Often theorized through the negative framework of addiction or passivity, binge-watching has been transformed into a civic duty and a mode of survival during the COVID-19 pandemic. Exploring this recent plot-twist in bingeing scholarship, this article proposes five new ways to study the most dominant spectatorial mode under corona-capitalism. These propositions include studying how the pandemic turned bingeing into an antidote to “languishing,” a feeling of sadness and exhortation that, if unrecognized, might lead to depression; exploring co-watching apps in order to move away from the cliché of bingeing as an individual activity; unpacking the importance of narrative causality during the pandemic’s prolonged structure and temporal limbo; paying close attention to interface design decisions, such as the addition of a “playback speed” feature to Netflix in August 2020; and, finally, demonstrating how binge-watching trains viewers to ignore their basic biological needs while turning them into unpaid laborers.

Spectatorship patterns and rituals are neither individual nor accidental. They reflect interface design decisions, cultural trends, and infrastructural limitations such as bandwidth, Wi-Fi connectivity, and media literacy. To binge-watch during COVID-19 was a mix of leisure and labor, transforming domestic viewers into obedient citizens, social activists, and unpaid workers training recommendation algorithms. Owing to the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, bingeing—no longer a mode of excessive, or uncontrollable, consumption—was reframed as a form of self-care. These recent developments raise important questions: Is bingeing an individual or communal activity? Can it be studied as a mode of survival? And how does it compare with such pandemic-induced rituals as the public evening clapping and other attempts at a ritualized and orderly homogenous temporal order while being stuck in a waiting limbo? Building upon Tanya Horeck, Mareike Jenner, and Tina Kendall’s essay “Binge-Watching: Nine Critical Propositions,” I will share five new critical propositions—or, if you will, provocations—for a new, combined list of fourteen such contentions.1

1. Spectatorship is “survivorship”

Netflix, the company that has strategically monetized binge-watching since 2013, uses a unique metric called “survivorship.” The survivorship of a Netflix title is calculated based on “how many people who started watching the first episode have kept watching the entire season.”2 While much has been written on Netflix’s algorithmic recommendation system and its exciting—yet limited and somewhat false—promise of predictive personalization, the term “survivorship” has so far been ignored.3 As Netflix’s senior executives admit, the survivorship rate plays a central role in their decision on whether to renew a television show for another season. It is, however, noteworthy that the term normally describes a person forced to cope with life-changing traumas.

Binge-watching is often promoted by engaging viewers in survival narratives featuring a depressed protagonist, from Don Draper to Bojack Horseman to Euphoria’s troubled teens. Immersing herself in these serialized stories of trauma and resilience, the viewer can find solace and feel less isolated. The “Netflix and heal” phenomenon recast streaming as a therapeutic device long before the pandemic.4 Film scholar Rox Samer recently described how bingeing Charlie Chaplin films proved essential to their recovery from a sex-reassignment operation: “In the weeks following my top surgery in December 2019, I enjoyed many a movie and TV series with my care web.”5 The isolation and uncertainty imposed by the pandemic further popularized this idea.

The pandemic turned bingeing into an antidote to “languishing”—a feeling of sadness and exhaustion that, if unrecognized, might lead to depression.6 Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, portrays the solution to pandemic-induced languishing as immersing oneself in a sense of flow: “A late-night Netflix binge sometimes does the trick—it transports you into a story where you feel attached to the characters and concerned for their welfare.”7 Grant’s essay shifts the discussion from alarmist accounts of screen-obsessed teens to an embrace of the bingeable “flow” as self-care.

Both Grant and Samer savor bingeing as an opportunity to support one’s healing from physical and emotional turmoil. Their accounts and others reject the prior negative characterizations of binge-watching in favor of its pleasurable immersion. Grant’s more recent account demonstrates the extent to which the survivorship metaphor has become remarkably literal during the pandemic. By #StayingTheFuckHome and bingeing, those who could afford high-speed internet and steaming subscriptions effectively increased their chances of survival by protecting both their bodies and minds. Bingeing normalized an otherwise unbearable reality of sensory and social deprivation. Like bedridden patients recovering from surgeries, viewers around the world were invited to forget the fragility of their own body through encounters with other, two-dimensional bodies.

Survival narratives as lockdown solace, in Netflix’s Euphoria.

Survival narratives as lockdown solace, in Netflix’s Euphoria.

