A few years ago, a friend told me about “Downton Abbey,” a historical drama that depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants. At that time, the first two seasons were already available in the U.S. A week later, I’d watched—let’s be honest, devoured—both seasons and couldn’t wait for season three.
Before Netflix and Hulu were a thing, my experience with binge-watching consisted of all-day marathons of Pride and Prejudice (the BBC version, of course) or watching three to four episodes of “Gilmore Girls” on DVD after getting home from work.
Now binge-watching is commonplace. According to a study by Deloitte, 70 percent of U.S. consumers now binge-watch TV shows at an average of five episodes per sitting. And 30 percent of those viewers binge-watch at least once a week. In addition, the study found that 61 percent of subscribers ranked streaming media services among their three most-valued paid services (up from 17 percent in 2012).
I think it’s safe to say that we like our TV. And it goes deeper than entertainment. We identify with our shows; they represent us and become part of who we are. We host viewing parties for premieres and finales. We discuss the latest episodes on social media (with appropriate “spoiler alerts,” of course). We treat our shows like beloved friends or relatives.
Why We Binge
So what’s behind the binge? Wes Halula, a writer, director and producer in the Los Angeles area, who has created content for the likes of Disney, DreamWorks and Comedy Central, says it has to do with the way we’re wired.
“The psychology of how our minds watch television is absolutely at play with binge-watching,” Halula says. “We want resolution and TV exists to not give us that resolution. The binge-worthy shows leave you at the end of an episode with a revelation or cliffhanger, where you absolutely have to see the next one. It’s easy to just let the next episode autoplay rather than to turn it off.”
Television also offers an escape from life’s woes while helping us process our world in a fairly painless way. In his classic 1987 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes:
Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985, pg. 92.
Television is a primary way that many of us think about issues going on in our lives or the world around us. Halula, who frequently teaches media seminars to teens, explains. “The creation of hit TV shows is all about tapping into something that is already in culture. That’s why a show like ‘Friends’ was a huge hit—it reflected the times. These shows also push into new territory and crack open new ideologies. Then the next successful show taps into the new ethos and distills it.”
The sitcom “Modern Family” is an example of this, Halula says. “As a society, we’re in the process of asking ourselves ‘What is a family?’ And that’s a question that show seeks to answer.” The shows we love also create appealing characters we like and feel we could be friends with. You find yourself wishing Jethro Gibbs was your boss, and you can imagine having Thanksgiving dinner with the Bravermans.
The pull toward these kinds of characters is so strong, that it can actually take the place of real relationships, Halula says. “As humans we crave relationships and also we’re terrified of relationships. Binge watching a show gives us the artificial sense of having relationships with those people, which is way easier and less demanding than actually having relationships. You get to just see the pretty parts and the dramatic parts. You don’t have to do the dishes with those people or pay the bills with them.”
The TV-Shaped Hole in My Heart
Nothing is inherently wrong with the medium of television. I think we could all agree that producers and writers are coming up with some pretty creative, cutting-edge stuff. And there are some decent, entertaining shows out there. Some even promote fine values such as integrity, sacrificial love and the importance of family bonds.
We also know that much of what is on TV isn’t particularly suitable for Christians to be viewing. A lot of the content simply doesn’t pass muster when it comes to the things the Bible says Christians should be thinking about. Being choosy about what we watch—and listening to the Holy Spirit about what shows we need to turn off—is critical to our spiritual health.
But I think our obsession with TV speaks to a deeper issue. What is this hole in my heart that I’m so eager to fill with the next Netflix series? What’s behind my desire to run to TV for comfort or escape, or as a way to understand my own experiences? Why do I sometimes prefer the no-work “relationships” on the screen to the ones available to me in real life? These are important questions to ask.
I’m reminded of a powerful verse in Jeremiah. “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
Although my favorite shows may provide temporary satisfaction, they can never quench my thirst for things only God can provide. TV can be a broken cistern that I use to address needs that the Lord desires to meet. And by overindulging in screen time, I may unwittingly allow a different voice than His to shape my mind and heart.
Joining the Conversation
When Halula speaks to college students, he reminds them that every time they consume media they are having a conversation; someone is talking to them. Being mindful of that can help them think about TV in a more objective way.
“Television is a business that exists to make money by entertaining viewers and keeping their eyeballs,” he says. “If I can wrap my brain around the idea that when I turn on my TV someone is talking to me—and that the number one thing that person wants is to make a living off of this conversation—that changes how I interact with television. It makes me think, Maybe I shouldn’t be crafting my beliefs and values based off of a business exchange.”
Perhaps thinking is the key here. Thinking about the shows we’re watching and why we’re watching them. Engaging with media in this self-controlled way can bring unexpected benefits. Here’s why. TV reflects conversations that are already happening in society, so engaging thoughtfully with media allows me to enter that conversation and have some touch points with those around me who don’t know Christ.
“As we watch these shows, we can ask, ‘What’s the issue here? What is it that’s ailing society right now?'” Halula says. “Maybe it’s a popular show about a family, because something is wrong with our families right now. We don’t have to listen to the show’s prescription to fix the problem, because we know the One who has a better answer, but we can at least listen for what’s going wrong in culture.”
Perhaps this was a tactic used by the Apostle Paul as he participated in a wide array of cultures. He memorably said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
Our love of TV is something that can be redeemed for the gospel—first by setting our hearts and minds on the One who offers us living water, and second by inviting others to share in those blessings with us. The funny thing is, a lot of that doesn’t happen in front of a screen.
Copyright 2017 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.
|Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985, pg. 92.