I’ve been searching for a word to capture my new viewing habit. Though “binging” and the somewhat less pathologized “marathoning” have emerged to describe the behavior of consuming many episodes of a series in rapid succession, contemporary control and distribution technologies also allow a distinct, but not so rapid form of consumption. This behavior is distinct enough to warrant its own term, though I continue to struggle to find it.
For the better part of the last year I’ve experimented with viewing series by season. Either I work my way through something on Netflix or VOD or wait for a season’s worth of episodes to build up on my DVR. I distinguish this from binging because so much of the binging discourse is about the can’t-stop, watched-a-whole-season-in two-days possibility for viewing. When life is busy, I may watch no more than five hours a week, and I don’t always watch whatever it is I’m working through. Binging is hardly the word to describe a month long trek through season two of House of Cards.
The terms I’ve played with so far are “serial viewing” and “reading television”—both of which have obvious problems. The latter comes from my sense that this strategy allows me to consume television series much as I would a book. I might get through an episode (chapter) a night, and sometimes start into a second. I could also pick up the series on a portable device while waiting for a doctor in the way I used to take a book with me (though in truth, I usually prefer to squeeze in actual reading in these times). And, like when reading a novel, I might interrupt the story depending on my entertainment needs or desires. Maybe I’m too burnt out to continue The Bridge tonight; instead I might pull an episode of The Mindy Project from the DVR in the same way I might choose the lesser commitment of magazine reading to that of a novel.
My concern with “serial viewing” is the connection with a narrative form—serial viewing need not be of serial television (though mine typically is). “Consecutive viewing”—meh, though accurate and without baggage. I could make the distinction that I am “watching the last season of Damages right now,” which, in this context might make the distinctive nature of this viewing clear, but the historic casualness of our explanation of viewing behavior really doesn’t convey the distinct behavior.
Why does this really matter? First, the blanket use of binging for the kind of non-linear viewing I’m describing obscures important insight about how and why viewers are adopting new behaviors, and it discourages reconsideration of the business models that make it far more difficult to view in this way than it needs to be. Traditional aggregators (linear networks and channels) may think “that’s not how our business model works” if they believe binging is all about quick consumption as opposed to something like the greater richness of the narrative experience available when you can actually remember the nuances of what has happened before in the story.
At this point, the evolution of US television is largely stalled by the disparity between post-network era technologies and distribution systems and the persistence of a network era economic model. DVD release first enabled this mode of viewing, though Netflix made it significantly easier and taught us about queues and consecutive viewing. Other subscription services (HBO Go) subsequently enabled more consumption in this way, and ad-based nets/MVPDs allow a limited (far inferior) version of this with VOD. But the basic economic structure of US television, in which the original licensor pays the bulk of creative costs while the studio retains ownership for sales in subsequent markets, forces viewers to choose between waiting for weekly installments or waiting for availability in secondary markets. Though clinging to the known and profitable business models as long as possible, the scale of coming change is apparent to the executive corps. Better understanding what changing viewing behaviors are about, and why and how different content and different content experiences are valued will be the difference between the survivors of the coming change and those left behind. Which is a long way of saying, we need a word in addition to binging to describe emerging viewing behaviors.