According to Šarūnas Paunksnis, an associate professor at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU), a researcher at the Digital Culture, Communication and Media Science Group, streaming television platforms encourage binge-watching; this develops into addiction very easily, which makes the platform more popular.
In the interview below, Paunksnis says that the main problem with these platforms is their operating logic – how they select specific content for a particular user, how they collect, analyse and store data about our interests, and how they recommend watching specific movies or series accordingly.
“After a while, we start to exist in a kind of cultural bubble, in which we use the content of a similar genre,” says the researcher.
- How would you describe the phenomenon of binge-watching? What could be the reasons people tend to binge-watch?
- The origins of this phenomenon lie at the beginning of this century when US television companies such as HBO began to release DVD sets of popular shows such as The Sopranos. These DVD sets consisted of either all episodes of one season or several seasons. It has been observed that viewers treated this media slightly differently and deviated from the outdated tradition of “one episode per week”.
As the viewer had the opportunity to watch as many episodes as their heart desired, the phenomenon of binge-watching began to take shape. It can usually be described as viewing two or more episodes one after the other. Later, with the advent of streaming TV, such as Netflix, where movies and shows do not have a fixed broadcast time and everything can be watched whenever and however the audience wants, this phenomenon has become to some extent a rule for watching series.
At the first glance, it may seem that we, as viewers, have more freedom of choice, we are not dependent on the grid of a TV channel, and we do not have to wait for the next day or week to see a new episode of our favourite show, but the situation is a bit more complicated.
Binge-watching contributes to the fact that consumers spend significantly more time watching streaming TV than “classic” broadcast TV, which means growing revenues of the streaming platforms. At the same time, this reflects the grimace of modern cultures, such as the desire to get everything instantly and quickly. These desires are, of course, an expression of manipulation with us as consumers. Some authors who analyse the influence of the streaming platforms call it “platform capitalism”.
- Can binge-watching be compared to addiction? What do you think about it from a professional point of view?
- It is difficult to answer unequivocally. Binge-watching has not yet become as addictive as computer games. Addiction to computer games is included in the World Health Organisation’s classification of diseases. It has been noticed that a person suffering from such an addiction abandons all other activities – work, studies, and contact with others. So, at least in theory, our daily activities can suffer from binge-watching.
I agree that more time is spent watching movies and especially shows on different platforms, but at least today the bigger problem with these platforms is the logic of how they work – how they select specific content for a particular user, how they collect, analyse and store data about our hobbies, and how they recommend watching specific movies or shows accordingly.
After a while, we start to exist in a sort of a cultural bubble in which we consume similar genre content. For example, if you watch several shows of Hollywood thrillers and similar genres on the Netflix platform, only such content will be recommended for you, because the artificial intelligence algorithms on which recommendations are based will assume that you only like such movies and series. As various studies have shown, the majority of the viewers follow the recommendations and do not bother to browse the rich catalogue of the platform.
Television is a much more democratic medium in this sense, as its content is very diverse – one day a Hollywood thriller is shown, another – a non-commercial French cinema production and so on. All channels work on a similar principle, and as a result, a person sees a lot of different content that is not selected according to their interests. It broadens our horizons, whereas the streaming platforms narrow them by personalising the experience of audiovisual culture.
- Some shows have been described by the audience as binge-worthy. What are the features of these shows? What kind of shows do you think deserve this title?
- Such a term, I suspect, is a marketing ploy created by the platforms themselves. It’s just a show that is superbly constructed from a variety of angles – in terms of acting, directing and screenwriting. When a piece is high-quality, you want to watch it, a new season is very naturally expected. This is not something new – quality, good reviews and recommendations have attracted viewers to cinemas since the turn of the last century. The same goes for television. Now the only difference is that you don’t have to wait for another series, everything can be watched here and now.
- Viewers tend to express positive feelings about binge-watching. Can binge-watching help you feel happier? How?
- A person who spends most of his time playing computer games would say the same thing. The element of satisfaction is the only factor why a person plays them, but we would name such a person as suffering from addiction. People who are more prone to a “classical” addiction, such as alcohol, drug or gambling experience the same positive feelings. Of course, that doesn’t mean that if you watch two or three episodes or the whole season at once, you’re already addicted and having problems. However, there is a measure for everything.
