Binge Watching

Motivations and Implications of Our Changing Viewing Behaviors

by Bridget Rubenking (Author) Cheryl Campanella Bracken (Author)
©2020 Textbook VIII, 194 Pages


This book situates binge watching as one of several new television viewing behaviors which collectively contribute to a fundamental change in the way we view television today. Simply put, binge watching changes, or has the potential to change, everything: Engagement, immersion, attention to content and other devices, identification with characters and social engagement with fellow viewers, as well as content choices, and cable and over-the-top (OTT) subscription rates. Binge watching has quickly become a new norm in television viewing across audiences.
Binge Watching reviews historically significant advancements in the television industry and in technology that better enable binge watching, such as timeshifting, increasing quantity and (sometimes) quality of content, as well as distribution strategies and suggestions algorithms employed by OTT providers. We situate binge watching as human-centered, that is, driven by innate human needs and wants, such as a desire to consume well-constructed stories and to connect with others. We also review the current state of academic binge watching research—from motives and habituation to the (over-pathologizing) addiction-based studies. This text concludes with a synopsis of the central arguments made and identifies several areas for future research.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables
  • Chapter One: Introduction: A Look at Binge Watching
  • Chapter Two: A Historical Perspective: The Evolution of Television Viewing and Audience Research
  • Chapter Three: An Industry Perspective: Changing Competitors, Content, and Content Curation
  • Chapter Four: A Social Perspective: Family Viewing, Co-Viewing, and Social TV
  • Chapter Five: Motivations to Binge Watch
  • Chapter Six: Implications of Binge Watching
  • Chapter Seven: Conclusion: Where Do We Go From Here?
  • Index

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Table 2.1: Evolution of Television Technology

Table 5.1: Sub-dimensions of Automaticity and the Active Audience

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Introduction: A Look at Binge Watching

The term “binge watching” is used casually among television viewers, interested industry parties, and academics to denote longer viewing sessions of sequential television episodes, often via streaming services. A simple google search for “best shows to binge watch” yields dozens, if not hundreds, of articles and listicles of suggestions of what to binge watch this weekend depending on your mood, the season, or the genre and streaming service of one’s choosing. Beyond being a buzz word in popular culture, binge watching and related new viewing patterns are quickly replacing traditional appointment viewing and cutting into basic timeshifted television viewing. Industry reports and empirical academic articles present a clear picture: A convincing majority of television viewers are binge watchers. In 2013, over 60% of Netflix subscribers reported regularly binge watching, per Netflix (West, 2014). This was before Netflix became available in over 200 additional countries by 2016. Netflix currently has 125 million worldwide subscribers, 56.7 million of which are based in the United States (Richter, 2018). For many, Netflix is nearly synonymous with binge watching (Fiegerman, 2017; Matrix, 2014), and the impact of Netflix and other streaming services cannot be underscored in the role they play in enabling these new viewing behaviors.

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A worldwide report by Ericsson Consumer Labs (2015) reveals approximately three-quarters of individuals with access to any streaming service or video on-demand report binge watching. And across the world, numbers of subscribers to streaming services are only increasing. A Harris Interactive poll of U.S. adults reported that 43% regularly watch streaming TV, while 23% report that streaming content is the way they most often watch TV (Harris Polls, 2014). These numbers increased among millennials (18–36-year-olds) from 2012 to 2014; jumping to 67% of millennials regularly streaming TV content and 47% reporting that streaming is the most common way they watch TV. In 2017, the number of household broadband subscriptions surpassed cable subscriptions for the first time; In 2019, the number of streaming service subscriptions surpassed cable subscriptions (Roettgers, 2019). Some reports show that viewers are spending more time binge watching than they are engaging in typical appointment viewing of television (Hallinan & Striphas, 2016).

Research on age and binge watching indicates there are some differences, but they are not as stark as one may imagine. Americans aged 18– 39 are more likely to binge watch than Americans aged 40 or older (Shannon-Missal, 2013). About 89% of millennials engage in binge watching, whereas only 67% of individuals over the age of 55 engage in binge watching. However, more “moderate” binge watching (2–3 episodes per session) is quite common across all age groups, with those aged 18–24 binging only slightly more (West, 2014). Binge watching is also not exclusively occurring in college dorms and apartments. While younger audiences are binge watching more frequently, 60% of all audiences regularly binge watch television (Harris Interactive Poll, 2014). Binge watchers also feel good about their binge watching: 73% view binge watching positively, 76% of those who subscribe to a streaming service watch several episodes in one sitting as a “welcome refuge from the busy world we live in,” and many say they view in part because there is so much good content to watch. A full 79% of streamers say binging content makes the show itself better (West, 2014).

