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The Science Behind Why We Binge-Watch

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Binge-watching may not be a new concept, but it’s fast becoming the new normal.

Ten years ago, in those dark days before the advent of streaming services, DVD box sets and the occasional TV marathon were the only ways to get your binge-watching fix. These days, though, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are making binge-watching — watching two or more (sometimes much, much more) episodes of a single series in quick succession — an acceptable and fast-growing practice.

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According to a 2017 survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American watches 2.7 hours of TV per day or nearly 20 hours each week. Much of that time is spent binge-watching — a 2013 Netflix survey found that among nearly 1,500 surveyed TV streamers, 61% of users binge-watch shows regularly (in this case, binge-watching was defined as watching two to three episodes of a single series in one session).

The term “binge-watch” was even Collins English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2015 (alongside, out of curiosity, “dadbod” and “ghosting”).

But while late-night Breaking Bad benders might be popular, a growing list of evidence indicates that binge-watching may not be the ideal way to consume media. Researchers have linked binge-watching to lower sleep quality, and studies have found that binge-watching shows might actually be less memorable and less enjoyable than watching new episodes on a weekly basis. (Yikes!)

So why is binge-watching so popular if it just leaves us feeling bleary-eyed on the couch? The answer lies in how our brains function while we’re watching and how filmmakers and streaming services are engineered to keep us watching.

For many viewers, binge-watching gives us an escape from the day-to-day grind. Entertainment has always offered a way to escape from the pressures of daily life, and binge-watching is no exception. But, don’t just take our word for it. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, who coordinated with Netflix on the above survey, sees a correlation between the rise in binge-watching habits and our desire to escape a never-ending sea of bite-sized social media posts and YouTube videos. He explains:

“TV viewers are no longer zoning out as a way to forget about their day, they are tuning in, on their own schedule, to a different world. Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcomed today.”

Viewers seem to agree — the aforementioned Netflix survey found that 76% of respondents said it’s a welcome refuge from the busy world we live in. And for many of us, it’s a much-needed break: a recent opinion poll from the American Psychiatric Association found that nearly 40% of respondents felt more anxious than the year before.

But there’s an even simpler reason behind why we enjoy binge-watching. To put it simply, it makes us feel good. In fact, according to one study, 73% of us have positive feelings about binge-watching TV — feelings that Dr. Renee Carr, Psy. D, a clinical psychologist, attributes to our body’s own natural response to enjoyment. She explains on NBC’s health and wellness blog, Better, that binge-watching a show produces a continuous stream of dopamine in our brains:

“[Dopamine] gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It’s the brain’s signal that communicates to the body —This feels good. You should keep doing this!

So, as it turns out, it isn’t the show we’re craving; instead, it’s the feeling of pleasure we get from watching episode after episode. “You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show,” Dr. Carr explains, “because you develop cravings for dopamine … Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.”

“So, as it turns out, it isn’t the show we’re craving; instead, it’s the feeling of pleasure we get from watching episode after episode.”

It’s that dopamine hit — and the conscious decision to keep that feeling going — that gets people hooked on watching just one more episode as the clock ticks past midnight.

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Binge-watching can be a great way to relax and de-stress, but it can easily become a problem when you regularly prioritize it over other important activities.

Like gambling and other behavioral addictions, binge-watching activates the part of our brain responsible for “reward” functions, producing dopamine and making us feel good. Over time, though, our brains produce less dopamine from the same level of activity as we build up a level of tolerance. It takes more and more of the same activity to give us that same feeling of enjoyment, making binge-watching that much harder to stop.

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Young viewers are particularly susceptible to changing their habits to support binge-watching. Image courtesy of Statista.

When we’re forced to stop watching (usually when we finish the entire series), we quite literally “mourn” the loss — a kind of “post-binge malaise” — as coined by Matthew Schneier in the New York Times. That feeling of emptiness doesn’t do us any good — a 2015 study from the University of Toledo found that binge-watchers reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Researchers have noted that binge-watching streaming media is directly related to a reduction in sleep quality — an effect that isn’t seen with traditional TV series when new episodes are only released once each week.

