One of the first things the participants of the “How Binge-Watching Makes Us All TV Geeks” panel (Mariott M301–302, Friday at 2:30PM) want you to know is that binge-watching is not new. Before the advent of online streaming and even DVDs, fans waited for holiday marathons of their favorite shows, or mailed boxes of bootleg VHS tapes across the country.
The panelists, consisting of blogger and podcaster Jessa Philips, Jenn “Wonder Jenn” Geoppinger, Gary Lindros, podcaster for Critical Myth, and David Speakman, ran through their personal histories with binge-watching TV shows all the way back to the 1980s. Fans could find and share their favorite shows through listings in fan magazines and set up exchanges, but the advent of the Internet opened up a whole new world for binge-watching.
Speakman admitted he was an early cord-cutter, eschewing traditional cable TV service for online streaming services, DVDs and other alternatives. Other panelists didn’t admit to going that far, but all admitted to binge-watching something at least in the last year.
The discussion, mostly directed by the audience, started on the topic of what you miss by binge-watching. (It seemed everyone was already familiar with what you gain.) “You lose some of the discussion,” an audience member said. “Yeah, you miss out on the water-cooler talk,” Lindros said. Philips explained, “I start talks with my friends with ‘OK, what episode are you on?’”
Panelists agreed fans have to make a special effort for fan community. If people are watching whole seasons in a weekend, they don’t have the luxury of time to discuss and pontificate on what could happen next, episode to episode.
Audience members in the discussion also noted other drawbacks of binge-watching. There aren’t as many great standalone or “monster of the week” episodes, there tend to be fewer episodes in a season, and viewers have a different kind of relationship with the show.
“A show you watch every week for five years affects you differently than a show you watch for five days,” one audience member noted. You’re a different person, she said, when you start watching than when you finish. Shows you start watching as a child or a teen, and finish watching as an adult, have a different presence in your life, and stick with you a different way.
Another audience member asked if the panelists thought that showrunners and writers were planning and writing shows specifically for binge-watching. Panelists agreed some were, especially with shows like Sense8 and Daredevil, where shows are released in season-long dumps online, and fans don’t have to wait week-to-week for episodes.
Lindros explained that it provided a unique economic storytelling tool for the writers and showrunners. Since the writers don’t have to waste valuable show minutes with segments explaining “previously on”-style recaps, since everyone literally saw it half an hour ago, they can just jump right into the action. Showrunners and writers also have the luxury of knowing their series won’t be canceled mid-season. Plus, shows aren’t locked into the 30-minute or 60-minute network commercial broadcast blocks, so if a writer needs a few more minutes in an episode for a bit of character development or extra plot, no problem. Panelists mentioned this was great, and for network production, enrichment chances like this, or character backstories, might not be explored when they should be. An opening sequence, which might be cut to a single title card to save valuable storytelling seconds on a network show, can be as full and rich as the show deserves.
There’s a downside to that though, because writers and showrunners can’t really make mid-season course corrections based on fan feedback. If a character isn’t working, or if an underrepresented character is a fan favorite, the showrunners can’t always make changes on the fly like they could with months to go in a season.
Another benefit for genre programming, binge-watching gives an excellent chance for fans to catch up on earlier seasons, if they didn’t really know if a show was for them yet. Shows like LOST gained viewers every season because fans could watch the previous seasons during breaks in preparation for the next season’s start. When LOST first started, ABC was tight-lipped as to the show’s actual genre. (Networks in the mid-2000s weren’t as thrilled to put sci-fi shows on their prime-time schedules.) Speakman explained when the series started, nobody knew if it was sci-fi or not. There were hints, he said, and by the time viewers got their first glimpse of the Smoke Monster in the season one finale, the show was definitely sci-fi.
Another benefit discussed was that series released in short, 10-15 episode full-season blocks have resurrected the programming, writing, and editing styles of traditional miniseries shows. While the binge-watch series might not be the perfect fit for every show, it is a chance for genre TV to explore a new format and storytelling style.