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Binge-watching more controlled than previously thought, UCSD study finds

Americans watch TV an average of 4 hours per day, among those who watch the most in the world
Posted at 11:22 AM, May 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-23 14:22:11-04

SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Despite its name implying an impulsive loss of control, binge-watching television is commonly planned out by viewers, research released Tuesday by UC San Diego suggests.

The study, from UCSD's Rady School of Management and School of Global Policy and Strategy in collaboration with the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University and Fox School of Business at Temple University, found that viewers prefer to binge-watch sequential programming with an overarching narrative -- such as "Bridgerton," "The Handmaid's Tale," "Stranger Things" and other programming where the order of episodes substantially matter.

Viewers are also more likely to pay to watch shows consecutively and/or wait to be able to consume more than one episode at a time, the study found.

"We find that the notion of a show being so interesting that it just sucks people in and they can't pull away is not the whole story," said study coauthor Uma Karmarkar, assistant professor of marketing and innovation at the Rady School. "Binge-watching can have a negative connotation, like binge eating or binge drinking.

"It is generally seen as impulsive, maybe problematic, but certainly very indulgent," Karmarkar said. "However, media consumption is more complex. Binge-watching is not always about a failure of self-control; it can also be a thoughtful preference and planned behavior."

The authors also found that no matter how "binge-able" a show is, viewers are much less likely to plan to watch multiple episodes if the streaming service or channel features commercials.

The findings suggest that genre alone isn't a good predictor of a desire to binge. Documentary series -- if they have a consecutive storyline -- can be just as binge-able as fictional series.

This research also demonstrates that how shows are described and marketed to consumers can impact what they plan to binge and not binge. The findings can be valuable to entertainment companies because they can be instrumental in helping them with market research, Karmarkar added.

"Viewing platforms could launch consumer surveys to get a sense for how likely a viewer would be to plan their schedule around binging a certain show," she said. "This is important because streaming media companies don't necessarily only want you to binge-watch on their platform.

"If you log back in at different times, you might see different ads, you may build loyalty to brand, and perhaps you keep your subscription longer," Karmarkar said. "It could be beneficial for companies to want some of their content to be more binge-able and other content to be more spread out."

The authors surveyed people online, asking them to think about how they would plan to watch a show they wanted to stream. Participants were asked to then create a calendar over the next six days, which let the authors see whether they would stack episodes together or spread them out. According to the researchers, most people created "clumpy" viewing plans, involving binging multiple episodes at a time. But they didn't stack all the episodes on one day, offering a different view of binging than the one predicted by a lack of self-control.

A separate experiment revealed that people are more likely to plan to binge on an online class if it is perceived to be more sequential. Taking this one step further, the authors analyzed real-world data from the Coursera platform and found that these plans to binge-learn accurately predicted viewing behavior in enrolled students.