 minutes per week. The US, by comparison, reads a little more than half as much as India at 5 hours and and 42 minutes per week. Canada’s not much better at 5 hours and 48 minutes.

I wonder if this data is affected by the availability of TV or maybe more specifically, the cultural availability of TV. Let me explain: in countries like the US, watching TV isn’t just something that’s an option when you’re trying to figure out what to do when you come home from work or school, it’s the norm. People have whole rooms dedicated for just TV watching. I’d suspect that this isn’t the case in other parts of the world where space is a premium. If I think about a country like India where 4 times as many people than there are in the US, I wonder if going off and reading a book somewhere might be a more desirable activity than trying to watch TV with 4, 5, or 6 other people. In the US, there’s the joke about who gets to have the TV controller — the husband or the wife. I wonder what the equivalency would be when you’re fighting for the controller with 2 aunts and uncles, along with your cousins.

Regardless, as I alluded to in the second sentence, North Americans might be better off taking after the rest of the world by burying their heads in a good book. Or, maybe it’s time to hit the gym.

What’s Better: Binge-Watching TV or Movies?

Quite some time ago (maybe 1-3 years ago?), I remember Matt Yglesias writing something about how movies were far superior to TV shows. That opinion has stuck with me for a while. It’s not that I agreed or disagreed, but I found the idea curious. With the explosion of binge-watching, I wondered if Matt Yglesias still thinks that movies were far superior to TV shows.

That is, when you can watch 3-5 hours of a TV show and really get into the intricacies of the plot in one sitting, does that somehow make it better than a 1.5- to 2-hour movie?

More recently, there’ve been a couple of interesting articles about movies and binge-watching. The first, on movies, discusses how going to the movies is a shared experience and how that might be dying out. The author explains that fewer people are going to the movies, even though ticket sales are at an all-time high (increased prices). She closes by saying that she thinks only a limited number of movies will debut in the theatre and the rest will go straight to video.

I think she’s right — the movies as a shared experience is dying out. However, I don’t think “shared experiences” are dying out. Instead, I think they’re moving away from the movies to other events like the one the author mentions, but not in the same context, the Oscars. Or perhaps the Superbowl is another good example. More than that, I wonder if we’re substituting the shared collective experience of going to the movies for binge-watching.

The second article, on binge-watching, argued that humans are wired to binge-watch. With the rise of online video streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon (Prime), it’s not surprising that people are spending more time watching videos online and at home than they are going out to the theatre. I would posit that as more people binge-watch, the more other people also want to binge-watch.

Think about shows like House of Cards or Orange is the New  Black. These shows were released all at once on a Friday. As a result, some people will have watched the whole season before going back to work on Monday. As a way to stay “part of the conversation,” some people may feel compelled to watch the whole season, too. Given that we’re already wired to binge-watch, it’s not surprising that this might become self-reinforcing. 

This leads me to my argument that binge-watching might be replacing movie-going as the norm when it comes to shared experiences. After you’ve binge-watched House of Cards or some other series, maybe you start binge-watching that series that you never got into when it was on TV (Lost? Frasier? The West Wing?). There are a lot of series that are on Netflix and there are also lots of series on some of the other online streaming sites.

After having a baby fall asleep on my lap/shoulder night after night, I think my vote might be for binge-watching.