These increases in viewing television content via streaming services and large percentage gains over several years are an even more critical data point when one considers that many of these numbers from industry reports – and academic research studies – are already several years old. “Binge watching” awarded Collins Dictionary’s “word of the year” in 2015 is already proving to be more than a passing fad, or a way of viewing that can be attributed to only smaller subsets of a television viewing public.

Watching a television series in long, continuous stretches is a fundamentally different experience than what television viewing has meant to audiences for decades. It is an experience that we argue has far-reaching implications for industry and particularly for the academic study of individuals and new media. A fundamental change in how individuals view television likely also impacts processing of content, motives to view, and effects of viewing, which presents a development that media entertainment scholars cannot ignore.

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The earliest academic investigations of binge watching – which are still heavily cited in the subsequent literature – include a fair amount of largely descriptive investigations of who is binge watching and their possible motives (Petersen, 2016; Pittman & Sheehan, 2015). Some take a critical-cultural approach (Jenner, 2014; Matrix, 2014); some received media attention with headlines that were mismatched with the data analyzed (Sung, Kang, & Lee, 2015); and many were thesis/dissertation work, or conference papers and proceedings (Karmaker, Kruger, Elahi, & Kramer, 2015; Pena, 2015; Sung, et al., 2015; Wheeler, 2015). Following this early work by media scholars, research coming out of health disciplines began studying binge watching as a health issue of concern or addiction (Exelmans & Van den Bulck, 2017; Walton-Pattison, Dombrowski, & Presseau, 2016). We (the authors of the current text) were also working on exploratory research on binge watching at this time. In fact, the state of the available research encouraged us to propose a book on this topic. We are convinced that binge watching is a critical game-changer for media processing and effects and that this new norm of viewing will play a tremendous role in industry and technology changes to come. Selfishly perhaps, we were concerned that the media processing and effects research tradition of which we are a part of was not taking this shift in how we spend the majority of our media entertainment time (Madrigal, 2018), as seriously as we deemed it to our shared assumptions and methodological tools. Based on this concern, we proposed this text in 2017.

Then, 2018 saw a flurry of well-done, theoretically driven pieces on binge watching, including Riddle, Pebles, Davis, Xu, and Shroeder (2018); Tefertiller and Maxwell (2018); Tukachinsky and Eyal (2018); Walton-Pattison, Dombrowski, and Presseau (2018), among several others. The advancement in the theoretical rigor applied to studies of binge watching in just the past few years has been extremely beneficial to our goal of synthesizing what we already know about binge watching. Our goal is to continue these efforts and identify areas of study related to binge watching that will carry both applied and theoretical implications in the future. Clarifying the concept of binge watching and placing it in the context of other new media behaviors, synthesizing what is known, and identifying impactful areas of study for the future are critical contributions to the field.

This introductory chapter attempts to briefly lay out a proof of concept about binge watching: Discriminating the main phenomenon of interest from other modes of viewing is the first order of business, as is presenting clear evidence from industry and academic texts that this is a widespread, qualitatively distinct way of viewing television. We then introduce the three basic arguments of this text as a whole, prior to summarizing each chapter which follows in demonstrating evidence for the major three tenets introduced.

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Proof of Concept: A Complete Conceptualization of Binge Watching

What’s in a name? A lot. Too many things, in the case of the term “binge watching,” and not enough consistency among those studying it in industry or the academy. The Collins Dictionary’s word-of-the-year definition of binge watching is as follows:

to watch a large number of television programmes (especially all the shows from one series) in succession. (Collins Dictionary, 2015)

Much of the industry data and preliminary academic research utilizes a variation of this definition. This is a helpful start, but clearly a more thorough and complete conceptualization would be ideal for industry insiders and academics alike. The term “binge watching” caught on quickly. One writer observed the term “binge watch” first used in an online forum of X-Files fans by a user who reported “massive binge watching” of videotapes in the early 1990s (Zimmer, 2013). The term became part of our everyday lexicon amid Netflix’s frequent use of the term in 2013, when two of their early successful and critically acclaimed originals (House of Cards and Orange is the New Black) premiered. Netflix also conducted and released research findings on binge watching on its own platform. They defined binge watching as “watching between 2–6 episodes of the same TV show in one sitting” (West, 2014). In 2013, they actively used the term “binge watching” in releasing survey results of subscribers, which revealed that most Netflix subscribers were “binge watching” (where 2–3 episodes in one sitting was average), and they felt positive about the binge-watching experience (West, 2014). By 2017, Netflix had moved onto the term “binge racer,” to denote viewers who view an entire new season within 24 hours of its release (Netflix, 2017). The top binge raced shows at the time were Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Fuller House, and Marvel’s The Defenders. While Netflix says that binge racing is a fast-growing trend – increasing 20 times over between 2013 and 2017 – the term has not become as widely used as the original. Netflix went out of their way to normalize binge racing, pointing out that users everywhere were binge racing different content:

