A golden age or the era of slothfulness?
A view from Sue Unerman

A golden age or the era of slothfulness?

According to a new study from the University of Toledo, there is a new sickness putting the first world in peril: binge-viewing.

The researchers suggest that TV viewing is associated with poor mental and physical health. With more platforms for viewing television, "binge-watching" is a growing public-health concern that needs to be addressed.

Hands up if you love a bit of binge-viewing. Surely we can agree that there are far worse addictions? But it’s a slippery slope, according to Yoon Hi Sung, who worked on the study: "When binge-watching becomes rampant, viewers may start to neglect their work and their relationships with others."

The research concludes that binge-watching has a positive correlation with poor mental and physical well-being.

Well, correlation and causation are not the same thing. The participants in the study were self-confessed binge-watchers; with due respect to the research, it may be that it reveals couch-potato health hazards rather than the outcomes from watching most of Mad Men in one sitting.

At Deloitte and Enders Analysis' Media & Telecoms 2016 & Beyond Conference this year, the Sony Entertainment chief executive, Michael Lynton, also drew some conclusions from the advent of binge-viewing. He suggested that it has revolutionised the quality and brilliance of scripted entertainment.

In the past, scripted episodes of a series were designed to stand alone. You didn’t want to lose audience if they missed an episode of a long-running show so you made sure that, as much as possible, each episode was "close-ended". This had repercussions for the characters in such shows. They couldn’t really change over time; it was hard for them to go on an emotional journey that lasted longer than 20 minutes. TV as a medium meant limited risk-taking with story arcs and characters. Anything too complicated as a story arc over a number of episodes was rejected usually as it would result in viewers who missed previous episodes dropping out (certainly in TV commissioners’ minds, according to Lynton).

On-demand viewing changes all of this. Now you can watch an entire season in your own time. You can join the huge fan base awaiting series six of Game Of Thrones by binge-viewing series one to five. This allows the writers more freedom to develop characters and stories in a much more complex way. The complexity of Don Draper’s character development defied explanation and certainly couldn’t be summed up in an elevator pitch. Walter White didn't cross over to the dark side until at least series two – an unfeasible pace of story for the old episodic TV world.

So on-demand viewing may have exacerbated binge-viewing for some people to an unhealthy extent. Yet the amazing, unexpected consequence of on-demand technology is the migration of amazing, brilliant, genius writers to TV. The movies are no longer the only medium for subtle and slow-paced stories. The latest series of Fargo is arguably as superb as the original film – it is effectively a ten-hour movie that you could, at your convenience, watch bit by bit over a week or all in one weekend.

Is binge-viewing really the devil's work?

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom