Still groggy from spending the weekend watching an entire new season of "Orange Is the New Black"? You're not alone.
Netflix says the women-in-prison series, whose second season premiered on the streaming service over the weekend, is its most popular show, even more popular than "House of Cards," another binge-viewing favorite whose seasons fans tend to consume in a single gargantuan gulp.
Of course, it's not just Netflix shows that we binge on; the networks help us out by staging marathons, or we can create our own via streaming, DVDs, or DVR. And why not? There are so many quality TV dramas right now. There's a lot to watch, closely and carefully enough to discuss the nuances with friends and strangers on social media.
And yet, aren't those of us who can watch hours of "Mad Men" at a stretch the same ones who can barely stand to watch a viral video on YouTube that's more than a minute or two long? Aren't we the ones they invented six-second Vines for? Don't we have such short attention spans that the networks have all but phased out TV show theme songs, lest our attention wander for even a moment and lead us to click to another channel? And these same networks expect us to watch an entire weekend's worth of "Breaking Bad"? How, in other words, did binge-watching become a habit in an age of TV-shortened attention spans?
Here are some theories:
It's all about convenience. "I don't really see the paradox," says Denver Post TV critic Joanne Ostrow. "It's all part of the trend toward immediate gratification, no matter what we want. if you crave cute animal videos, they're easily available, and if you love a particular drama, it's easily streamed on demand. Tastes will range from quick hits (last night's monologue or the Tweeted GIF of the day) to 13-hour binge sessions."
It's not really a new situation. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview, documentarian Ken Burns noted that it's been conventional wisdom for decades that our supposedly shortened attention spans would keep us from being interested in long-form, substance-rich programming. He recalled TV critics telling him in 1990 that viewers accustomed to bite-sized music videos wouldn't sit still for his lengthy PBS documentary "The Civil War," only to have the series become one of the highest-rated shows in PBS history. Similar fears about his 2007 World War II documentary in the age of YouTube also proved unfounded. He concluded, "So what I think it means are a couple of things. One, I think we're all starved for meaning. That all real meaning occurs from concentration. That all relationships you care about, the work that's most important to you, it's from your sustained attention. Sure, we all like to watch a kitten with a ball of string or a brother biting his brother's finger. But we also like other stuff. 'Downton Abbey,' my wife never watched broadcast. She watched all seasons binging. I think those habits have vindicated me. I'm allowed to do longform now without people harumphing."
Ostrow agrees with this long view of short-attention-span complaints. "Back in the day, MTV was supposedly responsible for shortening attention spans. Before that, 'Sesame Street' was the culprit," she says. "There's always going to be something faster, shorter and sweeter to blame for our attention deficits, but literate, complex serials have found a place, too. Turns out we have appetites and attention spans for both."
TV is better than ever. The wave of quality dramas that began 15 years ago with "The Sopranos" and crested with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" continues to this day, to the extent that TV critics today actually complain about an overload of good shows, too many to stay on top of. Nonetheless, critics also call this a new Golden Age of Television, especially when contrasted with the current uninspired state of mainstream Hollywood movies. That "Golden Age" talk may be overstating the case, but it is true that there are a lot of really good scripted shows now. And the rise of such programming over the last decade and a half also coincided with the rise of the DVD and the DVR; suddenly, entire seasons were available in a single sleeve of discs or a single DVR queue. Even if you weren't a premium cable subscriber, you could still catch up with a whole season of an HBO series in one sitting.
Today, DVDs are on the decline, but with video on demand, streaming, and TV-on-the-go apps, fans of a particular series are no more wedded to a single location (the living room sofa) than we are to a single timeslot. Along with the convenience of mobile and on-demand viewing, social media and TV recap culture have made marathon-watching more popular as well, since closely analyzing and exchanging comments on the shows is now half the fun.
We're starved for quality. Golden Age talk aside, TV is still subject to Sturgeon's Law, which says that 90 percent of everything is crap. There may be a surfeit of great shows now, but they're still only a fraction of the TV universe at large. (For every "The Good Wife," there will be a dozen mediocre reality shows and lowest-common-denominator scripted shows.) So when viewers do discover a great show, they can't get enough.
That's the argument that "House of Cards" star Kevin Spacey made in a speech last year. " For years, particularly with the advent of the Internet, people have been griping about lessening attention spans. But if someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn't that show an incredible attention span?" Spacey said. "When the story is good enough, people can watch something three times the length of an opera." He added, "The audience has spoken: They want stories. They're dying for them. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, Facebook... and God knows what else. All we have to do is give it to them."
Our tastses are evolving. The term "binge-viewing" implies that we're guilty over our gluttony in viewing hours of TV at a time. Actually, we shouldn't be ashamed of our marathon viewing sessions; they're a sign of refinement and maturity. So says Laurie Scheer, a former TV producer and WE channel programming executive.
"Short attention spans can only tolerate a snippet of a larger piece of content or a short piece that captures their attention between all of the other options presented to them," Scheer says. "However, sooner or later, the diet of quick, fast, 'I want it now' convenience gets old, repetitive, tired, and exhausting. Like fast food. Eventually, consumers gravitate to solid, rich, texture-filled story lines and complex characters that offer up nourishing plots that fulfill consumers' wants and needs.
"Binge-watching is like a cornucopia of delicious sustenance that offers satisfying accomplishment," says Scheer, who now coaches TV and movie scriptwriters and is the author of "The Writer's Advantage: A Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre." She explains, "Viewers can feel as if they have actually experienced something -- something that elevates them into a special insiders' group once they consume the second season of 'House of Cards' or 'Orange Is the New Black.' There's a payoff to binge-watching, not so much with catching the latest viral video.
"When it comes down to it," Scheer adds, "it is a matter of convenience and time, but eventually the fast food will yield to the satisfying dinner because we are wired to live by the stories we write, tell, and live."
Image courtesy of JoJo Whilden for Netflix