On Friday, Netflix unleashed the entire second season of its political thriller House of Cards, encouraging fans to abandon any real-world weekend plans for some quality time with the morally bankrupt Frank and Claire Underwood. But when does a cozy night in with Washington's favorite fictional power couple become a full-on "binge-watching" session?
The name for mainlining episode after episode has its roots in the 1990s with DVD sets and TV marathons, but the practice reached a new level of recognition in 2013 as Netflix and other video services experimented with original content (like Orange Is the New Black) and offered numerous catch-up opportunities for critics’ favorites (like Breaking Bad). Despite its increased prominence, though, there's never really been a good, single working definition of what binge-watching actually is.
Previous attempts differ from each other in interesting ways when you read them closely. For 2013's Word of the Year award—which ultimately went to "selfie"—the Oxford Dictionaries defined binge-watching as "watch[ing] multiple episodes of a television program in rapid succession, typically by means of DVDs or digital streaming.” Dictionary.com takes a much broader stance on what types of entertainment can be binge-watched, and it suggests that it happens without ever getting up: "To watch (multiple videos, episodes of a TV show, etc.) in one sitting or over a short period of time." Trend stories about binge-watching rarely get into precise numbers, but their anecdotes offer some clues: In a 2011 Washington Post article about binge-watching on college campuses, one student reported watching 49 episodes of Lost in two weeks—3.4 episodes per day on average—while another student watched 120 episodes of How I Met Your Mother in four weeks: about 4.3 episodes each day.
The most detailed definition of binge-watching comes from Netflix itself. In December, a Harris Interactive poll conducted on behalf of the company quantified what constituted a binge. Working with cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, who went into living rooms across the U.S. and Canada to talk to viewers about their habits, the survey concluded that binge-watching meant consuming a minimum of two episodes in one sitting, and reported that, across demographics, the session average was 2.3 episodes—"moderate behavior," according to the release.
This definition has problems. For starters, it seems inherently contradictory: The whole point of calling it "binge-watching" is that it shouldn’t be moderate behavior, in the same way that binge-drinking or binge-shopping are not activities done in moderation. Second, the minimum number of episodes did not distinguish between hour-long dramas and shorter sitcoms. By this definition, I could watch two episodes of 30 Rock in a row and call that a binge—even though that’s less than half the time it takes to watch a typical movie. The study did touch on attitudes toward binge-watching—73 percent of binge-watchers feel positive about the experience—but it also doesn’t really capture the mixed feelings about the experience that often come up in weekend post-mortems: Well, I was going to go outside on Saturday, but then The Good Wife happened.
To come up with a better definition, I consulted the finest binge-watchers I know: my colleagues. Because nothing says “scientifically sound research” quite like collecting anecdotal evidence from the people with whom I share cubicles. Here’s what I learned.
How many episodes is a binge?
Four episodes, if you’re watching dramas. If you walk away before the fourth episode, people I've spoken with generally agreed, all you did was have a little TV time. But start the fourth episode—sometime between two and three hours, depending on if you're watching lengthy Netflix originals—and you’re squarely in binge territory.
"The most episodes of anything I've ever watched in a row is three, which I don't consider binge-watching," staff writer Molly Ball says. "More than three seems like a lot," associate editor Julie Beck says. “Three felt okay, and then it turned into that thing where you eat just one more cookie, and then one more, and then you look down and realize you’ve finished the entire box,” says senior editor Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, the only respondent to invoke binge-eating metaphors in this discussion. The average length of my co-workers' last binge—from the admittedly not-quite-reliable reliable sample size of 13 people who responded to my emails—was 3.92 episodes of a drama.
Few described binge-watching half-hour shows, which suggests that the activity is primarily for longer, more serious shows. Those that did, surprisingly, gave almost the same numbers: “I’m not sure it qualifies [as a binge] unless you watch 4+ episodes of a 23-minute show,” says The Atlantic Cities’ Stephanie Garlock. Notes social media editor Chris Heller: “I might watch three or four episodes of something like 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, or Archer on a weeknight while I prepare and eat dinner. Those are my go-to shows for kitchen time.”
Do binges need to be planned?
No, but they often are. A few respondents described getting unexpectedly pulled in by juicy cliffhangers. Others devoted weekends to getting caught-up on shows they’ve heard good things about. “Often I'll be like, OK, I'm just gonna watch this one episode while I sit on the couch and fold laundry,” associate editor Ashley Fetters says. “And then, yes, suddenly five hours later I'm still on the couch with only half the laundry folded. And then other times I'm like, nope, today is Saturday and I'm gonna watch Parenthood and eat cereal aaaall morning.”
Does binge-watching necessarily need to interfere with my life or make me feel guilty?