- Binge-watching offers us a temporary escape from reality. Is this form of escape from reality good or bad for us? Why?
- Many people experience painful events in their life, and running away from reality is a human thing – we all want to escape it at some moments, for a longer or shorter period of time. Will the “escape” solve the problems we are running away from? Definitely not. Again, a person suffering from an addiction to computer games is a good example – most sufferers of this addiction run away from real-life painful experiences (adolescent bullying at school is a classic example) but then they get stuck in even bigger problems. Similarly, those, who spend a lot of time on social media are enjoying the “realities”, which are easier to manipulate. However, “disconnecting” from reality in any form – whether watching Netflix or playing games – is more a negative phenomenon.
- Most people agree that although binge-watching makes you feel good it leaves you emotionally exhausted on the couch. Why can this happen?
- I think it is about the saturation of audiovisual information. Try watching a few movies at once in cinema. Those who go to film festivals often face this – after a marathon of two or three films a day, they naturally feel the excess of audiovisual information. The same is true with TV – if you watch it all day, you feel exhausted. So, it is only natural that when you watch an entire season or show, eight or ten episodes at a time, you feel like you’re “running out”. This is not something new that is emerging now, along with the phenomenon of binge-watching.
- Does the film industry encourage binge-watching? And how?
- It is not the film industry but streaming TV platforms that are driving this, as binge-watching and growing dependence are making the platform more popular, attracting more users, which is increasing profits.
Streaming differs from “classical” TV not only due to streaming networks’ providing the possibility to watch anything at any time. Content recommendations are at the heart of how all platforms (whether streaming, shopping or social) work. We do not blindly browse the Netflix platform and often do not search for a specific movie or series – most users trust the recommendation that appears when we open the platform. Many users admit that sometimes the platform seems to know our most secret desires – what we want, what we like, what we would be more likely to watch.
How does the platform achieve this? The answer is simple – with the help of artificial intelligence.
When registering on the platform, we provide certain information about ourselves (age, gender, place of residence, etc.). Based on this information, the artificial intelligence algorithm selects certain content for us judging on what is popular in a particular age and gender group in a particular country.
When we start watching movies and shows, with every press of a button on the remote control or keyboard, we give artificial intelligence data about ourselves – what we like and what we do not. If we start watching a show, we only watch one episode and we do not go back to it anymore – that’s also data that means we weren’t interested in that content.
Using the platform often and for an extended period of time, we are only offered what we are likely to like, which already leads to binge-watching, as we are beginning to enjoy almost everything that is offered to us. Such a personalised experience is not necessarily a negative thing in itself. The problem is that companies like Netflix or Amazon are taking advantage of artificial intelligence to drive our weaknesses for financial gain.
- Among other subjects, you teach film history and digital culture at KTU. What are the latest film trends? Did the platforms such as Netflix or Amazon change the industry?
- Of course, Netflix and other similar platforms, which are in abundance today, are changing both cinema and television. For example, the phenomenon of the “web show” has emerged, and in a short time, it has become the calling card of many platforms and is probably the most popular audiovisual medium today. The film industry and television in various countries have always been sufficiently decoupled media. Film actors or directors have very rarely worked in shows – the latter media has always been treated as incomparable in quality to the cinema.
The situation has changed dramatically over the past decade, with film actors and directors increasingly creating films and series for Netflix, Amazon, Apple+, and other platforms. Films that are funded and screened on these platforms win prestigious film awards.
It was unthinkable a decade ago, and it is a global phenomenon that began with Netflix’s popular The House of Cards show, starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher, one of Hollywood’s most prominent filmmakers.
The fundamental change is that cinema and television, thanks to streaming TV platforms and the Internet, are merging into a single medium. This was particularly evident during the Covid-19 pandemic, when filmmakers, unable to release their films in cinemas, turned to these platforms as an opportunity to reach viewers.
Thus, cinema is currently undergoing dramatic changes that can only be compared to the influence of television as a new medium on cinema and cinema attendance seven decades ago.