The Binge Debate and Televisual Maturity

6 Nov

Brundson claims that bingeing means “bad television watching” in contrast to simply watching bad television. Though it’s certainly possible to dispute the normative judgment Brundson is making (that bingeing is not the correct way of watching television), the fact that it can be made at all says a lot about the current status of television as a medium and the way it is broadly perceived. Where once debates centered squarely on the question of whether or not television was worth watching at all or was worthy of some sort of artistic merit, the question now is how to watch television. The shift in where these arguments occur speaks volumes about how broad television can be (from broadcast networks to the Internet) and the enormous variety of ways it can be experienced. That’s pretty damn cool.

The increasing debate in non-academic TV criticism over binge watching illuminates some really interesting things about our collective relationship to television. In his defense of binge watching, Time media critic James Poniewozik writes, “The surest sign that a medium is changing is that people start to romanticize the very features of it that used to be condemned.” He criticizes fixation on the episode and time break as necessary narrative building blocks for television, since those features were only present because of early commercial concerns and argues that there are benefits to binge watching – total immersion in a world increases the ability of the viewer to see subtle thematic connections and get a better sense for a season of television’s overarching plan.

I’m torn on this question. If the episode starts to lose importance as a discreet unit (something we’re starting to see with Netflix show dumps ala Arrested Development), when does television cease being television and become another medium entirely?

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2 Responses to “The Binge Debate and Televisual Maturity”

  1. Keegan Hankes November 7, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    Maybe the episode as THE unit for television is just a phenomenon related to the relatively short lifespan of the medium. I certainly agree that the rise of bingeing as a dominant form of viewership complicates, if not fundamentally changes, television. Entire seasons of serial dramas can be watched as twelve hour movies rather than three month experiences and conversations. Total immersion into and engagement with a fantasy world is more easily attained by watching episode after episode with few breaks in between. However, this isn’t the first time there have been radical variance in modes of viewership in television. I’m thinking in particular about soap operas. These programs, churning out a new episode a day in many cases, lasted longer than many people’s lives (see “Guiding Light” which spanned two mediums and lasted 72 years). Viewers watching everyday as a part of their day to day lives were witnessing the lives of the shows’ characters unfold in a temporally parallel fashion — an experience very different to watching a regularly scheduled, once a week broadcast. Maybe bingeing, allowed by the rise of the box set and internet streaming, should only be seen as one more mode of viewership available to audiences, rather than a threat to the medium. Even in the case of the coming season of Arrested Development, audiences could watch an episode a week, if they possessed the proper amount of self-discipline.

    I like the quote from James Poniewozik, but I might use “expanding” rather than changing to describe the flux in television occurring in the present moment. The medium is presenting, rather than enforcing, more possibilities for viewership.

  2. rohulray November 11, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    I totally agree that the fairly recent phenomenon of binging, itself a byproduct of digital storage and distribution technologies, both complicates and expands our conditioned understanding of what television is on a formal level — primarily serial narratives presented in a weekly format, like The Wire or Breaking Bad or 24. Indeed, David Simon has often described The Wire as essentially being one really long film, which implies that binging is perhaps the ideal viewing practice, and probably explains why these types of shows have a successful DVD/digital afterlife.

    However, as Keegan suggested, this mode of temporally compressed viewership isn’t unique to the practice of binging, since there are many televisual narratives (as opposed to the broader term “shows,” since that would encompass game shows and talk shows, which are beyond the scope of this class) that operate within a *daily* programming format, in that new episodes air every day. I think one modern primetime drama that really exploits the televisual parameter of the episodic form in a novel way, that speaks to the medium-specific narrative affordances of television which may get lost in translation through the practice of binging, is the HBO five-nights-a-week series In Treatment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Treatment). Basically, the episodic structure of a season is designed and presented to temporally mimic the day-to-day routine and week-to-week schedule of a therapist, who sees one patient on Monday, another on Tuesday, and eventually meets with his own therapist on Friday. This format of daily progression allows the episodic form as a discrete narrative unit to really shine — because of the show’s temporal mirroring of the day-to-day, week-to-week, this is precisely the type of narrative that only television can articulate. I think binging on a show like In Treatment might actually be a reductive process, because you lose that flow that is so crucial to its richness.

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