Hooked on binge-watching? You’re probably more in control than you think, UCSD study says

TV watching

Despite its name implying an impulsive loss of control, binge-watching TV shows is commonly planned out by viewers, according to research by UC San Diego released May 23.

The study is from UCSD’s Rady School of Management and School of Global Policy and Strategy in La Jolla in collaboration with the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia.

It found that viewers prefer to binge-watch sequential programming with an overarching narrative — such as “Bridgerton,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Stranger Things” — in which the order of episodes matters.

Viewers also are 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 says.

“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 co-author 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 “bingeable” 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 story line — can be just as bingeable as fictional series.

“Binge-watching is not always about a failure of self-control; it can also be a thoughtful preference and planned behavior.”

— Uma Karmarkar, study co-author

The research also indicates 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 said.

“Viewing platforms could launch consumer surveys to get a sense for how likely a viewer would be to plan their schedule around bingeing 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 a brand and perhaps you keep your subscription longer. It could be beneficial for companies to want some of their content to be more bingeable 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 bingeing multiple episodes at a time. But they didn’t stack all the episodes on one day, offering a different view of bingeing than the one based on lack of self-control.

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