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Bevacqua 1 Sophia Bevacqua Erin Dietel-McLaughlin Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric-12 April 4, 2014 Bingeing Bad or Bingeing Good?

: The Pleasures of Digital Television Watching The term binge watching has become a staple of twenty-first century vocabulary, practiced not only by tech savvy, multimedia consuming Millennials, but by television viewers of all ages. A recent study found that 61% of TV streamers binge watch on a regular basis, binge watching defined by watching three to six episodes of a television show in one sitting (Netflix). The rise of such an self-indulgent phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that television can now be purchased and collected in the form of DVD box sets and most importantly, streamed the screens of tablets and smartphones everywhere. Viewers of a show are no longer prisoners to the live broadcasting of a television show during its appointed time on its network, having to glue themselves to the TV at a set day and time each week. With mobile devices and direct streaming sites, viewers can randomly access collections of episodes anytime, anywhere, and proceed to watch as many episodes as they choose until nausea and the fear of getting rectangle-shaped pupils kicks in. Yet binge watching has effected more than how viewers consume television. Binge watching has lead to a change in the production style and narrative complexity of television shows. Shows that have encountered an expanding audience due to binge watching are beginning to address a wider range of political issues. Binge watching has also made television much more of a social experience and has re-contextualized this new

Bevacqua 2 form of digital television within its held place on mobile devices. The recent practice of binge watching and the new location of television on digital devices have greatly changed the nature of twenty-first century television and have created a burst of social viewing cultures surrounding various television shows. Scholars who deem themselves true tele-philes are deeply divided on whether binge watching is a positive development for the medium. Some scholars argue that binge watching will lead to the gradual degradation of television as binge watching has allowed the audience to become a drone of media excess and consumption as opposed tosomeone who does not just view, but experience (Binge). Conversely, other television critics have argued that binge watching has improved television by allowing it to become a more effective storytelling medium. This type of viewing practice has eliminated the waiting time between episodes broadcasted live. With producers and directors aware that their viewers are now able to more closely follow plot, character development, relationship dynamics, minor events, and cinematographic details, these constituencies are allowed an increased degree of complexity and attention, thus improving the narrative art and quality of the show. Such is the case with the shows featuring long-form plotting and winding narratives like The Tudors and Lost. When it was broadcasted on its network Showtime, it was nearly impossible to keep up with the marriages of Henry VIII, the tension between the Vatican and the Church of England, and the dozens of overlapping cases of treachery between blue blood over the The Tudorss four years of running time. Before its release on Netflix, Lost was avoided by many viewers due to its incredible confusing and byzantine plot (How). Comedian Dane Cooks impersonation of a viewer watching Lost, in which he states, What the fuck is

Bevacqua 3 going on here. I have forty-two new questions and no god damn answers became a popular, relatable skit to Lost viewers. It was not until viewers were able to binge watch the show that Lost went from being a nerdy, cult TV show on the verge of being taken off air to a smash success (How). With knowledge of a binge watching audience, the narrative of Lost became even more perplexing with unexplainable flash-forwards, attempts at moving the island on which the characters are stranded, and time travel. Binge watching, therefore, allows the viewer to monitor institutional rules and habits, and to set up a series of subtle parallels and cyclic patterns acrossseasons (Lavik 83). The viewer is able to derive a sense of clarity and unity between episodes, seasons, and the shows entire story arc that may otherwise be lost with typical television waiting time. The visual quality of a directly streamed television show, as well its narrative quality, tends to increase with producers knowledge of a binge watching audience for their show. Over the past five years, directors appear to be focusing heavily on what television scholar Jason Mittell has referred to as the operational aesthetic of their television shows, the concept in which viewers marvel not only at the plot content being revealed, but how it is revealed, how the collective production of the show interwove story lines and used cinematic tools such as flashback, visual references, internal repetition, and shifts in atmosphere to create a gasp-worthy moment of audience astonishment (Narrative). If one compares Mad Men or Breaking Bad, two of the most critically acclaimed and binge-watched shows of the past five years, to a show like Dallas (1978-1990), one cant help but notice the differences in devotion to operational aesthetic. In Mad Men, existential loner/ genius ad man Don Drapers random flashbacks to the Korean War and his 1930s childhood spent in a whore house are integral for the

Bevacqua 4 eventual revealing of his fake identity and dual persona, while also adding layers of psychological readings to his character. In season 2 of Breaking Bad, each episode opens with a mysterious yet increasingly informative flash-forward to the plane crash that happens at the end of the season. Although the plane crash is completely outside the main characters story line, the rather bizarre clips of debris floating in the swimming pool add to the tension and narrative ambiguity which demands interpretation. Such shows, according to media scholar Erlend Lavik, offer a cognitive workout which becomes a source of viewing pleasure in and of itself for certain audiences (78). When viewers are binge watching a show, they are more likely notice and understand such clues and trends and appreciate the collective visual atmosphere by immersing themselves within it for hours. When we binge watch, we are also able to pause, rewind, and re-watch what had formally been a transient media (Serial). The ability to control and manipulate digital television not only allows the viewer to rewind a scene in order to clarify a plot point, but also allows the shows narrative and stylistic strategies to be analyzed and critiqued through close visual analysis. High quality, operationally aestheticized television such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad is therefore elevated to the higher cultural status than traditional television. The fact that binge watching has allowed for an audience that is more thoroughly involved within a television shows narrative and that the role social media is playing across media is growing is making television much more of a social experience than it has been in previous decades. The social dimensions of binge watching depend on the interdependency of new forms of television technology and internet technology. New television delivery systems such as box sets and streaming services combine with the

