Many moons ago, I got so far behind with Netflix drama Better Call Saul that numerous series came and went while I was stuck mid-season two. There was always something newer to watch. But when I finally went back to it, and with hours and hours of potential viewing ahead of me, I binged a few episodes. In doing so, I realised that I hadn’t actually binge-watched something since… gosh, maybe since Breaking Bad, the show that spawned Better Call Saul in the first place.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. Yet when Netflix dropped a whole series of House of Cards back in 2013 – 13 episodes of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood carving up political opponents and tossing them to the dogs – it felt like it was going to change how we all watched television forever. Some raced through the whole thing on the first day. Some over a weekend. But surely very few eked it out for the three months it would have taken on a traditional broadcast network. It fulfilled the promise of “novelistic” television that had been a buzzword ever since Tony Soprano started questioning his career choices at the turn of the millennium.
I have fond memories of those early box-set years of watching The Wire or The Sopranos deep into the early hours. And after House of Cards, Netflix continued to drop entire series of dramas that demanded to be binged: Orange Is the New Black, Narcos, Stranger Things, The Crown, The OA, Ozark, Mindhunter, Bridgerton, even Emily in Paris.
But bingeing has begun to lose its allure. How many episodes of the latest season of The Crown can you consume in one go? I managed one and a quarter and that seemed quite a lot. Two cheese courses in one sitting? Not sure I can. And once passed over, it’s likely to remain unfinished for quite a while. In contrast, the new season of HBO’s The White Lotus arrives on Sky and NOW TV once a week, and its deliciously piquant satire of ostentatious wealth mixed with murder slips down a treat. Most people have about an hour a night for TV and there’s a hell of a lot out there competing for our attention. Binge-watching lots of shows is an exhausting way to watch television.
One thing that is lost by releasing shows in their entirety, according to Jean Seaton, author of Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the Nation 1974-1987, is the emotional value of “gathering the national conversation around a show. If you want what the Americans call a ‘water cooler moment’, you have to understand that the public still really does enjoy watching things together.”
These days, the BBC operates a dual release formula for many shows. Episodes are shown weekly on the broadcast channels, while the entire series is often made available on iPlayer. People following Steven Knight’s hit drama SAS Rogue Heroes on BBC One have just watched the series finale, although all six episodes have been available on iPlayer since October. Many find it easy, though, to resist getting too far ahead. As Seaton points out, “people still like to watch drama on Sunday evenings”. Similarly, everyone could share an opinion of the last Line of Duty finale, however disappointing they found it, because the BBC held it back from iPlayer until its broadcast slot.
Withholding, though, is increasingly the norm: most of the new digital streamers stick to the old-school release model. So there was no getting ahead with Star Wars spin-off Andor on Disney+, after its initial three-episode drop, while Sky also released new chapters of HBO shows such as Succession and House of the Dragon once a week. If the show is a big success, the sense of anticipation can be intense – reviving that “can’t wait for the next episode” feeling that many of us remember from childhood and the pre-internet era.
Seaton traces a line back to the Quatermass serials, which aired on the BBC in the 1950s, and the dramatic effect they had on the public. “People’s parents had just come out of the Second World War, and the nuclear threat was just poking its head up. This show turned the possibility of something catastrophic happening to Earth into a very domestic horror.” It tapped into a form of storytelling that was already long established on the radio and in literature, she notes, dating back to the serialised novels of the Victorian era, which used cliffhanger endings to hold the reader in suspense until the next instalment. And it’s not just Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio who employs them today. The huge Netflix hit Stranger Things often leaves its characters in a terrifying situation at the end of an episode. Will they survive? Well… next episode in 4, 3, 2…
Bingeing also doesn’t work for some kinds of shows at all, however good they are. Amazon Prime released all 10 episodes of The Underground Railroad, the adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel about the experience of slaves in the American South and North, in May last year. It was critically acclaimed but very emotionally challenging to sustain over multiple episodes.
There’s even evidence which suggests that binge-viewing is bad for us: it releases the pleasure hormone dopamine like an addictive drug. That “just one more episode” feeling is the brain refusing to let go of a readily accessible source of dopamine. Those late-night binges interfere with our sleep and leave us feeling flat when the source is taken away.
Yet Netflix is still committed to the release formula it pioneered. In a letter to shareholders in October, the company stressed that “we think our bingeable release model helps drive substantial engagement, especially for newer titles”. It continued: “It’s hard to imagine, for example, how a Korean title like Squid Game would have become a mega hit globally without the momentum that came from people being able to binge it.”
There is an alternative argument to this, which Sharon Horgan noted when talking about her sleeper hit series Bad Sisters on Apple TV+. “The fact that it came out week by week... people talked about it in between,” Horgan, who wrote and starred in the show about a group of Irish women trying to bump off their eldest sister’s “p----” of a husband, told the US magazine Entertainment Weekly. “And so, each week we kept getting a bigger audience because you had that [...] water cooler moment for each episode.”
But even Netflix does seem to be experimenting. The most recent series of Stranger Things was split into two parts, as is the upcoming Harry & Meghan documentary. Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities was released in stages. Maybe the binge-watch era is drawing to a close. Time for the BBC to rethink its iPlayer strategy, too, perhaps.
Of course, the episode-a-week formula also has its drawbacks. One of my abiding memories as a teenager is being so hacked off that the final episode of the ITV crime drama Out would be shown when I was marooned in a telly-less farm cottage in Scotland on a family holiday, I didn’t want to go. Although that scenario, of course, would not happen today: most streaming platforms allow you to catch up on episodes that have already been aired.
Seaton notes that there are two obvious reasons for not releasing things all at once: “one is, don’t sell it all in one go, you make it look cheap, and two, you make it feel less special”. Sitting down to watch a show once a week increasingly looks like the better alternative: why binge when you can have a healthy diet, at regular meal times?