If you were ever guilty of sitting mesmerized in front of the TV watching episode after episode of The Twilight Zone until your parents swore your brains would liquefy and pour out of your ears, they weren’t exactly right about that, but they could have been right about shutting off the tube for an entirely different reason—one they may not have even been aware of.
The advent of Netflix as a streaming service has allowed us to gorge on unlimited episodes of series after series until we’ve been virtually zombified by staring at the screen. You would think this is the life, especially since you don’t have to remember to turn to the same channel at the same time every week, as most of us did before we could get any show we wanted for $9.99 a month. Kevin Spacey is a TV bingeing advocate if there ever was one. He believes that the better the story, the better the binge.
"When the story is good enough, people can watch something three times the length of an opera," he said at the 2013 Edinburgh Television Festival. "If they want to binge, then we should let them binge."
Game of Thrones probably made that obvious (even though it isn't on Netflix).
But new research by Jared Hovarth and colleagues at the University of Maine seems to suggest otherwise. In a self-reported study that was probably paradise for the 51 university students involved, who were split into two groups to do nothing but watch TV, one group had to be patient enough for a new episode of the BBC Cold War drama The Game to air every week (as we did back in the Jurassic period), while the other group watched an episode a day, but it seemed like it couldn’t get any better for the group who got to see the entire season in one day.
The only catch was that last group had to press the spacebar every time a character poured a drink or lit a cigarette just to prove they were paying attention. As if you’d actually need to prove that, right?
Test subjects then filled out a questionnaire to show how much they understood the series after they got through Season 1. They took a retention quiz 24 hours later, followed by two more a week and 140 days later, to gauge how well they remembered plot points and details like what was in Arkady’s secret mailbox. Guess who remembered the most.
If you think the binge-watchers basically had the show running through their brains, you guessed wrong. While those who indulged remembered the most initially, it was those who tuned in every week who may have forgotten some things right after the season ended but, in the long term, ended up remembering the most. Even more ironic is that the binge-watchers supposedly enjoyed the show much less—but that could have had something to do with having to watch it in a lab.
"This is perhaps a counterintuitive finding, given the increased popularity of binge watching," said Hovarth and colleagues.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to forget that epic season finale of Game of Thrones anytime soon. Which show you binge on can also affect what you remember, since there are some shows just made for TV gluttony. Hovarth admits that further testing (which he’ll probably have no problem getting subjects for) is required, but for now, you might want to step away from the radiation.