Bevacqua 5 technologies of social networking, which enable both close analysis and endless discussion necessary for appreciating the subtleties of the more complicated narrative universes. Binge watching does erase the waiting time and thereby the standard discussion time between episodes (Mad), but it does not eliminate the audience contemplation, postulation, and theorization surrounding a television show. Millions of TV viewers are directly streaming television on the same devices on which they blog, Tumblr Tweet, Facebook, etc. The close proximity, both spatially and digitally, of television to the realm of social networking has allowed fans to create meaning through their interactions with like-minded fans for various shows faster and more efficiently then ever (One). Fandom went from being a practically unknown phrase and minor, some may say geeky, cult practice to a global sensation, triggering newspaper headlines such as, The 10 most important fandoms of 2013, over half of which were for television shows (The 10). Mad Men began with a following of less than a million viewers (The 25). After the shows was placed on Netflix and gained a binge watching audience however, the Mad Men fandom has over three million followers/binge watchers that analyze episodes frame by frame and discuss the effects of the historical milestones of the 1960s on the main characters psyche on fan sites such as Footnotes of Mad Men and Basket of Kisses. The True Blood fandom includes over eleven million Trubies that have extended their interest in the show beyond their fan sites (True-Blood.net, TrueBloodFan.org) to Etsy merchandise, a Tarte makeup collection, and consumable, blood orange True Blood soda, a play on the synthetic blood drink marketed to vampires on the show (The 25). With viewers being able to more closely engage with story lines that encourage discussion and debate outside the show due to binge watching

Bevacqua 6 habits and their increased operational aesthetic, viewers play an enormous role in the success and development of their shows by functioning as amateur narratologists by compiling a collective intelligence of multiple interpretations and discussions of others in the viral realm (Narrative). With its new place on mobile devices, television shows are suddenly removed from the TV set where they are juxtaposed to commercials, news, public announcements, and other noise that for so long characterized the media as television. Charlotte Brunsdon, a film and television professor at the University of Warwick, England, argues that binge watching shows on modern delivery devices not only separates the media from the noise of television, but eliminates its socio-historical context (Bunsdon 67). Brunsdon states that, it was that noise, that national broadcast noise, which would facilitate a reading of the show as a critical intervention into a particular context, a literal, rather than metamorphic, interpretation of the show, as if the effectiveness and genius of good television came from its plots metaphoric response to the reality of the modern world performing in the commercials (Brunsdon 69). Brunson argues that as long as television was commercially driven it remained embedded within its social context, and that social relevance is diminished as soon as though ads are stripped away and pure program material appears in the form of box sets. Binge watching and the relocation of hundreds of shows to mobile devices have indeed changed the visual nature of television, as seen with an abundance of shows enhancing their cinematic values and narratives operational aesthetic, yet the essence of what makes television television has not changed as Brunsdon suggests. Brunsdons argument is limited in that she focuses solely on box sets as a new delivery technology,

Bevacqua 7 but makes no reference between the connection between television technology and internet technology. On an iPhone, a stronghold for binge watching abilities, the apps for Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are one app space and finger swipe away from news apps, magazine apps, and social media apps. When viewers watch television on the same device in which they read the news and operate their social media profiles, this new form of television cannot evade from being re-contextualized in the now prominent viral realm. With the new practice of TV tweeting in which viewers tweet their relevant opinions or thoughts while watching a show followed by the shows hashtag (for example, The way his face gets blown off and he fixes his tie then dies is amazing! #BreakingBad (Giovanni)), the socio-historical context is restored to the show within the platform of Twitter. Before tweeting, the user is confronted by a stream of various news stories, ads for products and brands, and hundreds of voices stating/tweeting the views of their generation. The noise of television continues to exist, just on a different technology. Even if one half ignores these posts on their timeline, did the television viewer of ten years ago closely analyze television commercials or use the time for bathroom breaks, snack time, and chatting with those persons surrounding the TV set? Even briefly glancing at news headlines stating Obamas new plans for immigration reform or the recent violence concerning the Mexican drug cartels allows Breaking Bad to respond the political issues of Mexican immigration/deportation and international cartel violence through its portrayal of the tension between the Mexican villains and American protagonists that are also villains in its narrative. The transition in the audience viewing behavior, from watching a show with waiting times to binge watching it, from gazing at the TV to the screen of an iPhone, has

Bevacqua 8 enhanced the quality of programming and viewer interaction with it. It is interesting to compare the shows teenagers watched in the early 2000s, such as MTVs The Real World, The O.C., and 90210, to the more high quality, high brow television shows teens and college kids are watching today, such as Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad, that equal The Sopranos, a show their parents watched, in critical acclaim. This shift can easily be explained by a new form of television that has formed from its digital availability, viewer binge watching habits, and the boom of fan cultures surrounding shows. Television will always be identified as an episodic medium that continually responds, either directly or indirectly, to the anxieties, circumstances, and the tensions of reality. With new viewer television behavior however, television is distinguishing itself as two profoundly different viewing experiences. There is television as we have known it-- formulaic series featuring one dimensional characters, impoverished visual values, and easy-to-follow narratives in self-contained episodes ready for eventual syndication. Binge watching is a direct by product of digital television, which is what happens to the medium when it is subscriber driven rather than commercial driven, when narrative universes expand and are accessed via streaming and box sets, and when its entertainment values depend as much on social media as program material.

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