Most Principia students spend their Friday nights being social: attending a campus event, eating out, seeing a movie, etc. I’m a different case, though. When the weekend rolls around, I dim the lights and hop in bed with someone I’m very close with: Netflix.
Yes, I am a proud Netflix addict. It’s even gotten to the point that I have a list on my phone of the shows, movies and documentaries I want to watch in the future. But I don’t need your sympathy. What’s better than getting absorbed in the worlds of zombified Atlanta, meth-mangled Albuquerque, or a paranormally-prone island? How about laughing till it hurts at the dysfunctionalism of a B-list variety show, a riches-to-rags California family, or the owners of a Philadelphia bar? If you know what shows I’m referring to, you’re amazing. We should totally hang out sometime.
Anyway, the point is that Netflix is a big part of my life, along with the lives of my fellow millennials. According to the Poynter Institute, 34 percent of millennials – the youngest and savviest members of the industry’s coveted 18-34 demographic – watch television exclusively on computers, not on actual TVs. During primetime hours – 8 to 11 p.m. – our Netflix streaming is 31 percent of all Internet traffic in North America. And with 40 million subscribers, Netflix is proving that young (and young-minded) people aren’t that interested in the live television experience for sitcoms and dramas.
So I was understandably ecstatic last year when Netflix made its first foray into online-exclusive original programming with the release of “House of Cards,” an adaptation of a BBC show and book of the same name. For the tragically misinformed, the show follows Frank Underwood, a ruthless congressman who will do anything – literally, anything – in his quest for power. “Cards” generated a lot of pre-release buzz with its stacked cast and crew – David Fincher directing, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright acting. And the show certainly lived up to its hype, racking up three wins and six more nominations at the 2013 Emmys.
The concept of an Internet television show winning Emmys was unthinkable in the industry five years ago, but now “Cards” and other Netflix programs like “Orange Is the New Black” are the hottest topics in today’s zeitgeist.
Even though the show broke ground in terms of screenwriting and cinematography, the area in which “Cards” excels is its release strategy. Traditionally, a sitcom or drama will air a new episode once a week at the same time and day. For example, “How I Met Your Mother” airs every Monday at 7 p.m. Central on CBS. Thinking about that now, do any of you actually watch HIMYM when it airs live? My bet is that no one on this campus does.
Anyway, let’s get back on topic. Netflix completely upended this model by simultaneously releasing all 13 episodes of the show’s first season. This transferred scheduling power from the the provider to the consumer, and virtually all viewers have been very happy with this. This new model has also been true of Netflix’s other original programs, including “Orange,” “Lilyhammer,” “Hemlock Grove” and “Arrested Development.”
Media journalist Brian Stelter explained this as “allowing the most loyal fans to watch – and pause and rewind and rewatch and screen-grab and tweet and recontextualize – until the sun comes up and sets again.” Essentially, the viewer dictates when, where, and how they watch. You could watch one episode a day, one every week, one every month, or (gasp) one every year. It’s all in your hands.
But the most extreme of these options is to watch a significant number of episodes at once; this practice is known as “binge watching.” It has become such a cultural phenomenon – 61 percent of people do it on a regular basis, according to Harris Interactive – that it’s being analyzed by academics and journalists.
Kevin Fallon of The Daily Beast advocates for binge watching on a sociological level, saying that “In a world moving faster than ever and our focus more split than ever, who would have thought that it would be the medium of television … that would finally slow us down.”
Author Sarah Elizabeth Richards declared in an op-ed for Time magazine that binge watching is modern love’s new frontier: “The opportunity to experience television in such an intimate and all-consuming way is deeply bonding between couples.”
And anthropologist Grant McCracken wrote in Wired magazine that the psychological “relocation” that comes with binge watching “is powerful for creating meaning for the self and for the family, especially as TV has taken on a new role in our lives. It has become the structural equivalent of our place in the country, our second home.”
Some people see binge watching as piggish and mindless. And on the surface, this seemed totally true when three of my friends and I decided to binge watch the entire second season of “House of Cards” when it was released this past Friday. What a great thing to do on Valentine’s Day, right? We all certainly thought so.
One of my friends would’ve been culturally obligated to spend the night with his girlfriend, but she was away at a track meet. “My girlfriend is ditching me. I need some bro time,” he told me in a text message. While the “bro” descriptor is accurate of the all-male audience the four of us composed, binge watching certainly does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, or any other classification. Isn’t Netflix the best?
We raided the Store for an embarrassing amount of snacks and drinks – still can’t believe I alone spent over $30 – and headed back to a friend’s room and his 37-inch TV. The viewing commenced at around 4:45 in the afternoon. We got through four episodes before I had to go to dance prod rehearsal for an hour at 9, much to the chagrin of my friends. But they patiently waited (hallelujah), and after racing back from Morey, we resumed watching at 10:10 or so.
That’s when it really started getting crazy. At around midnight, one of my friends decided to tap out and call it a night at around episode seven. But give him credit, as he had already watched those seven on his own, and he was being a gentlemen by watching them all again with us.
So now it was just three of us. I powered through a pint of Ben & Jerry’s at around 1 a.m., along with making substantial progress on a two-liter bottle of Brisk Lemonade. But 3 in the morning was when I began to lose it. Not only was the plot escalating, I was falling asleep. I watched the rest of the episodes with one eye open, constantly changing positions to keep myself awake. One of my friends did push-ups in between every episode; I wish I was swol as him to be able to do that.
We finished all 13 episodes at around 5:30 in the morning, half an hour before what we had predicted. We sat there in silence for a while as the credits rolled, reflecting on the past 12 or so hours we spent together. Then we got up and went our separate ways.
Thinking about it now, this past Friday was an affirmation to me that binge watching is an experience. But what made this one especially unique was doing it with others. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that night.
As I write this during the Valentine’s Dance, I’m imagining all of you beautiful people dancing the night away. Now as I’m finishing, it’s almost 2 in the morning. You already know what I’m going to do next.