Netflix had a great deal to do with the popularity of the phrase “binge-watching," which describes the habit of a consumer to consecutively watch multiple episodes of a television show, rather than on a regular weekly programming cadence. At one point, Netflix even coined a variation on the term: “binge racer.” A binge racer is a viewer who aims to finish a full season of a show within 24 hours of its release, according to a press release from Netflix.
More recently, the company has appeared to back away from using both of these terms, if not discouraging the practice.
The New Normal
Experts have talked themselves hoarse warning consumers about the dangers of binge-watching, never mind binge racing. Reader’s Digest compiled a comprehensive list of the potential dangers of binge-watching, including increased risk of major health issues, social isolation, and a serious waste of precious hours.
Nevertheless, binge-watching has entered the mainstream, both as a term and as a habit. In mid-2018, PCMag.com published “22 Tips to Boost Your Binge-Watching,” apparently to help people who have become paralyzed by the sheer quantity of binge-worthy content available to them.
The term has been in the Oxford online dictionary since 2014. Countless reviews of new series rate them according to their degree of binge-worthiness. “Best to Binge-Watch” lists abound.
- As early as 2013, Netflix was a frequent pusher of the phrase "binge-watching," which describes a consumer habit to consecutively watch multiple episodes of a television show.
- Netflix CEO Reed Hastings frequently encouraged binge-watching and talked about it as a welcome escape from reality; the word "binge" was mentioned over 15 times in company press releases in 2017.
- Netflix frequently uses its data to release insights related to binge-watching, also garnering useful information from "binged" shows to produce new content.
- As the harmful effects to sleep and social life behind binge-watching have been increasingly exposed, Netflix has shied away from the term.
Super Fans and Binge Racers
A Netflix press release in 2017 announced that the number of binge racers on the platform multiplied by 20 just between 2013 and 2016. It reported that 8.4 million of its subscribers had binge raced at least once. It’s not just Americans. Subscribers in Canada lead the trend, followed by those in the U.S., Denmark, Finland, and Norway. You’ll notice that four out of five of those countries have long and brutal winters.
Conscious that this piece of trivia might paint a bleak picture of some of its subscribers’ lives, Netflix says: “…before you assume that racers are just basement-dwelling couch potatoes, know that for these super fans, the speed of watching is an achievement to be proud of and brag about. The TV is their passion and Binge Racing is their sport.”
It’s reminiscent of when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg bragged about how we never have to see our friends in person again.
Establishing the Binge-Watching Trend
Netflix worked hard to legitimize behavior that researchers have found affects sleep quality and is linked with low self-regulation, depression, and anxiety.
Unfortunately, it worked. After its press release about binge racing was published, stories about the trend appeared in USA Today, Fortune, Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, Mashable, Time, Variety, and countless other publications. This is significant because a 2016 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Toledo showed that media influence and social acceptance of binge-watching were significant predictors of self-reported binge-watching. The more people hear about binge-watching, the more likely they are to feel okay about doing it themselves.
Sleep Is the Enemy
We know binge-watching was, and presumably still is, important to Netflix. CEO Reed Hastings has called sleep the company’s biggest competitor. The auto-play function, which automatically takes viewers from episode to episode, is enabled by default.
But more telling is that the phrase came up in its communications repeatedly. The word “binge” appeared 15 times in news releases put out by Netflix up through 2017.
Netflix frequently used its data to release insights related to binge-watching for the media to write about. “Binge” also came up in multiple quarterly earnings calls and was mentioned in the streaming company’s long-term strategy on its investor relations page. A few examples of these press releases are: "Netflix Declares Binge Watching is the New Normal," "Series, Movie, Series, Repeat: A New Netflix Binge Routine" and "Decoding the Defenders: Netflix Unveils the Gateway Shows That Lead to a Heroic Binge."
The “binge racer” press release was part of an ongoing company campaign to remove any shame attached to spending hours in front of a screen. It even published survey data that said: “67% of people will risk embarrassment, awkwardness, and spoilers to watch their favorite shows and movies in public.”
The Trend Peaks
It’s clear that Netflix had been anticipating the backlash binge-watching could possibly face for a long time.
A study it funded in 2013 found that 73% of TV streamers had positive feelings and felt no guilt about binge-watching, and 76% called it a welcome refuge from their daily lives. The methodology reveals that more than half of the 3,078 adults surveyed did not stream a TV show at least once a week, which makes one wonder whether their opinion on binge-watching should actually matter.
Meanwhile, a study by a researcher at Trinity University found that viewers who reported higher levels of TV consumption in the previous week were less likely to feel guilty about binge-watching than those who watched less TV.
In the same press release, cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, employed by Netflix to study viewing patterns, declared that today’s TV streamers are not the dead-eyed couch potatoes of the past. No, according to McCracken, they are purposeful seekers of new experiences.
“TV viewers are no longer zoning out as a way to forget about their day; they are tuning in, on their own schedule, to a different world. Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcomed today,” he said.
Binge Is the Bread and Butter
Netflix promoted binge-watching because its investors have been told it is essential to the firm’s existence.
Back in 2011, CEO Reed Hastings was asked about the company’s rationale for making entire seasons available at one time. “Netflix's brand for TV shows is really about binge viewing,” he said. “It is to accommodate, to just get hooked, and watch episode after episode. It's addictive, it's exciting, it's different.”
During a conference call in October 2014, the CEO called consumers’ desire to binge-watch a “universal value.”
Netflix also told investors audiences’ willingness to binge-watch is an indicator of the quality of its content, and that it lets its knowledge of how fast people watch guide the company's programming decisions.
These insights have been useful in many ways. “We get so much data about how people watch, how fast they watch, that it really propels our programming,” said Hastings during an earnings call in July 2015.
During a conference call with investors in 2013, COO Ted Sarandos said, “…it's a pretty safe bet that if somebody watches all 13 episodes of a show in a pretty short time span that they love that content, so it's a good leading indicator for us that we're doing okay with them.”
Harmful Effects: Let’s Not Talk About It Anymore
By 2018, Netflix wasn’t talking so much about binge-watching. There was that press release in February 2018 reporting that it took only 12 days for new Netflix subscribers to enjoy their first binge-watching experience. But there were reports that the company had instructed actors promoting new shows to avoid the “b” word.
Surely it doesn’t want its shows to be any less binge-worthy or its subscribers to binge less. But as the cultural wave shifted, Netflix seemed more hesitant to throw around a phrase that had taken on negative connotations, at least to some.
In any case, it’s no longer Netflix’s exclusive phrase to throw around. There’s plenty of “binge-worthy” programming out there that isn’t being hosted by Netflix. Game of Thrones is an HBO series. The Handmaid’s Tale is on Hulu. This is Us is on NBC.
Love it or hate it, it seems binge-watching is here to stay, whether or not Netflix wants to talk about it.