Given our preference for binging on new series, you might assume it makes for a better watching experience — but it turns out that’s not the case either. According to a 2017 study from First Monday, binge-watching shows might actually be less memorable and less enjoyable than watching new episodes on a weekly basis. Researchers found that binge-watching shows reduced participants’ ability to remember details from the shows, and binge-watchers also reported lower enjoyment levels from watching the show than those who watched the same series only once a day.

Once that stimulation is gone, the only way to bring it back is to watch more episodes, even when it may be detrimental to our health and enjoyment — a fact of which filmmakers and streaming services take full advantage.

Streaming services, along with the original content they make available, are engineered to be addictive. Without commercials on most platforms, there are fewer opportunities for viewers to get distracted. Netflix even begins playing the next episode of a series while the credits for the previous episode are still rolling. Cliffhanger endings are there to keep us hooked so that we can’t help but start watching the next episode.

Netflix and other streaming services rely on these behaviors to inform their programming decisions and keep subscribers happy. Without the regular interruptions of traditional television, audiences are much more likely to keep watching instead of switching to another service — or even just another activity. In fact, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings famously said that sleep is Netflix’s biggest competitor.

“Without the regular interruptions of traditional television, audiences are much more likely to keep watching instead of switching to another service — or even just another activity.”

At the end of the day, making binge-watching socially acceptable is undoubtedly an important part of sustaining a streaming business model. Netflix even openly promotes binge-watching and “binge racing” on their blog, where they state more than 8 million subscribers have binge-raced at least one series.

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An infographic from Netflix promoting binge-watching. Image courtesy of Time.

According to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, these changes are simply meeting the desires of their audience, helping to “free consumers from the limitations of linear television” and “lining up the content with new norms of viewer control for the first time.”

Love it or hate it, binge-watching isn’t going away any time soon. So, what can we do to make sure binge-watching continues to be a positive experience?

Binge-watching is a welcome stress reliever as well as a behavior that’s ingrained within us, so there’s no reason to feel guilty while clicking “I’m Still Watching” for the third time.

But it’s important to remember that there’s a fine line between healthy viewing habits and addictive behavior. Commit to only watching a certain number of episodes in advance, then cut yourself off and balance your binge-watching with activities like exercise or spending time with friends. These activities can provide additional sources of enjoyment, making it much less likely you’ll become addicted to watching that next season from start to finish in one go.

If you can stick to healthy habits and balance your binge-watching with other activities, then you’ll reap all the enjoyment of binge-watching — without suffering the negative consequences.



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Episode 5: “The Brandwagon Interviews” Podcast with Lauren Fleshman of Picky Bars

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From tactics to taglines, Wistia’s CEO, Chris Savage, chats marketing with the brains behind successful brands on our new video series, Brandwagon. Last time, Chris sat down with Veronica Parker-Hahn, SVP of Growth & Innovation at Effie Worldwide, to learn why she believes strategic rigor is essential to building an effective brand. Today, we’re excited to share our extended interview with this week’s guest, Lauren Fleshman, Co-Founder and CMO of Picky Bars.

Check out the episode to hear how Lauren learned the power of identifying and marketing your values from her experience as a two-time US track and field champion, and a Nike-sponsored athlete.

Or listen on: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher

Watch the actual Brandwagon episode here!

Before becoming the co-founder and CMO of Picky Bars, a real-food company that makes energy bars, oatmeals, and granolas to fuel active lifestyles, Lauren Fleshman was a highly decorated professional runner. She’s a two-time US 5K champion (her fastest mile time is 4 minutes and 23 seconds!). When she signed on as a Nike-sponsored athlete, she soon realized she was Nike’s own brand marketing asset. From this experience, she learned how to be an exceptional storyteller and the importance of marketing her values to renew sponsorship deals.

Using this wisdom, Lauren started Picky Bars and grew the business in the energy bar market. On this episode, we hear all about building your brand for the long-run by paying attention to how you make your audience feel.

