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.
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.”
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.”
If the Harris-Netflix poll of more than 3,000 Netflix-using adults reports that three-quarters of them feel good about binge-watching, that’s certainly more conclusive than any workplace polling I could accomplish. But still, I’d argue against calling binge-watching a completely guilt-free activity.
Two factors seem to determine levels of guilt: the amount of planning involved beforehand and the quality of the show. The people I talked to who blocked out large chunks of time to binge-watch or planned whole days around it never felt bad—unless, in just a few cases, the chosen show was low-brow entertainment.
“I don't think I've ever had binge-watching interfere with stuff I should be doing,” says senior editor Eleanor Barkhorn. “I often set aside time to binge-watch. I find it a relaxing way to wind down at the end of a stressful or busy season. E.g., two or three weeks before a long weekend, I'll start thinking about binge-watching as a reward for working hard until then.”
Associate editor Olga Khazan had a similar response. “I usually intentionally binge-watch as a way to relax or to catch up on something I’ve been meaning to see,” she says. “I don’t really feel guilty or unproductive at any point. I just feel like it’s a trip to a museum or something—I’m enjoying it, it’s enriching me, and it’s also a taking a lot of time. If it’s a dumb show, I start to feel guilty right away, but it's perversely pleasurable to 'cheat' on my productive day with a stupid show.”
For those who haven’t made a serious commitment to binge-watch, guilt seems to arrive at the two-hour mark—even if it’s not officially a binge for some until one or two more episodes. “I usually start to lose focus around the two-hour mark. Once I’m not paying attention anymore, that’s when it starts to feel like an unhealthy thing to do,” Heller says. “I’d say around the two-hour mark I begin to feel unproductive/healthy, and that’s during the weekend,” senior associate editor Uri Friedman agrees. “I do think it’s after two hour-long episodes that I start feeling guilty,” says The Atlantic Cities’ Jenny Xie.
Sometimes there are clear reasons to feel guilty: Health channel fellow Judith Ohikuare said she felt bad about her all-nighter binge on Sons of Anarchy during the holidays because “I knew that I was supposed to be spending time with my family, not crouching over my laptop and screaming and crying about what was going on television.” But the more common response was along the lines of what Gritz described: “a yucky feeling, like my consciousness was being overtaken by the show and I wanted to get back to the real world.”
Based on what I’ve learned from my colleagues, I came up with this comprehensive, albeit obnoxious, definition:
binge-watch: (v) to watch at least four episodes of a television program, typically a drama, in one sitting (bathroom breaks and quick kitchen snack runs excepted) through an on-demand service or DVDs, often at the expense of other perceived responsibilities in a way that can cause guilt.
But, as I learned from this investigation, there are problems with my definition, too. Staff writer Megan Garber points out that, as Netflix becomes both synonymous with binge-watching and the go-to tool for many viewers (as opposed to DVDs, Sidereel, Hulu, etc.), it exerts influence over what binge-watching entails—ironic, considering Netflix execs reportedly resisted the term before embracing it. She explains:
For me, actually, it's Netflix itself that has set the definition of binge-watching. At this point, I know I've binged (on a TV series, at least, which these days accounts for much of my Netflix time) when, suddenly, my show freezes and is replaced by a dull, gray little dialogue box. I forget the exact wording within the box—I think the profound shame that washes over me when the box appears has prevented by brain from storing the specifics—but it says, pretty much, "Whoa there! We've noticed that you've been watching this show for a really long time, friend. Are you sure—really sure—you want to keep watching?"
Should I answer in the affirmative, the box offers a "continue watching" button to click. Otherwise, the freeze continues, indefinitely. The logical side of me understands that Netflix has an interest in not flooding its servers with unwatched video streams, and that a freeze-out like this is a practical thing given people's propensity to get distracted/go away. The less-logical side, however, also has to recognize the obvious: that I have just been Netflix-watching-shamed by Netflix itself. That moment provides occasion to evaluate my own life decisions, yes … but it also provides a pretty nice definition of the cutoff between "watching" and "binge-watching."
Joris Evers, the director of global corporate communications for Netflix, says over email that in the vast majority of experiences, the are-you-still-watching prompt appears after three episodes. And regardless of its intended effect, for some viewers, it actively incorporates the element of guilt into the experience. “The auto-play function is responsible for most of my binge-watches," Chris Heller says. "If it’ll keep playing, I’ll probably keep watching until it asks me to make a decision. You know, the ‘Are you still watching?’ prompt that appears after a while. It’s Netflix shaming. After that, I shut it down and try to not think about how my TV just judged me.”