The Seven Ages of Binge Watching 

Reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016):

Since the dawn of time, man has dreamed of watching many imported US television shows at once. Indeed, many now believe monuments such as Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Cheops were in fact primitive attempts to generate a Wi-Fi signal.  So how did we get to here from there? The truth is fascinating…

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THE DARK AGES: NO TV WHATSOEVER (Pre-1936)

Incredible as it may seem to the vast majority of people in the past, the idea of binge watching a popular TV show such as Lucifer on Amazon Prime  would have been a wholly alien concept.

In fact, if the entire history of the human race is condensed into a single 24-hour period, then people would have only been watching TV from around 11.59pm onwards. Which is ironic as that’s actually about the time many of us stop watching TV and go to bed.

People thus wasted thousands of years throwing bones into the air, making tapestries, having crusades, plagues and renaissances and essentially creating scenarios which would form the basis of many TV shows once TV came along. They didn’t binge watch anything.

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THE GREY AGES: (1936-1978)

The BBC began broadcasting TV in 1936 with the medium really taking off in the 1950s. But binge watching was still nor yet a reality, chiefly because there was still no means of watching TV shows outside their scheduled weekly or daily instalments. Not only would a fan of a popular 26-part series like The Forstye Saga be forced to tune in every week between January and July 1967 to see it, but if they missed one episode because they forgot, wanted to watch something else, were on holiday or were giving birth, there was nothing they could do about it. In fact, the “giving birth” example isn’t entirely a joke. According to his memoirs, the mother of comic Rob Brydon delayed going to hospital to give birth to him in 1965, despite the fact she was clearly experiencing labour pangs until the episode of The Fugitive she had been watching had finished. Of course, some things –including The Forsyte Saga in fact – were repeated. But many were not. At any rate, binge watching at home was still not possible.

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THE VIDEO AGE (1980s)

Video changed everything. For the first time, we could rent films, watch them, rewind them and return them to the shop. Or if we felt malicious, rewind them to a critical plot point (for example, the “reveal” bit in The Crying Game) and then return them to the shop, thus spoiling the film for whoever borrowed it and started watching at that point next. We could also tape whatever we wanted off TV: the Live Aid concert, royal weddings, World Cup finals to watch again whenever we liked (i.e. never). We could also tape whole TV series (cutting out any commercial breaks if we were canny enough). Binge watching was thus now possible. Legally, stuff taped off TV was only supposed to be retained privately for a year but provided you didn’t attempt to sell tapes of “Minder Series 3” you’d recorded yourself, down the market, you would probably get away with this.

Viewing habits were changing. It is no coincidence that the three highest rated TV shows of all time all date from 1986 and 1987. All three were Christmas editions of soap operas. The age of everyone watching the same shows art once was passing. Soon there would be Sky TV. Yuppies would be carrying brick-like mobile phones. People were also starting to buy home computers too. Most people didn’t link these three things together at the time but one day they would. The 21st century was on its way.

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THE COMING OF THE VIDEO BOXSET

Americans were slower to take to video than Britons were. There’s a discussion between two characters in the 1991 film City Slickers over whether it is possible to tape a show which you weren’t watching. This is of course the whole point of videos and even allowing for character stupidity, this would have seemed very out of date to UK viewers, more than half of whom has video recorders by the end of the Eighties.

For whatever reason, however, the sale of TV series to own and keep didn’t take-off until the 1990s, however, although when it did, a new era of binge watching was spawned.

“Re-record, don’t fade away” was the slogan of one advert for video recorders. But in truth, like communism and Kevin Costner’s film career, VHS was to prove largely a 20th century phenomenon. After twenty years, the age of video was soon about to fade away forever.

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THE DIGITAL AGE

The coming of DVD in the first years of the 21st century was important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it meant that if you had bought anything on video, you now had to buy it again in the new format if you wanted to keep hold of it as VHS was ultimately doomed. Secondly, you no longer had to rewind things after watching them. Thirdly, the lightness of the new digital versatile discs meant that newly formed companies could easily distribute discs by post. Some were even given away regularly with magazines like DVD Monthly or even for a brief period, newspapers, as millions rushed out to get their “free” copies of Babette’s Feast. The other nice thing about DVDs was and is their menu screens with their helpful “Play all” option. DVD player ownership is currently at around 59% of the UK population.

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BLU PERIOD

The arrival of Blu-rays around ten years ago changed little. If you had already bought anything on video or DVD, you could usually buy it again for slightly more on Blu-ray. But even this was optional as DVDs thankfully still worked on Blu-ray players anyway. Blu-rays look a bit better than DVD perhaps but frankly there’s not a lot in it. It really depends on how comfortable you are with having different sized Blu-ray and DVDs living alongside each other on their shelves doesn’t it? A surprising number of people aren’t.

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THE AGE OF STREAM

Today we are truly a blessed generation. Thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime and the rest, we can enjoy all our favourite films and shows almost to our heart’s content. Want to watch Modern Family, The Waking Dead or House of Cards tonight? Chances are you can. Many of us even have virtual mini cinema systems in our own homes but even when away we can usually watch it on a train on a lap top or on the phone.

So forget all that stuff with candles: binge watching is the true Hygge of the 21st century.

After centuries of struggle, Leonardo Da Vinci’s dream of a binge-watching society was finally achieved. And who’s to say he didn’t dream of this?  He probably just forgot to mention it.

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