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Bingeing and Purging: Consuming TV in the Post-Network Era

Beverly Haviland, Brown University

 We’ve all done it.  We might have thought we could stop at two, or three.  But really one more wouldn’t hurt.  It’s not that late.  I’ll just finish this season and then I won’t do this again all week.  Promise. 

The guilty pleasure of binge watching our new favorite tv shows lends itself to several different kinds of analysis.  We can look at it from the perspective of a rapidly changing industry in which the ancient networks, the formerly-rebel cable stations, and the newish kids on the streaming block compete for millions of eyeballs.  We can look at the “binge” metaphor to see if the analogy with an eating disorder really pertains in terms of this being a pathological practice, and if the analogy holds that there must be a purging following the bingeing to maintain some kind of homeostasis.  And we can look at this viewing practice, both implied and actual, to see if there is an effect on the shows that are produced to be available on this platform.  Although much of what is available via streaming was conceived as serial presentation with definite or indefinite longevity of narrative (a mini-series vs. a sitcom), the possibility of binge viewing may be changing the way that the content is produced.  This has been suggested by no less a player than Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer. “I really think we have the chance to radically change the depth of character connectivity," he says. "I mean, a meaningful shift. It's going to further blur the line between television and movies" (GQ Article). I want to suggest that the significant affinity here is not between television of the kind that we see in The Wire and movies but between television and novels. 

In this presentation I want to look at two important aspects of literary narrative, the development of character and the structures of narrative temporality, and suggest that the kind of concentrated viewing that is disparaged by pathologizing it as bingeing is drawing on formal resources like those that made (makes) the realistic novel of the nineteenth-century so satisfying to readers then (now0, whether it was consumed serially in weekly or monthly magazines or savored all at once in a luscious triple-decker.   Rebecca Mead’s recent bibliomemoir about the role that Middlemarch has played in her life is an example of this effect:

 “I have grown up with George Eliot. I think ‘Middlemarch’ has disciplined my character. I know it has become part of my own experience and my own endurance. ‘Middlemarch’ inspired me when I was young, and chafing to leave home; and now, in middle life, it suggests to me what else home might mean, beyond a place to grow up and grow out of.” (Rev. Joyce Carol Oates)

My suggestion is that there is a hunger felt by many viewers for the kind of complexity of character that can only be developed over time within the narrative conventions specific to the medium.  I would like to be able to say more specifically how those conventions work in one example of made-for-streaming tv.  Between now and presenting this work in Berlin, I will be watching all of The Wire without guilt.

John F. Kennedy Institute