Since humans discovered – at the exorbitant price of forfeiting immortality and being expelled from Paradise – how to distinguish between good and bad, both women and men have learned to curb their urges for excessive indulgence in whatever “does it” for them. Thus, we print notifications on cigarette packages warning us that “smoking is harmful to your health,” and are supposed to feel at least mildly guilty when we partake of what we fear our peers may see as too much of a good thing.
As I “don’t do guilt,” but do tend to have a healthy appetite for overdoing anything that gives me pleasure, I’ve found myself intrigued to follow the way in which a word – both as verb and noun – which was used mainly to denote an activity that is excessive to a fault, first became merely descriptive, though with some derogatory overtones and then something to be done openly and proudly, and even something that is promoted and advertised.
The word I have in mind is “binge,” which in the combination “binge-watching (noun)” was a runner-up for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013. It means “to watch multiple episodes of a television program in rapid succession, typically by means of DVDs or digital streaming.” Recently, Israel’s Yes TV content provider inaugurated a special channel enabling and promoting such an activity. Yes Binge (channel 18), offers us, at no extra charge, whole and multiple seasons of popular TV series, to be watched in one sitting: 100 TV series, 256 full seasons, which allow for 152,234 minutes, which means 2,542 hours, i.e. 106 full 24-hour days of continuous TV watching. By the way, the record for the longest binge-watching is 87 hours; it was set in Las Vegas (where else?) last January.
Ben Zimmer, the language columnist and editor of Vocabulary.com did extensive ground work in covering the subject of origin and development of the word’s usage in his “Word Route” column on the Visual Thesaurus site in August 2013. According to mid-19th century dialect dictionaries, the word originally meant, ‘soaking of tubs or wooden vessels to prevent leaking, when the chimes have become separated from dryness and disuse.”
About the same time, the word, both as verb and noun, was used – for pretty obvious reasons – to denote activities that involved excessive drinking of alcoholic beverages. The word in the sense of a heavy drinking bout was first included in the Supplement to the OED in 1933 but has much earlier origins. As a letter to the editor of the OED of 1929 shows, by the 1880s it had been adopted by Oxford undergraduates (particularly those at Queens College, apparently) to mean a drinking spree.
In the 1980s, with the interest in and research of eating disorders, the word that used to denote, as it were, immersing oneself – in jolly company, presumably – in an alcoholic liquid, “solidified” and became part of the phrase “binge-eating,” i.e., gorging oneself in food, and “binge-and-purge,” the gorging followed by self-induced vomiting. Anyway, in regard to food and drink, binging is nothing to write home about; it’s something about which one tends to feel guilty or ashamed.
Not so, it seems, when it comes to watching TV. The phrase binge-watching started to appear in writings about TV watching sometime in the 1990s. Zimmer finds it first in a New England newsgroup in 1996, referring to catching up on missed episodes of the “X-files” TV series. With popular TV series getting a new lease on life through compilations of videotapes and DVDs, the activity and the phrase got a boost, and binge-watching became a popular pastime and spectator sport for weekends.
Which, when you think of it, is a bit weird, and not what the notion of a series was meant to be. The whole idea of a series – chapters of a novel printed in successive issues of a magazine (Charles Dickens), or series of short stories about the same hero (or heroes – the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that ran in the Strand Magazine) – is based on the provider scheduling daily or weekly appointments with the potential readers or viewers, creating a timetable, a schedule and the rationing of the spiritual feast, to ensure ongoing loyalty and continuity and prevent a possible surfeit. The TV network or cable channel serves us up a story with cliff-hangers planted in strategic places to keep us hooked and above all remain faithful to the provider, allowing it to deliver us and our ratings to the clutches of the advertisers.
With binge-watching, the timeline, schedule and pace of viewing is no longer up to them, whoever they are. And with content streaming providers like Netflix, which release us from our slavery to a TV set and allow us to watch a whole series in one sitting if we so wish (for instance, the whole of “The House of Cards” third season will be at our disposal on Feb 27, 2015). Binge-watching is fast becoming the norm in TV series viewing, rather than an exception or a disorder, so to speak.
Since it is becoming a social phenomenon (and since mid-2014 the term binge-watching was added to OED online) it has already been researched, at Annalect.com. A national online survey was held among 1,307 people aged 18 and over who were representative of TV viewers based on key demographics including age, gender, race, ethnicity, and region. The survey showed that while half of all TV viewers have heard of the term binge-viewing, nearly two-thirds are, in fact, binge-viewers, and a third indentify themselves as such.
The main findings of the study are: “Despite a conventional wisdom that binge-viewers are avoiding ads, they are not only tolerant of ads, but are even more receptive to them compared to non-bingers; Binge-viewing behaviors differ by gender – men binge-view by appointment, whereas women are more impulsive, and binge-view because of a need for instant gratification; There is no shame in bingeing – nearly three-quarters of binge-viewers do not feel guilty about their binge-viewing experience, even though they are aware of some negativity that comes with it, especially as recognized by men.”
And where there is no shame, it is high time to get on with the game. Binge on, ladies and gentlemen: View, eat, drink and be merry.
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