When I’m not writing this column, I work at a large media company where we create all kinds of content for TV, web and mobile. It’s the best gig in the world—and it’s only getting better as everyone from Netflix to Amazon to YouTube is now investing in original programming.
One thing I’m noticing about my job is that distribution is everywhere. Thanks to DVRs and tablets, people don’t care about schedules anymore. They just want the shows. As a result, we’re now living in the golden age of “binge viewing.”
Instead of watching TV one episode at a time, when networks tell us to, more and more viewers are storing them away like pack rats. Turns out, it’s pretty fun to watch all 73 episodes of “Mad Men” in a row over a few days or weeks, instead of over five seasons.
Now that fall is almost here, it’s time to plan for a long, dark winter indoors—but it doesn’t have to be cold and bleak. Thanks to video time shifting, we can now enjoy content like never before.
So here’s my brief guide to happy, lazy, brain-draining binge viewing:
Rule #1: Know the Show
It’s critical to choose the right kind of program for binge viewing. Generally speaking, start with dramas and period pieces—shows that suck us into places we’ve never been and explore worlds that don’t exist. Binge viewing is all about total immersion; this is why shows like “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” are so popular. Trust me, they’re even better when watched hour after sweet hour.
Rule #2: Characters Really Are Welcome
Shows with complex characters are also ideal for binge viewing—especially with bad guys with a human side. They keep us thinking, studying every person’s moves and reading between the lines. We get drawn into the whole Jekyll-and-Hyde thing; can we really root for Tony Soprano? Or for Dexter? Or anyone from “The Wire?” There’s way too much going on with these people to stop with one episode.
Rule #3: It’s Not Funny
With the exception of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” sitcoms are a waste of time for binge viewing. Why? Because of the Internet. We associate different kinds of content with different types of viewing platforms. Drama and sports are great on big TVs where we can lean back and zone out. Comedy is typically best in short blasts—two-minute videos where we can lean forward and make comments. This is great for YouTube but not so great for binge viewing.
Bottom line: Dramas take us someplace else; they evolve. Comedies come and go; they’re disposable.
Rule #4: The Suspense Is Killing Me
Action thrillers are the most maddening of shows for binge viewers. On one hand, the anticipation and suspense is overwhelmingly powerful. We’re on the edge of our seats and want to see how Jack Bauer saves the world. On the other hand, we know where the story goes and how it ends, so the whole thing becomes a bit of a futile exercise. I liked “24” and “Homeland,” and even think “Sleeper Cell” had its moments. But for binge viewing, they’re only so-so.
Rule #5: Go Deep
To properly binge view, you must have at least two full seasons—about 25 episodes—in the can. It’s not a binge if you can watch the entire series in one sick day.
Rule #6: Stay Out Of It
Once you start watching a show in first run, it’s no longer eligible for binge viewing. You lose the entire sense of immersion if you’ve caught episodes here and there. So if you’re intrigued by “Copper,” or “Hell on Wheels,” or even “Magic City”—now is not the time to start watching. You need to be strong, hold out, and watch something else until there are enough episodes for you to properly obsess.
And then you need to figure out how to take a month off to see it all.
Good luck this winter!