By Josh McClain
Fifteen years ago, binging referred to the overconsumption of alcohol, money or other abusable substances—not something most Christians take pride in. Now, teens and young adults use the same word to describe watching through hours of the latest movies and series on streaming platforms like Netflix or Disney Plus. Just as word connotations morph over time in response to cultural change, the “binge” revolution represents a response to the emergence of accessible streaming technology.
Streaming services began as an offshoot of the bustling movie rental industry. Entrepreneur Marc Randolph and computer scientist Reed Hastings founded Netflix in 1997 as the world’s first online mail-delivery DVD-rental company. The company’s “video on demand” service didn’t launch until 2007 and originally allowed access to just 1,000 titles, compared to the 100,000 available for physical rental.
Hulu surfaced shortly afterwards in 2008 with a similar setup. As the market grew, these mediums started releasing original content. Hulu debuted its own web series “The Morning After” in 2011, and Netflix followed in 2013 with its show “House of Cards.” From there, these streaming services continued to expand, with Hulu adding live TV and sports in 2017.
Several other streaming services had joined the market before 2019, but COVID-19 brought the industry to a whole new level. Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max and many other streaming services launched soon after the world entered lockdown. With countless stuck at home due to virtual schooling and unemployment, streaming became a common quarantine pastime.
BBC News reported that 12 million people subscribed to new services during the lockdown and that streamers spent an average of one hour and 11 minutes viewing content each day. Thus, binge-watching solidified itself as a common practice.
However, streaming services didn’t disappear when COVID-19 waned and the world began to reopen. In fact, they seem poised to stay for a long time. COVID-19 demonstrated that Americans can get their fill of movies even when theaters close, and many fans now prefer the accessibility of streaming movies to the hassle of travelling to a theater.
Luke Wiley, a marketing student at Cedarville University, thinks that streaming services will soon overtake the box office, relegating the theater experience to a once-in-a-while nostalgia trip. “I’ve been tracking box office numbers for a statistics class…We’ve been trending toward less tickets sold,” he said. “With time, movie theaters will go the way of the CD and VHS—slowly dying away as more people accept the new mediums.”
On the other hand, Sean O’Connor, Assistant Professor of Broadcasting, Digital Media, and Journalism at Cedarville, has a more optimistic outlook, noting, “There’s enough people at least now that are passionate about that experience and mad at certain streaming services for doing day-and-date releases or just dumping movies onto streaming in order to maintain profits.” Either way, streaming services have begun to steal views away from the theater industry.
Moreover, streaming services endanger the future of cable TV. Many streaming providers now offer live television on demand, including sports, game shows and reality TV for a price competitive with broadcast companies. This advent comes without many of cable’s shortcomings – extra hardware, fees and hundreds of channels that consumers will never use.
On the other hand, these services do not feature local news, a mainstay of television, nor do cellular connections provide the consistency of broadcast TV, potentially ruining the viewing experience. Nonetheless, it’s only a matter of time before technology allows streamers to access these advantages equally, if not better, than cable TV.
In sucking content away from theaters and conventional TV, media companies are forcing consumers to accept the consequences of streaming services as a medium. Some of these can serve constructive uses in daily life.
For example, the introduction of Netflix’s on-demand streaming permitted viewers to watch a wider diversity of films than those at theaters, granting access to more niche perspectives and less overall bias. Their flexibility and accessibility across screens also make watching content with friends and family simpler.
Of course, these services also present the temptation to binge. Theaters and cable networks once forced viewers to pace their viewing habits: TV shows came out once a week for a few months, and movies only released in theaters for a limited time before transitioning to purchasable DVDs.
Today, consumers can watch an entire season of a TV series in a single day or view almost any movie with a few taps on their iPad. This radical accessibility promotes frenetic viewership—seemingly the same kind of “binging” that once characterized harmful compulsions like alcoholism.
Obviously, alcohol overconsumption carries more drastic consequences than excessive streaming, but health officials still express serious concern about the practice of binge watching. Media companies have added innocent features, such as automatic episode queues and tailored viewing suggestions, to encourage continued watching, which increases profits but hides from viewers the sacrifices they make by remaining idle.
Scientists have warned that binge watching can result in physical maladies like sleep deprivation and eye strain as well as the habitual danger of overeating. Snacking has always paired wonderfully with movie and TV watching, but those who make a habit of grazing during their favorite show may struggle to keep it under control if their viewing time extends to several hours each day.
Binging also contains dangers beyond one’s physical body. Apart from correlations with decreased social activity and increased incidences of depression, unhealthy streaming inhibits viewer retention and critical analysis of media.
Professor O’Connor believes that binging promotes content going “in one ear and out the other” and notes that the vast library of on-demand media complicates viewers’ efforts to find, watch and remember worthwhile content. Though streaming services originally propagated a valuable diversity in film, such an overload of movies at users’ fingertips can render thoughtful contemplation a lost art.
A recent survey of the Cedarville student body shows that these side-effects are not restricted to the public in general. Over a quarter of participating students reported using streaming services three-to-five times per week, and over 30% estimated that they spend an average of one-to-two hours streaming every day. When asked about the impact of their viewing habits, 36% admitted that their time spent streaming “somewhat” affects their academic and social lives while over 60% denied any impact whatsoever.
Evidently, what began as a side project of a DVD rental company has grown so much in the past two decades that it permeates even our cornfield-bound campus. As a Christ-centered community, we ought to take care how we address the binging epidemic.
As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” Let’s embrace the benefits of streaming services without letting them dominate us at the expense of our physical, mental and spiritual lives.
Josh McClain is a freshman Professional Writing and Information Design student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys writing stories, reading YA novels and playing spikeball and soccer with friends.