Binge TV viewing is a popular indulgence, for better or worse After the TV Binge: A Feeling of Loss, Emptiness

Saturday, January 11, 2014
Minneapolis — Gabby Helmin-Clazmer is an unabashed binge viewer. She has devoured full TV seasons at a time of everything from Keeping Up With the Kardashians to Breaking Bad. But as with other major indulgences, the aftermath can be a downer. One way or another.

“If I binge-watch a reality show, I feel like I have wasted a ton of my time,” said Helmin-Clazmer of Minneapolis. But when she finishes an intense drama, “the depression and feeling of emptiness is much stronger than with a reality show. A world that I was once ‘living in’ no longer exists.”

As binge viewing continues to radically change the way Americans watch television — 62 percent of us do it, according to a recent Harris Interactive survey — the aftereffects are just beginning to be understood.

The good news: It’s probably not the worst way to while away a winter weekend. The bad news: It’s not the healthiest of habits, and might even influence our worldview if the shows are dark and depressing.

Michael Erdman of Little Canada, Minn., just watched the second season of American Horror Story, “and I’ve got to tell you, that was one sick and twisted show. Loved every minute of it, but it was giving me nightmares.”

The concerns can go beyond the psyche, said Dr. James Mitchell, president of the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute in Fargo, N.D. “It doesn’t sound like a particularly desirable behavior, both for one’s mood and one’s physical health,” he said. “The inactivity is bad, the food that accompanies it probably is bad, your mood is bad.”

TV scholars have long worried about the adverse effects of watching too much television. They even have a name for it.

“The cultivation theory says that people who watch significantly more TV have a darker view of the world, they see it as a mean and scary place,” said Kevin Sauter, a communications professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “This is a more focused experience — the binge. And yes, someone might be more concerned about going out into the community after three days of mayhem. But I don’t think it’s a permanent condition.”

But then many of us simply move on to the next series, via Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, “On Demand” services or myriad other outlets. Even President Obama spends what spare time he has watching serialized shows. The New York Times recently reported that Obama is working his way through the DVD box set of AMC’s meth kingpin hit Breaking Bad. He also is keenly awaiting the new season of the political drama House of Cards.

That show, which earned nine Emmy nominations last year, was created by the streaming service Netflix specifically for binge viewing, with all 13 episodes released simultaneously.

The delivery system might be different, but shows like House of Cards are just the latest iteration of a phenomenon that began about a decade ago.

In the beginning was the DVD box set, and it was good.

The shift toward binge viewing was prompted by serialized dramas like The West Wing and The Sopranos. Their ongoing story lines compelled viewers to follow the sagas of these heroes (and anti-heroes) in short order. The trend gained steam even with short-lived series such as Firefly and Freaks and Geeks, which became naturals for binge viewing on DVD.

Nowadays, Sauter said, the narrative in these types of shows can span an entire season, pushing viewers to keep watching: “So you get to the end of an episode, and it’s ‘Well, let’s watch one more.’”

Sauter, who teaches courses in TV criticism, likens the experience to “eating a whole bag of potato chips. The first couple are good, but once you get to the middle of the pack, you can lose all the savoring of it.”

Part of the impetus for binge viewing, Sauter added, is peer pressure, “what your social circle expects of you. With shows like Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey, there’s such a strong social component, a need to keep up or catch up.”

Still, he said, “TV has always been accused of being a time-waster, and now we’re talking about big, big chunks of time. And time spent (binge viewing) means time taken away from other things, family, friends, activities.”

Deb Balzer of Minneapolis doesn’t see any other way to watch her shows.

“In fact, it makes no sense to me to watch a weekly one-hour show and wait and wait all week when I can just order a show and watch it until I am done,” she said.

She compared it to reading a good piece of literature. “As a college student with two majors, I often had to read entire books overnight,” Balzer said. “With Netflix, I can easily translate my binge reading to binge viewing.”

Not only is the process the same for Helmin-Clazmer, but so is the aftermath. She feels “the same sort of depression as when one finishes a book. Television is a visual text, so it would make sense that the same sort of depression is felt.”

Even so, Mitchell isn’t so sure there’s a lot to worry about here. He said that getting deeply immersed in the lives of fictional characters and/or watching bleak fare doesn’t necessarily lead to aberrant behavior, “unless the person is particularly vulnerable for some reason. For people who are well-integrated, I wouldn’t think there would be a problem.”


Mitchell, who has studied binge eating, said that with virtually no scientific research on binge viewing, he was hesitant to liken this kind of TV consumption to more physical activities that can lead to addiction. But he did suggest taking a break.

“It’s probably better to get up after an hour and do something.”

Marathon TV sessions are just fine with Sarah Wilken of Maple Grove, Minn. And the darker the story line, the better.

In the past year, she and her husband, Brian, have traveled extensively across Europe. But some of their most indelible moments have occurred while endlessly soaking in such daunting shows as “Dexter,” “Homeland” and “Breaking Bad.”

Especially at this time of year.

“I will admit that realizing you’ve wasted an entire weekend away on the couch doesn’t necessarily make you feel like the most productive person in the world. . (but) especially during a cold Minnesota winter, it’s nice to hole up and escape into a riveting drama. I find it’s winter itself that makes me feel the closest thing to depressed.”


©2014 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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