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“I think you can make an interesting story out of anything. Because if you have a goal — no matter what the business is — there’s a journey involved in getting there. Everyone can relate to a journey.” On this episode of The Brandwagon Interviews, Lauren Fleshman highlights how knowing your values and telling your story will help your audience connect to your brand.

Here are some of the lessons learned throughout the episode:

  • Identify your story and decide it’s worthwhile to tell
  • Figure out why people like you and lean into that
  • Go narrow yet deep with your current audience and trust that your brand will grow from there

Short on time? Check out some of our favorite moments during this interview between Chris and Lauren.

1:22 – “I think it’s helpful sometimes to be a beginner at something”

After Chris runs the best mile of his life, Lauren and Chris sit down to talk about all things brand. Chris kicks off the conversation by asking Lauren about learning how to play the violin. Despite being a champion runner and a business owner, Lauren talks about how it’s important to be a beginner at something. It’s helped her in her coaching career and has pushed her to understand certain aspects of her business in new ways.

4:14 – On being a marketing asset

Not long after her highly successful collegiate career, Lauren signed on as a Nike-sponsored athlete. She quickly came to understand the world of running from an interesting perspective: she was another brand’s marketing asset. Fleshman talks about what it was like to pitch herself to companies in hopes of renewing sponsorship deals and how being an influencer helped her learn to tell her own story.

8:55 – Changing values at Nike

Even though she had a demanding training and race schedule, Lauren still found the time to tell her own story. Early on, she realized women athletes at Nike were treated differently than male athletes. Nike advertising for women featured models instead of professional athletes whereas ads for men’s shoes and clothing featured top male athletes at the time. Fired up, Lauren emailed Nike’s CEO on a whim and ended up changing the culture at one of the world’s largest brands. The company worked with Fleshman to make the first Nike catalog featuring female athletes and produced a commercial with her.

14:04 – “Everyone can relate to a journey”

When you’re a national champion and a Nike athlete, you’ve got a pretty cool story to tell, right? But what if you’re selling insurance or golden-toe socks?! Chris asks Lauren what companies should do if they feel like they don’t have a story, or that their business is “boring.” Lauren says if you just start telling your story, and if you accept that your story is worthwhile, you’ll be surprised by how people will be interested. If you have a business, you have goals. And if you have goals, there’s a journey involved in working toward those goals. Experiencing this in her running career and with Picky Bars, she believes everyone can relate to a journey, and they’ll be invested in your successes and failures along the way.

17:40 – Layering risks

What happened after Lauren missed competing at the Olympics due to injuries? She took the downtime and started four major projects, all of which she fully expected to fail. Fleshman describes how low-risk ventures can feel worthwhile in the face of failure because impacting even a few people in your community can have a great benefit.

21:26 – Starting Picky Bars

Chris asks Lauren about how she started Picky Bars, which are energy bars made with whole foods and balanced for sport. The story began when Lauren was on a break from running and wanted to help her husband and triathlete, Jesse Thomas, find an energy bar that wouldn’t mess with his digestive system (and fill the house with unwanted…gas). Lauren continues to tell the origin story of her business and how the brand grew organically.

26:47 – Growing a business in a crowded space

The energy bar market is saturated with products of all shapes, sizes, and claims. So, how did Lauren begin marketing Picky Bars and differentiate the brand in a crowded space? She first focused on her community and doubled down efforts on her personal blog. Then she drew on her experience as a sponsored influencer for other brands to market Picky Bars.

28:32 – Understanding your values

Lauren’s personal values have a ton of overlap with the brand values at Picky Bars. Chris wonders how you discover and define your values as a brand. Lauren explains how she began to define her own values and why she thinks it’s important for brands to lead with their values. Often, it’s about looking at what’s working and identifying why people like you in the first place, and then leaning into that.

