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'Binge-watching' more controlled than previously thought, UCSD study finds

Despite its name, implying an impulsive loss of control, binge-watching television is commonly planned out by viewers, research released Tuesday by UC San Diego suggests.

The study comes from UCSD's Rady School of Management and School of Global Policy and Strategy, in collaboration with the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University and Fox School of Business at Temple University.

It found that viewers prefer to binge-watch sequential programming with an overarching narrative — such as "Bridgerton" or "Stranger Things" — programming where the order of episodes substantially matter.


"We took all of the shows that people thought were more or less bingeable and we took people’s rating for what shows they thought were more or less sequential, and we found a correlation," said study coauthor Uma Karmarkar, assistant professor of marketing and innovation at the Rady School.

"The more sequential you saw a show, the more bingeable you thought the show was," she said.

The study found viewers are also more likely to pay to watch shows consecutively or wait to be able to consume more than one episode at a time.

The authors also found that no matter how "bingeable" a show is, viewers are much less likely to plan to watch multiple episodes if the streaming service or channel features commercials that can't be skipped.

Above all, the ability to binge-watch meant that viewers were in a position to choose what they wanted to watch and how they wanted to watch it.


"People really value the ability to organize their time and to choose how much they binge or don’t binge. And having all the episodes available at the same time, making it bingable, let’s me be in the driver’s seat, rather than the platform,” Karmarkar said.

The findings suggest that genre alone isn't a good predictor of a desire to binge. Documentary series — if they have a consecutive story line — can be just as bingeable as fictional series.

This research also demonstrates that the way shows are described and marketed to consumers can impact what they plan to binge and not binge. The findings can be valuable to entertainment companies because they can be instrumental in helping them with market research.

An undated headshot of UCSD economics professor, Uma Karmarkar.
Courtesy of Uma Karmarkar
An undated headshot of UCSD economics professor, Uma Karmarkar.

"Viewing platforms could launch consumer surveys to get a sense for how likely a viewer would be to plan their schedule around binging a certain show," Karmarkar said. "This is important because streaming media companies don't necessarily only want you to binge-watch on their platform.

"If you log back in at different times, you might see different ads, you may build loyalty to brand, and perhaps you keep your subscription longer," Karmarkar said. "It could be beneficial for companies to want some of their content to be more bingeable and other content to be more spread out."

The authors surveyed people online, asking them to think about how they would plan to watch a show they wanted to stream. Participants were asked to then create a calendar over the next six days, which let the authors see whether they would stack episodes together or spread them out. According to the researchers, most people created "clumpy" viewing plans, involving binging multiple episodes at a time.

A separate experiment revealed that people are more likely to plan to binge an online class if it is perceived to be more sequential. Taking this one step further, the authors analyzed real-world data from the Coursera platform and found that these plans to binge-learn accurately predicted viewing behavior in enrolled students.

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