2. Binge-watching is a communal activity

The most dominant visual trope associated with binge-watching resembles the Hollywood cliché of a hacker: a melancholy young viewer cocooning in their room with the help of a laptop and noise-canceling headphones. During the pandemic, however, apps such as Netflix Party, Sling, Houseparty, and even Zoom popularized collective watching.8 With streaming no longer an individual activity, co-watching more closely resembles traditional rituals of TV watching with family and friends. As argued by Lynne Joyrich, streaming has become a way of deepening one’s relationships, with shows such as The Mandalorian (Jon Favreau, Disney+, 2019–) germinating a “new [form] of sociality, communication, intimacy, and care” by enabling faraway loved ones to connect during COVID.9

Co-watching apps opt to create the kind of synchronized temporality the pandemic destroyed in other areas of life, as families separated by travel bans and lockdowns can share a favorite show. At the same time, these apps require media literacy and high-speed Internet that often create a generational and class divide. As with any other app, they are subjected to buffering, disconnection, and delay that might turn the urge to connect with others into a frustrating experience. While both users and media scholars tend to ignore such moments of breakdown, it is crucial to theorize the tension between the promise of intimacy and the reality of a precarious and overburdened digital infrastructure that paradoxically might leave one feeling more isolated than ever.10

Binging as “woke therapy” with Queer Eye’s Fab Five.

Binging as “woke therapy” with Queer Eye’s Fab Five.

Ignoring these limitations, Netflix had marketed bingeing as a revolutionary way to bring together families and communities well before the pandemic. In its PR podcast Because I Watched, the company had friends and relatives describe how Netflix shows brought them together despite their living thousands of miles apart. An episode titled “Because I Watched Queer Eye” was released on the podcast’s website in November 2019 with the following tagline: “Homophobia tears a Venezuelan mother and daughter apart. The Fab Five reunites them.”11

The short episode, read by Bobby Berk, a cast member of Queer Eye, is a morality tale about a daughter’s decision to trick her homophobic mother into watching the Netflix hit by pitching it “as something familiar, a makeover show, just like What Not to Wear.” The result, according to Berk, was a radical shift in the mom’s perspective. Shortly after watching the entire first season, the Venezuelan mother, named Flora, “confessed that she’d been homophobic and said she realized there was a lot she could learn from watching Queer Eye. She admitted that the show had brought her to tears for reasons she could not yet fully articulate.” She then called her daughter to tell her she now understands that gay people “are lovely, very nice people.”

This Netflix-produced audio fantasy of how binge-watching can bridge a generational divide and offer “woke therapy” overnight deserves more scholarly attention. In the context of the pandemic, however, it can be read retroactively as foreseeing the rise of co-watching apps and their ability to bring together families who found themselves apart. Binge-watching, Netflix contends, can narrow ideological and geographical gaps. It not only synchronizes homophobic parents with their progressive kids, but also evolved to provide viewers with a new routine in a period defined by isolation.

3. Binge-watching combats uncertainty with causality

The sense of isolation during COVID was exacerbated by the pandemic’s concomitant temporal limbo of waiting: for new guidelines, for testing, for vaccines, for “reopening.” Much like buffering, a ubiquitous, anxiety-inducing experience masqueraded as a colorful spinning wheel, the deadliness of the coronavirus was quickly reframed through data visualizations.12 These “flattening the curve” graphics played a crucial role in convincing millions to stay at home, transforming anxiety and uncertainty into two familiar narratives: linear progression from “bad” to “good,” and a three-act structure of outbreak, peak, and decline.

Similarly, binge-watching enabled viewers to anticipate and deploy traditional narrative structures during the pandemic’s prolonged structure. One way to understand this relationship between pandemic-induced uncertainty and the much-desired causality of binge-watching is by comparing two seemingly unrelated off-screen rituals. The first is the habit of singing along with a theme song of a beloved show. The second is the widespread practice of clapping hands at a set time every night to publicly support the essential work of health professionals.

Both activities derive their pleasure from repetition and familiarity. When bingeing Malcolm in the Middle (Linwood Boomer, Fox, 2000–2006 / Disney+, 2019–) or That ’70s Show (Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner, and Mark Brazill, Fox, 1998–2006 / Amazon Prime, 2018–), theme songs offer both a break from storytelling and a chance to synch the multitasking viewer back with the fictionalized world of the show. The evening clapping ceremony, which took place in many cities around the world during the early months of the pandemic, provided a similar function of synchronization. However, while the clapping ritual carried with it the triggering realization of the pandemic’s ever-growing toll, bingeing familiar shows invited those in lockdown to immerse themselves in the Before Times, when hugging, kissing, and talking to random strangers were not life-or-death activities.

