Since I began writing for Screened, I have done a lot of thinking about television and the habits and ways in which we watch it. This is an interesting subject, because to even have the ability to consume television in multiple ways is something that has only come around in about in the last decade. When broadcast television first began airing, there were few channels and not much choice. You watched one of of the few shows that was on and when it was on. Now, with the invention of the DVD box set, DVRs and services such as Netflix, Hulu and OnDemand, the way in which we can consume television shows has altered greatly. One of the biggest changes is the ability for one to watch multiple episodes or a whole season in a short period of time in a marathon format. I have seen a lot of discussion lately on the merits of viewing habits and I thought it would be fun to analyze them both. I am a big proponent of the marathon format, which can be seen by the feature I recently started named Marathon to Start. It is a fantastic way to catch up on shows that you have missed for one reason or another. It can also attribute to the cult-like success of shows. One of the best examples of this is Arrested Development. Although the show had extremely low ratings when it first aired on FOX, many fans discovered the show on DVD and a huge audience formed around the series, which even made it popular enough to ignite a new season of the show. However, by watching shows in this way, I wonder if we are missing something? Is there something to be said for having to wait each week for a show without the ability to binge out on several episodes at a time? I say to figure it out, let's examine the merits of both.
First off, I must state that I love doing marathons of shows. In fact, until I started writing recaps of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, I believe it had been years since I probably sat down each week to watch a show. However, since I started watching these shows on on-air, I have enjoyed the experience in many ways that I forgot that I would. I think one of the biggest things that I have appreciated is actually taking the time to think about the shows and digest them. Especially with a show like Breaking Bad that is so dense, with a lot of symbolism and foreshadowing, I have had a lot of time to analyze the events of each episode before simply just moving on to another. Likewise, having to wait for a week (or even a few days if you have an episode on DVR) makes the cliffhangers have even more impact. If an episode ends and you are left hanging in the balance and must wait to find out if a character is going to live or die, you begin counting down the moments until it is on again. It is a fun and exhilarating experience to scream at a TV "no, don’t make me wait!".
On the other hand, there is a whole different experience of being awake at 3am in the morning and not being able to resist watching just one more episode. I don't think anything can describe this better than this awesome clip of Portlandia where Doug and Claire start watching Battlestar Galactica.
In addition, there also is a social aspect to watching weekly that doesn't necessarily happen when you are watching a marathon. With Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad being on the same night, Sundays have become the "get together, come over, order food and watch television night." It has become a night that I can look forward to seeing my friends and discussing the episode with several of them. Different people oftentimes have different perspectives and when you watch with others, it can bring up perspectives you would not have thought about. There is also nothing better than getting in to a big debate about the merits of a scene or event in a television show, because that is where passion can really shine through. Watching a comedy with people is especially valuable, because you always seem to laugh harder when others are around. Yet, let's not discount the merits of what a great marathon can do for your life if you are lonely, or going through a hard time. The first time I watched The West Wing, I would come home from work and genuinely look forward to spending some time with my "friends". A great television show makes you feel like you know the characters on screen, and sometimes that is an experience that is more valuable to have on your own without it being colored by the opinions of anyone else.
While many people in the network television industry complain about the ability for audiences to do marathons, it isn't all bad for them. The problem that binge viewing has created is the fact that it is much harder to actually get higher ratings, because the need for audiences to watch shows when they are on-air has diminished greatly. It is one of the reasons reality shows like American Idol, The Voice and sports events have some of the biggest ratings in television. If people know they cannot catch up on a show later, they must make the time to watch when its on-air or within a few days on their DVR and somehow, they find a way to do this. I just recently caught up on the latest season of Sons of Anarchy, and am waiting for The Walking Dead to be released, because I didn't have cable at the time. However, because I knew that eventually they would be released as a season, I could just watch then and didn't mind missing on-air. However, the interesting thing is that now that I am caught up, it is very likely I will watch both of those shows when they are actually on television this season. This has happened with several cable shows, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad in that once people do marathons of the previous seasons that have aired, the ratings for the later seasons will skyrocket. The ratings for the season 5 premiere of both Mad Men and Breaking Bad set series' high records. This could be because of the great PR on the shows, but I actually believe it can more be attributed to the fact that many viewers caught up on the previous seasons and not wanting to wait another year for DVDs to be released, began watching on-air.
When looking back on the differing styles, they each have benefits and lead to a different experience with the show, but is one really better than the other? I don't think so. Television is a form of entertainment that affects each of us in different ways. It can be a social event, it can be an escape or it can be time to take out of your day and just laugh for a few moments. I'm sure that with the rise of second screen and new technologies the televisual experience will once again morph in to something new in the future. However, the important thing is that in a world where there is more premium content than ever before, we should all take a moment to watch an episode of our favorite show or to sit down and start a marathon. (If you would like some ideas on what to watch – you can find some of my current suggestions for a marathon to start below.)
Suggested Marathons to Start: