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 & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?