The sonic repetition of a show’s theme song, warmly calling the viewer back from the depth of her in-box or TikTok, is the complete opposite of pandemic time: an easily predictable, often nostalgic, reminder of a world in which cause and effect is the only organizing structure. A new story is about to unfold: you are invited to sit back and enjoy the ride. A theme song is a metronome whose dominant affective reactions are pleasure and relief, rather than the grief invoked by the communal clapping. The clapping resembles a media event, with its emphasis on “liveness,” while the bingeing is a way to reclaim agency amid the chaos.

4. Follow the interface

The ritualistic affordances of bingeing are produced and sustained by interface design. It is crucial to study the ever-changing interface of streaming platforms alongside narrative and sonic pleasures in order to understand why some spectatorial modes flourish while others slowly disappear. The need for causality correlates with, and is supported by, a media ecosystem obsessed with marketing the promise of enhanced user agency. This is often achieved by algorithm-based personalization and changes to the interface.

One recent interface design decision is particularly of interest when studying the rising popularity of binge-watching. In August 2020, Netflix added a “playback function” to its interface, allowing users to speed-watch or slow down films and television shows.13 As Big Tech companies often do, Netflix marketed this controversial feature through the catchphrase of “accessibility,” citing complaints from blind users who are used to speed-listening to audio books and other media. Yet, this feature also enables Netflix to maximize the time viewers spend on the site, encouraging them to speed-binge an entire show in one sitting while retaining subscribers who might otherwise choose other platforms offering this option. Studying the history of such features and design decisions—like showing an “Are you still watching?” image to users who haven’t touched their mouse in over three hours—can provide a deeper understanding of bingeing. The intersection of binge-watching and speed-watching is a promising starting point.

More control over media consumption affords users more freedom to choose how to interact with different media: slowing down scenes with beloved stars, speeding up shows to fit them into one’s commute, even watching films at their intended speed to fully appreciate the complex layers of editing, soundtrack, and production design. The fact that Judd Apatow and other Hollywood filmmakers who publicly resisted this feature lost the fight does not mean that the struggle over the ideal speed of media consumption is over.14

This public debate is the most recent iteration of the very same dilemma faced by theater managers and film projectionists at the turn of the century: who controls the pace of the work, its creator or its exhibitor? Speed-watching holds a subversive potential as it positions the viewer as the all-powerful master of both pacing and time, an intoxicating sensation that proved more desirable than ever during the pandemic. Rooted in an ideology of efficiency, histories of accessibility, audio books, and universal design, speed-watching has become a pervasive tool helping users to access a wide variety of media, avoid boredom, or enjoy the sheer thrill of acceleration.

This mode of “time hacking” stands in opposition to attempts to describe bingeing as a professional hazard. A closer attention to the interface design of media players is crucial for recognizing tensions between efficiency and “stealing time” from one’s employer.15 Even when users are unaware of, or choose not to use, an interface feature, its very existence shapes the standards and expectations of domestic spectatorship.

Judd Apatow tweets his outrage at Netflix’s plans to allow viewers to control the speed of media consumption.

Judd Apatow tweets his outrage at Netflix’s plans to allow viewers to control the speed of media consumption.

5: Binge-watching is the ultimate distraction

Binge-watching is a popular habit thanks to its ability to distract viewers from their everyday concerns. In The Stuff of Spectatorship (2021), Caetlin Benson-Allot identifies distraction as one of three affective modalities of bingeing, alongside enhanced focus and paranoia.16 This line of inquiry, which emphasizes the ways in which bingeing might worsen gender and racial prejudices by immersing spectators in the narrative, can also be extended to speed-watching. When watching the show in a faster playback speed, problematic representations of characters can more easily be ignored or altogether overlooked. While many viewers would not take enough time to process sexist or racist jokes or dialogue, the accelerated pace might deepen the frustration of those viewers who are the butt of the joke. Distraction should therefore be studied in relation to both pacing and the imaginary spectator of any given show.

The promise of control and immersion promoted by bingeing and speed-watching distracts the viewers from the ways in which spectatorship has turned into labor. When bingeing, viewers produce value in several ways. First, they pay a subscription fee to a streaming platform and/or watch advertisements. Second, they train the algorithm tasked with recommending titles by feeding it crucial behavioral data and “implicit signals” (such as hovering above a title without clicking on it or watching only five minutes of a new show).17 Third, they contribute to the platform’s network effect, whereby increased numbers of people or participants improve the value of a platform or service by being active users who potentially share their experiences with others and indirectly engage with the company’s branding and marketing. In short, viewers actively work for streaming platforms in a plethora of unrecognized and unpaid ways.

A spectatorial mode strategically designed to fight sleep, bingeing also trains viewers to ignore their biological needs. As such, it plays a crucial part in turning “working from home” into “living at work,” producing neoliberal subjects who are accustomed to skipping meals, ignoring their bladders, or staying up all night. During the pandemic, bingeing has distracted viewers not only from their health anxieties, but also from the ways in which neoliberal regimes have replaced subsidized safety nets with “self-care” and individual responsibility.