And 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 … TV is their passion and Binge Racing is their sport. (Netflix, 2017)

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The peak of Netflix using the term may have been the press release the preceding quote appeared in. D’Souza (2019) notes that following this press release, Netflix has started shying away from use of the term “binge” in all contexts. Normalizing binge watching was a major goal of Netflix since the beginning of its streaming service option. Netflix has every reason for binge watching to be discussed as a tongue-in-cheek “guilty pleasure” of sorts. When there are listicles of recommended shows to binge, it is better for business, as opposed to growing concern about the negative impacts of binge watching on mental and physical health.

Indeed, using a concept that is already widely known, or a metaphor, has its advantages and disadvantages in academic applications. We should be studying a phenomenon that is prevalent enough to enjoy widespread popular discussion about it: It is a sign of practical relevance of the topic of study. Shoemaker et al. (2004) outline the positives and negatives of using metaphor and analogy in theory building. They use Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of metaphor: “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.” Metaphors can help crystallize a vague notion, generate ideas or hypotheses, and provide coherence to a theory (Shoemaker et al., 2004). They also can help people remember the theory or concept and make it easier to understand. However, Shoemaker et al. note some drawbacks to using metaphors, including the possibility that metaphors are misleading; believing that metaphor alone is enough when explicit and testable clarifications are needed; metaphors may be chosen for their catchiness rather than accuracy; and metaphors can oversimplify matters. Despite these drawbacks, metaphor and analogy influenced concepts are commonly used in mass media research: agenda-setting, boomerang effects, hypodermic needle, gatekeeping, framing, sleeper effect, and the list goes on. As mentioned in other places in this text, some researchers use alternative terms for binge watching, including “marathoning” (Perks, 2015, 2018; Tukachinsky & Eyal, 2018). We’ve elected to embrace and refine the term here, largely due to its widespread use and the advantages stated above.

The viewing of multiple sequential episodes is generally accepted as part of the definition of binge watching. However, a number of questions about what constitutes a binge remain. Is it binge watching when college students put on old episodes of Friends on Netflix and then proceed to do homework, clean up around the house, and talk to others – a somewhat surprisingly frequent media behavior uncovered in our own focus groups on binge watching? Is it binge watching only when someone feels compelled to play another episode, stay up a little later than planned – in other words, is the compulsion to view part of the experience? Can binge watching be intentional, or done with the company of others, or is it purely a singular activity? Is it binge watching when a fan watches the 1 p.m. and the 4 p.m. American football games on a Sunday, or watches a marathon of two or more Harry Potter films programmed on cable television on a Saturday?

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A key factor in conceptualizing and measuring binge watching is distinguishing it from just watching more TV. “Heavy viewers” have been a term since the onset of cultivation theory came into prominence in the early 1970s (Gerbner, 1969). Binge watching, a phenomenon that necessarily touches on habitual and dependent viewing, needs to be conceptualized as a distinct mode of viewing as compared to general heavy television viewing. Over the past decade, the average amount of television viewing has begun to slowly decrease from an all-time high of 8 hours and 55 minutes daily in 2009 (Madrigal, 2018). If the total amount of viewing is (slowly) decreasing, yet the number of binge watchers and time spent binge watching are increasing, it is clear these are different phenomena. We argue throughout this text that binge watching can be differentiated from general heavy viewing in a number of ways.


VIII, 194
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. VIII, 194 pp., 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Bridget Rubenking (Author) Cheryl Campanella Bracken (Author)

Bridget Rubenking (Ph.D., Indiana University) is an associate professor of film and mass media at the University of Central Florida. She has published in the Journal of Communication and Computers in Human Behavior. Cheryl Campanella Bracken (Ph.D., Temple University) is a professor in the School of Communication at Cleveland State University. She has published in Media Psychology and Human Communication Research. She co-edited Immersed in Media: Telepresence in Everyday Life.


Title: Binge Watching