32:14 – Finding a home at Oiselle

Amidst the discussion about values, Lauren mentions how she began to feel out of alignment with Nike due to their policies around athletes starting families. At that time she fell in love with Oiselle, a clothing company for female athletes, and left Nike to work with Oiselle, who helped her scale her values to affect more change and impact more people. Fleshman describes how she felt more motivated to work for Oiselle because their values aligned. This has fundamentally changed how she feels about sponsorship opportunities and how to inspire employees.

36:53 – Marketing your values

Chris asks how companies should market their values once they define them. Picky Bars and Oiselle both tell brand stories that reflect their brand values. In doing that, Lauren’s noticed that brands have the power to change the culture of the industries in which they operate.

40:15 – Creating brand affinity with Work, Play, Love

In 2018, Lauren and her husband started a podcast called Work, Play, Love. The podcast focuses on the intersection between sports, entrepreneurship, and relationships. On the podcast, the couple talks about their experience running Picky Bars — including all of their mess-ups and struggles — they offer advice on balancing life with goals in sport, and they talk about their relationship. Chris asks why they decided to be so open about their business and Lauren talks about how it gives their audience an opportunity to have a deeper connection with them and the Picky Bars brand. She describes how doing a show like Work, Play, Love has helped their business.

44:43 – CEO recaps

Lauren recommends that small businesses create a CEO recap for their fans, the same way a CEO would brief investors on the state of the business. She talks about the benefits of being open with your audience, both for your customers and for yourself.

47:24 – “Decide your story’s worthwhile”

What advice does Lauren have for marketers who are thinking about making shows and being their own spokespeople? She says that the first step is deciding that your story is worthwhile. Then? Go narrow and deep with your current audience and trust that your brand will build from there.

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Announcing Change the Channel: A Live Event from Wistia HQ!

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Online marketing is getting harder — there are fewer new channels, the best tactics are known, our playbooks don’t work like they used to, and our technology is no longer a competitive advantage.

To stand out in a world with unlimited distractions we have to build brands that are strong. Brands that have clear values and brands that our audiences care about.

To win, we need to create more brand advocates who believe in what we are doing and who will help us share our stories.

On October 2 at 1 p.m. EST, my-co-founder Brendan Schwartz and I are going to be hosting a special live broadcast called Change the Channel. We’re going to share what we’ve learned about building brands, where we see marketing heading, and what you can expect from Wistia in the coming years. We’ll even hear from a few special guests from InVision and ThriveHive — companies that are already building incredible brands.

Now it wouldn’t be Wistia if you weren’t able to be involved in this announcement as well. Before tuning in, be sure to download our Change the Channel Bingo Card* and play along for the chance to win an all-in-one mobile video studio, aka the Wistia Soapbox Station. Print a card out for yourself, or pass them around your office! Three winners will be chosen at random on each channel. Here’s how to enter:

  1. Snap a picture holding your winning card
  2. Post it to Twitter or Instagram
  3. Tag @wistia & use the hashtag #watchCTC

Be sure to register and watch the livestream on Wednesday, October 2 at 1 p.m. EST. And if you can’t make it, don’t worry — all registrants will receive a recording of the event once we’re done broadcasting. We hope to “see” you there!

Sign up to watch live:


*Participants and winners must be U.S. residents. Limit of one entry per person on Twitter or Instagram exclusively. Submissions must be posted by 9 AM on Thursday, October 3rd in order to be considered. Winners will be announced on Monday, October 7th. Soapbox Stations provided to eligible winners are not transferable, redeemable for cash or exchangeable for any other prize. If a winner cannot be contacted or is disqualified for any reason, Wistia reserves the right to determine an alternate winner or not to award that winner’s prize, in its sole discretion.

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What We Can Learn from Streaming Services About Audience Viewing Behavior

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There once was a time where sitting through 18 minutes of ads to watch your favorite one-hour show was an unfortunate necessity in life. Today, however, a 10-year-old wouldn’t be able to distinguish a cable box from a DVD player and binge-watching a show for hours on end is the norm. Video streaming services have clearly been dominating the space for some time now, but television networks aren’t ready to go down without a fight.

