Why do we binge on TV?

Anticipation is half the pleasure, says David Butcher

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Why do we binge on TV?
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David Butcher

There’s a famous, slightly mean experiment psychologists have run on children. The idea is to put a marshmallow on a plate in front of a four-year-old sitting at a table on their own. An adult tells the child that if he or she can resist eating the marshmallow, they’ll get several more as a reward in a few minutes’ time. Then the adult leaves the room.

How the children react varies: Joan, say, might hold out for the bigger reward, while Jim caves in. And follow-up studies years later suggest that, in adult life, the Joans will on average fare better than the Jims – being able to delay gratification is, it turns out, a vital life skill.

The good news for Jim, however, is that television is increasingly geared to his needs. Viewing habits are undergoing a revolution. Many, probably most, of us are still Joanishly prepared to wait a week to see the next episode of our favourite series: it’s what we’re used to. It’s what channels do: they give you a marshmallow then they come back a week later and give you another.

But the Jims are on the rise. Because really, why delay your pleasures? Why not get a box set and scoff the lot in one go? Why not download a great big bag of marshmallows from Netflix? Why be at the mercy of broadcasters and their Dickensian insistence on cranking things out at weekly intervals? “I want it all and I want it now,” sing the Jims as they fire up their on-demand or rip the plastic off another disc.

Well, let them, but I reckon they’re missing something. It might seem laughably Victorian to champion the joys of rationing your pleasures – or rather, having them rationed for you – but for me part of the brilliance of great TV is about the waiting. When we watched Broadchurch last year, for instance, the seven days between episodes were sweet agony, as we fondled the bird’s nest of suspects and motives in our heads.

And I love how when you’re really nuts for a series, the night that it’s on becomes a bit sacred. “Can’t go out on Wednesday – it’s ER night,” I remember saying through what felt like much of the 1990s. Recently, I’ve found myself getting twitchy if anything threatens to encroach on a Tuesday evening. Sally Wainwright’s judderingly good Happy Valley has become a place I’m desperate to keep visiting, even while I’m slightly nervous as to what agonies she’s going to visit on her characters next.

Now, I’m as impatient as the next man. I wouldn’t last five minutes alone with a marshmallow, so don’t test me. But that’s exactly why I love being made to wait, teasing out the enjoyment. It’s a type of aesthetic drip-feed more or less unique to scheduled television. Other artforms don’t parcel out their pleasures weekly – unless you count the serialised novels of Charles Dickens who, let’s face it, knew a thing or two about suspense.

So I’m hoping that the coming on-demand world will still hold a place for television that requires an appointment to view. That way some things, like Happy Valley, will always feel a bit special.

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