Binge-watching House of Cards and Breaking Bad is 'good for you'

Fans of hit shows are increasingly gobbling up entire seasons in on-demand marathons. But is this televisual gluttony such a bad thing?

During a recent family gathering, I watched my children and nephew play Mario Kart. It was chaotic and overwhelming; a riot of noisy Japanese anime characters hurtling around cartoon racetracks. Observing the scene was enlightening because my wife and I play Mario Kart nightly. With a controller in my hands, all the blinky distractions drop away and my attention narrows to my character, my opponents and the course. Feeling my mind shift into a state of effortless concentration is a big part of the pleasure of gaming. Watching is frantic. Playing is focused.

We're fascinated with the effects digital and interactive media have on us and with good reason. What we often overlook is that they don't affect us in linear, mechanical ways. Previous experience, context and intention all affect the way they influence us.

Take binge-watching, the practice of watching multiple episodes of a television series back-to-back. This used to be done with boxsets of Friends, but high-speed internet and tablet technology now means you can burn through the latest season of your favourite show in bed, on the go and, well, pretty much anywhere.

The term binge suggests overindulgence or out-of-control behaviour. One-quarter of respondents in a December 2013 Harris Interactive admitted they'd watched an entire 13-hour season of a series in two days, raising spectres of glassy-eyed adults, misused sick days and neglected pets.

But to me, the experience of binge-watching Lost, Breaking Bad and Avatar: The Last Airbender has always felt more complicated. Recently, I've been interviewing other binge watchers about their habits and practices. There may be people who turn off their brains and watch eight straight hours of Jersey Shore, but for this group, binge-watching isn't mindless recreation. It's a restorative experience.

It's strategic and methodically organised - a protest against technology-enabled mindlessness. It's a way to reclaim their time and attention in a rushing, distracting world.

Programmes like 24 feature complicated plots that unspool over the course of a season Programmes like 24 feature complicated plots that unspool over the course of a season
So go ahead, watch season 2 of House of Cards, the American political thriller that Netflix released this time last week. You won't be alone. The rise of super-fast broadband has come at the perfect time for Netflix, which now has 44 million subscribers, including 2m in the UK. And many of those subscribes will have been watching House of Cards over the last seven days.

The term "restorative experiences" was coined by University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Kaplan. He wanted to understand why walks in the park, or even looking at a picture of a landscape, can recharge your mental batteries. Restorative experiences, he found, share a few common features. They're fascinating: unlike a conference call or spreadsheet, they hold your attention without effort. They provide a sense of transporting you from your normal life and environment. They strike a balance between complexity and compatibility. They're rich and fully realised worlds, but you can make sense of them. Natural environments like parks and beaches and built spaces like churches and gardens can be restorative. So can the theatre or good books.

It's not obvious at first sight, but binge-watching has all the features of restorative experiences. My interview subjects declare a strong preference for "compelling", "critically acclaimed" and "engrossing" series. Often they're based on books ( Game of Thrones, Sherlock). They feature complicated plots that unspool over the course of a season ( 24, Lost), great characters and acting ( The Sopranos, House of Cards), and well-developed worlds ( The Wire's inner-city Baltimore, the royal court of The Tudors). In other words, they're choosing series that are fascinating, complex and compatible.

It's not just what they choose to watch that makes binge-watching restorative. It's how they watch, too: binge-watching is more like going to a movie or play than watching Russian dashcam videos. They talk about watching "with compete attention", being "fully immersed", "completely in a different place," or "filtering out everything around me".

Many turn off their phones or ignore email. One knits through Homeland, but that occupies her hands, not her eyes. Even people who can't arrange such complete immersion use the technology to keep interruptions from becoming impediments. One stay-at-home mum says her four children make it hard to "give something at home the same concentration that I can at the movies", but with streaming services, "any distractions can be dealt with without missing anything".

For many, binge-watching is a break or reward. They wait until major projects are done or grades turned in and they have time to spend a day in another world. As one musician put it, she and her colleagues "binge rehearse and binge perform", so it's "no coincidence that once the semester and final performances end, I go plop down on the sofa and watch hours and hours of Miss Marple".

One viewer says she knits through episodes of Homeland One viewer says she knits through episodes of Homeland
Some critics have worried that the decline of synchronised TV watching impoverishes of our common culture (an argument that must have Mortimer Great Books Adler and Allan Closing of the American Mind Bloom spinning in their graves). Again, the reality is more complex. Binge-watching is social, but in different ways than live TV. Viewers rely heavily on word-of-mouth when choosing series. This helps guarantee quality - one philosophy professor and Game of Thrones fan waited "until a few episodes had already come out and praise was running high" before diving in - and it helps viewers understand cultural references and inside jokes.

"Knowing I'll have something to talk about with [friends] when I'm done" affected his decision to binge-watch Parks and Recreation, one software developer told me. It doesn't support water cooler talk about last night's episode, but it does encourage talk about characters and story arcs.

If binge-watching supports conversation, it discourages real-time chat. This is a feature, not a bug. Binge watchers are free from the pressure to be always on and constantly commenting. Nobody live-tweets their reactions to the 1996 season of The X Files.

Just as romance readers can use books to carve out private space ("not now, dear - mummy's reading"), binge-watching lets people focus on one thing for hours rather than seconds or minutes. In an era where "little 'invisible' chunks" of time on Snapchat and YouTube can easily absorb as much time in a week as a season of Breaking Bad, the ability to reclaim control of one's time, to rediscover - as Shay Colson, a Seattle-based cybersecurity engineer I quote in my recent book put it: "How much time is in the day when you don't spend it in 30-second chunks," makes binge-watching an almost radical act of self-determined focus.

The phenomenon isn't in doubt with some statistics suggesting that Netflix alone accounts for one third of American internet traffic on any given evening. Of course, the people I'm talking to may be exceptional. They're highly educated, thoughtful by training and inclination and their busy lives force them to be careful with their time.

For people with less self-discipline and fewer demands on their time, binge-watching may be mindless rather than restorative. But small groups often pioneer ways of using technology that eventually become mainstream.

And if media companies like Netflix and Hulu pay attention to them and choose to design for more mindful viewing, it'll show the industry that it's possible to make money without trying to appeal to unconscious habits, or turn users into dopamine addicts.

In an era in which distraction has become a business plan, that would be a truly disruptive innovation.


Watch the trailer for the new season of House of Cards

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?