On Demand and On Overload: How Binge Watching and Music Streaming Services are Changing Our Relationship to TV and Music


There was a time that now seems like ages ago when you would actually have to make an effort to be home to watch a new episode of your favorite TV show or to go to your local record store to buy new albums from your favorite bands. We were more selective about what we watched and listened to, and we were forced to be more patient as we eagerly awaited new episodes or albums. Now that pretty much every song and TV series in the world is available on demand, and in most cases for free, it seems that the sanctity of viewing television and listening to music has been sadly diminished.

I recently devoured all 52 episodes of “Being Human” on Netflix in just a few weeks, and before that it was all six seasons of “Breaking Bad.” I can trace my binge watching habits back to “Friday Night Lights,” which was the first series I remember devouring within weeks, right after all five seasons were made available on Netflix Instant. Looking back, those shows appear as a giant blur, and because I watched them so fast (and was often on my smartphone while watching- that’s a whole separate article), the seasons and individual episodes are less memorable to me than those of shows like “Six Feet Under,” which I watched religiously during its run on HBO, before Netflix was even a thing. It’s kind of like feeling way too full after devouring a huge meal versus eating just enough and truly savoring each bite. Now that Neflix Instant exists, it’s like an all you can eat buffet, and I definitely have an insatiable appetite. Watching entire series on demand and DVR-ing multiple shows has changed my once mindful and judicious habit of watching just two or three shows at a time into a raging case of TV-ADD. I’ll watch an entire few seasons of a show religiously for a week or two, interspersed with the latest episodes of the shows I’m most committed to on my DVR (mostly to save space as new shows keep getting recorded), then when I’ve exhausted all my possible new series to binge on, I’ll revert back to catching up on my guilty pleasure shows or watch the last three episodes of “Saturday Night Live” in one sitting. It gets to the point where I have trouble keeping up and following through and lose interest in shows much faster than I used to.

In the days before Netflix and DVRs, it was simply impossible to watch a ridiculous number of shows (unless you were home all the time or unemployed), and you had to be a little more selective about what you decided to watch and what shows you were going to commit to. In my high school days, my three big shows were “Buffy,” “Dawson’s Creek,” and “Felicity,” and that was literally all I had the time, energy or desire to watch. I made sure I was always home by 8:00 on those nights, or if I had a school or social event, that someone in my house was home to record the episode on VHS. Now, the list of shows I DVR is at least 4 times as long and I’ve honestly lost track of a few of them. Keeping up with it all is quite a daunting task. With thousands of shows immediately accessible at the touch of a button, we are overwhelmed with choices, and the sacredness we used to attach to our few favorite shows seems, sadly to be a thing of the past.

I feel similarly about the way most of us now listen to music. With Spotify being the predominant force in the music world, we are able to access just about any song in existence for free, so the sense of euphoria that accompanied buying a brand new album or sifting through your collection of hundreds of CDs or records to rediscover one of your favorite albums from high school seems to have been lost. I used to put new albums on repeat for weeks on end because they seemed more special and interesting when I had to spend $15 on them and had a finite number of CDs in my collection that I could listen to. Now that everything is free and on demand, and now that new albums are usually available to stream before their official release date, I’m more of a music junkie than ever, with an insatiable appetite and a hopeless addiction. I’ll listen to every new album that remotely interests me at least once upon its release, but I’m not sustaining the same level of appreciation or reverence for albums from some of my favorite bands as I used to in the days of CDs. There was a time when I knew almost every word to every song on every new album that I had owned for a few weeks. Now that I’m listening to about 50 new releases sporadically within a month, I can’t possibly develop as deep a relationship to an album or an artist as I used to, and this saddens me just a little.

I wonder if we’ll move so deep into our ADD TV watching and music listening habits that we’ll reach a point where we realize that it’s a rather unhealthy and scatterbrained practice and then shift back to a somewhat more mindful and sensible way of appreciating series and albums in their entirety. Or, whether, much like how the advent of smartphones permanently shifted the ways in which we communicate and behave, we’ll be so sucked into the vortex of instant gratification and endless on demand options that we’ll cease to remember a time when those things didn’t exist.

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