The abrupt shift in the status of bingeing during the pandemic effectively denies the negative effects it has on users’ bodies, the environment, and culture itself. Sedentary behavior paradoxically makes people more prone to sickness; streaming media has a much more substantial carbon footprint than anyone might imagine; and Netflix’s transformation into a streaming mammoth is reshaping both the moviegoing experience and the survival chances of local film and television industries. Cloaked in a public-health discourse while offering narratives of against-all-odds survival, binge-watching distracts viewers from streaming platforms’ potentially calamitous health effects on an individual, social, and even planetary level. While this essay intentionally avoids alarmist accounts of bingeing, the tensions between its therapeutic potential and its negative effects cannot be ignored.

These developments—survivorship, co-watching, causality, interface design, and distraction—point to the urgent need for new theories of bingeing. COVID-19 changed media consumption, possibly for years to come. It is time to unpack the many contradictions inherent in this now-dominant mode of domestic spectatorship.

Notes

1.

Tanya Horeck, Mareike Jenner, and Tina Kendall. “On Binge-Watching: Nine Critical Propositions,” Critical Studies in Television 13, no. 4 (December 2018): 499–504.

2.

Quoted in Josef Adalian, “Inside the Binge Factory,” New York Magazine, June 2018, 92.

3.

For recent critiques of “predictive personalization” see, for example, Ed Finn, What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 2017); Jonathan Cohn, The Burden of Choice (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019); Neta Alexander, “Catered to Your Future Self: Netflix’s ‘Predictive Personalization’ and the Mathematization of Taste,” in The Netflix Effect, ed. Daniel Smith-Rowsey and Kevin McDonald (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2016): 81–100.

4.

See Tanya Horeck’s essay elsewhere in this “Special Focus” section.

5.

Rox Samer, “Trans Chaplin,” in “Transing Media in Focus,” ed. Laura Horak and Cael Keegan, special issue, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies (forthcoming).

6.

Adam Grant, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing,” New York Times, April 19, 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/COVID-mental-health-languishing.html.

7.

Grant.

8.

See, for example, Hannah Jane Parkinson, “From Quiz to I May Destroy You: How Communal TV-Watching Made a Comeback,” The Guardian, August 6, 2020, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/aug/06/from-quiz-to-i-may-destroy-you-how-communal-tv-watching-made-a-comeback.

9.

Lynne Joyrich, “Watching Television in a Pandemic,” LA Review of Books, April 8, 2020, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/watching-television-in-a-pandemic/.

10.

For a theory of buffering and disconnection, see Neta Alexander, “Rage against the Machine: Buffering, Noise, and Perpetual Anxiety in the Age of Connected Viewing,” Cinema Journal 56, no. 2 (Winter 2017): 1–24. For an analysis of infrastructure limitations and breakdowns during the early stage of the pandemic, see Brian X. Chen, “Everything You Need to Know about Slow Internet Speeds,” New York Times, May 20, 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/technology/personaltech/slow-internet-speeds.html.

11.

“Because I Watched Queer Eye,” Because I Watched, November 27, 2019, https://because-i-watched-netflix.simplecast.com/episodes/because-i-watched-queer-eye.

12.

I further explored buffering, anxiety, and interface design in an earlier essay. See Alexander, “Rage against the Machine.”

13.

James Doubek, “Netflix Is Letting Some People Speed Up Playback: That’s a Big Deal for Blind Fans,” NPR, August 12, 2020, www.npr.org/2020/08/12/901317290/netflix-is-letting-some-people-speed-up-playback-thats-a-big-deal-for-blind-fans.

14.

Kimberly Ricci, “Netflix Might Be Planning to Roll Out a Feature That Allows Users to Binge at Higher Speeds (Updated with Netflix Response),” Uproxx, October 28, 2019, https://uproxx.com/tv/netflix-feature-binge-high-speed/. For an analysis of early histories of speed-listening by visually impaired students, see Mara Mills and Jonathan Sterne, “Aural Speed-Reading: Some Historical Bookmarks,” PMLA 135, no. 2 (March 2020): 401–11.

15.

See Kartik Nair’s essay elsewhere in this “Special Focus” section.

16.

Caetlin Benson-Allott, The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021).

17.

For an analysis of how Netflix uses “implicit signals,” see Blake Hallinan and Ted Striphas, “Recommended for You: The Netflix Prize and the Production of Algorithmic Culture,” New Media & Society 18, no. 1 (January 2016): 117–37.