Media conglomerates that were once disrupted by the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are now entering the race to win back long lost customers. How will they go about doing it, you ask? Our best guess is by crafting impressively entertaining content. After looking at different trends in audience behavior on streaming services, marketers would be wise to take a similar approach when it comes to capturing and holding the attention of their audiences.

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Over 600 million people are now subscribed to streaming services worldwide, and the average U.S. adult watches 6 hours of video per day. However, the popularity of streaming services doesn’t just tell us that consumers expect on-demand content from every media company. It also tells us that audiences are hooked on entertainment.

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Image Credit: Variety

To feed our voracious appetite for both shows and films and, in turn, claim a healthy slice of the market, AT&T, Disney, Apple, Viacom, and Discovery all plan to launch their own streaming services this year.

This battle for market attention should push brands to raise the bar creatively, crafting content that their audience can’t help but want to consume. For instance, imagine if your audience held your docu-series in the same regard as Last Chance U, or if they listened to your podcast over This American Life while commuting to work? That would be an unprecedented level of resonance.

“This battle for market attention should push brands to raise the bar creatively, crafting content that their audience can’t help but want to consume.”

To survive and thrive in this war for attention, it’s time for brands to start tackling what the streaming service industry has already mastered — the ability to entertain.

When content marketing was first gaining steam, earning consumer attention by providing educational advice was a novel and revolutionary idea. Nowadays, educational content is rather ordinary, and people have become habituated to the standard listicle or ultimate guide.

Fortunately, the human brain is wired to pay instant attention to novelty and narrative, so crafting creative, story-driven content can attract and retain an audience. That’s why Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Apple TV, and Disney spend the majority of their combined $24.5 billion annual content budget on original productions — they understand humans crave novel experiences.

71% of millennials are now subscribed to streaming services to watch original content. Additionally, the average American subscribes to 3.4 streaming services to access as much variety as possible. In other words, novelty sells.

In the content marketing space, Mailchimp has taken a page from the streaming services industry’s playbook by making sure Mailchimp Presents — their creative studio that produces original series — hits a diverse range of notes. In just eight months, Mailchimp released three docu-series, two comedy series, two documentaries, and two podcasts that all cover different (yet targeted) subject matter. And in the months since Mailchimp Presents officially launched, the people who have engaged with the original series tend to buy their products faster and spend more money with the software company.

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Not all marketers should feel like they have to mimic Mailchimp’s showrunning moves, though. Since the content marketing space is already so flooded with similar-looking content, starting with a single, creative, story-driven series is enough to get started and cut through the noise.

While online video streaming is only 12 years old, the number of streaming-service-only households has tripled since 2013, and the number of cable-cord-cutters is expected to increase by 33% this year.

It’s easy to see why so many people are ditching cable for streaming — streaming services provide instant access to commercial-free content and personalized recommendations based on viewers’ history and preferences. On top of that, streaming is much more affordable than cable: subscribing to all four of the main streaming services, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO, is cheaper than subscribing to Spectrum Cable TV.

“The number of streaming-service-only households has tripled since 2013, and the number of cable-cord-cutters is expected to increase by 33% this year.”

Brands can easily offer these same benefits, too. One business that has emulated these qualities and has built a loyal, passionate audience is Yeti Coolers. As a company that makes coolers, drinkware, bags, and other gear for outdoorsmen, Yeti has crafted over 70 short stories and films about the pursuit of hunting, fishing, the outdoors, ranch and rodeo, and barbecue. All of their binge-worthy content is hosted on a single webpage that’s easy to find through their homepage, making it accessible for any visitor.

yeti

Any business can easily host their binge-worthy content on their own website, driving visitors to a home-base where they can consume more content at their leisure. And when it comes to making the content itself, brands can (and should) cater it to their specific target audience while leaving out any mention of their products, just like Yeti.

As marketers, investing in producing documentaries and original series might seem like a big risk, but if there’s one lesson to be learned from streaming services, it’s that our audience craves something that most brands have neglected to provide — binge-worthy content. Maybe channeling our inner screenwriter isn’t a risk after all. Maybe it’s our safest bet!

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