The digital revolution has transformed entertainment, putting programming in the hands of individual users. Millennials especially have taken to the new technologies, accessing movies and television shows from their phones and other devices, viewing whenever it’s convenient for them, and even binge-watching whole series dropped simultaneously by Amazon, Netflix, and others.
That greater freedom to watch whatever they want whenever they want to has come at a price: Social bonds over shared broadcast experiences have broken down, and many young binge TV watchers complain of compulsive viewing that can harm their mental health. Some even pine for the days of “appointment television,” when families gathered around the living room TV and friends and co-workers talked about the show at the water cooler the next day.
Those days are gone, of course, but a study by Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week, Kristine de Valck of HEC Paris, delves deeply into the media consumption habits of young adults and even suggests some ways to ameliorate the downside of always-on media.
THE DIGITAL GENERATION WATCHES MORE ‘TIME-SHIFTED DIGITAL CONTENT’
The study, “Understanding Emerging Adults’ Consumption of TV Series in the Digital Age: A Practice-Theory-Based Approach,” appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of Business Research. De Valck’s co-authors were Stephanie Feiereisen of Montpelier Business School and Cass Business School at the University of London; Dina Rasolofoarison of University Paris-Dauphine, and Julien Schmitt of ESCP Europe Business School.
The researchers interviewed 21 “emerging adults”—roughly aged 18 to 34, the stage between adolescence and full adulthood—in France and the U.K. They limited their sample size to get more in-depth answers and probe their subjects’ viewing habits more comprehensively. The goal of the research: “to investigate how traditional roles of TV in structuring consumers’ everyday lives and fostering social relationships change when emerging adults switch to the digital network, as well as how they experience these changes.”
This digital generation watches more “time-shifted digital content” than traditional television, where programs are broadcast at a particular time. “Linear TV consumption,” they write, “plays a central role in shaping individuals’ and families’ daily routines.” TV series, in particular, operate “as ritualistic appointments with familiar characters and help individuals make sense of their daily lives.”
SEINFELD’S FINAL EPISODE DREW 100 MILLION VIEWERS
Traditional TV was a mass cultural phenomenon. When the miniseries Roots, about slavery, ran on American TV in 1977, its finale drew 100 million viewers. Seinfeld’s final episode in 1998 drew 76 million. Game of Thrones’ 2019 series finale set a record for HBO, with 19.3 million viewers, but 30% of them saw the show on replays or early streaming.
This fragmentation of the television audience has had some unintended consequences. With digital media, conversations about popular shows may be difficult, because different people could be watching different episodes. Participants in the study told the researchers they were reluctant to engage on social media because they were afraid of dropping “spoilers” that would reveal key plot points.
All in all, the move to digital “may drive emerging adults to experience tensions associated with a loss of structure in their daily lives,” the researchers find. Emerging adults, they write, “are particularly prone to pathological media usage [and] may…engage in compulsive binge-watching sessions.” According to De Valck and her co-authors, “many of our informants use the term ‘addiction’ when discussing their binge-watching habits…”
THREE STRATEGIES TO KICK THE BINGE HABIT
How to break the habit? De Valck and her co-authors cite three strategies: space out viewing so you’re not watching too many episodes at one sitting; adopt flexible routines, such as combining television viewing with other activities, like cooking or doing household chores, and engage in “social binge-watching” with family or friends.
One other possibility: go back to watching series one episode at a time on that wide-screen TV in the living room. As De Valck and her co-authors note, “broadcast TV still operates as an integrating factor of the social body, even for young adults.” So, will everything old be new again?
De Valck, 45, is an associate professor of marketing and Associate Dean and Director of the Ph.D. Program at HEC Paris. Her research and teaching focus on how the Internet in general and social media, in particular, have changed consumer behavior, organizations, and marketing practice.
Having been educated in The Netherlands, she got an MA in theater, film and television studies at Universiteit Utrecht and a PhD in marketing management from Erasmus University. She has taught at HEC Paris since 2004.
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