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Binge-Watching Serial Video Content: Exploring the Subjective Phenomenology of the Binge-Watching Experience. The role of narrative transportation

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This study examined psychological constructs related to the subjective experience of binge-watching serial video content. The results underscore the centrality of transportation in shaping viewers’ perceptions of the binge-watching experience and their binge-watching behaviors. Transportation was positively related to binge-watching frequency and mediated the impact of binge-watching session length on development of parasocial interactions (full mediation) and on binge-watching enjoyment (partial mediation). Ability to experience flow was found to predict the length of a binge-watching session. Other significant relationships were revealed. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed, along with suggestions for future research and the possibility of expanding current conceptual views of binge-watching.
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Binge-Watching Serial Video Content: Exploring the
Subjective Phenomenology of the Binge-Watching
Experience
George Anghelcev
a,b
, Sela Sar
c
, Justin D. Martin
a
, and Jas L. Moultrie
c
a
Journalism and Strategic Communication, Northwestern University - Qatar;
b
Senior
Research Fellow, Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, Pennsylvania
State University;
c
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
ABSTRACT
This study examined psychological constructs related to
the subjective experience of binge-watching serial video
content. The results underscore the centrality of trans-
portation in shaping viewers’ perceptions of the binge-
watching experience and their binge-watching beha-
viors. Transportation was positively related to binge-
watching frequency and mediated the impact of binge-
watching session length on development of parasocial
interactions (full mediation) and on binge-watching
enjoyment (partial mediation). Ability to experience
ow was found to predict the length of a binge-
watching session. Other signicant relationships were
revealed. Theoretical and practical implications are dis-
cussed, along with suggestions for future research and
the possibility of expanding current conceptual views of
binge-watching.
Introduction
The word “binge” is typically associated with some form of excess, such as an
overindulgence of food (binge eating) or perhaps an over-consumption of
alcohol (binge drinking). In the context of exposure to media, bingeing emerged
decades ago as a TV viewing practice mostly associated with a show’s most
devoted fans (Jenner, 2017). At the time, binge-watching consisted of watching
numerous episodes of a show in one “marathon” session, often in the company of
CONTACT George Anghelcev george.anghelcev@northwestern.edu Journalism and Strategic
Communication, Northwestern University – Qatar, Zone 52 Street 2701, Building 151, Education City,
Doha, Qatar.
This article has been republished with minor changes. These changes do not impact the academic
content of the article.
MASS COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY
2021, VOL. 24, NO. 1, 130–154
https://doi.org/10.1080/15205436.2020.1811346
© 2020 The Author(s). Published with license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited.
others, on videotapes, and carried the same meanings of overindulgence asso-
ciated with bingeing in other domains.
Although binge-viewing has been around since the age of video box sets, in
recent years streaming services have reinvigorated and normalized bingeing
(Stelter, 2013). Binge-watching has been largely positioned as a common and
celebrated contemporary form of entertainment. As early as 2013, Netflix
declared binge-watching “the new normal” (Netflix, 2013). The share of people
who binge-watch TV shows, instead of watching them by appointment (i.e.,
when each episode airs), has been growing consistently for over a decade.
A study of 4,500 consumers in six developed Western and East Asian countries
found that binge-watching had increased, globally, by 18% in the prior year
(Limelight, 2019). Binge-watching is also becoming popular in the Middle East
and North Africa (Dennis et al., 2019). In the US, 60% of on-demand TV
viewers binge-watch weekly, with 15% bingeing every day (Sabin, 2018).
Overall, 75% of Americans engage in binge-watching. The rates are highest
among younger audiences: 91% for Gen Z respondents (born between 1997 and
2003) and 86% for Millennials (born between 1983 and 1997; Deloitte, 2017).
The normalization of binge-watching was enabled by technological advance-
ments. Affordable access to high-speed internet service at home or on-the-go,
coupled with the development of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime,
Tencent Video, iQIYI or Twitch, provide instant access to large collections of
serialized shows, allowing consumers to watch what they want, when they want,
for however long they want. As the market matured, some streaming services
became content producers, further encouraging users to binge by actively adopt-
ing practices of production and distribution of content that foster this mode of
consumption. Such practices include developing plotlines that span several
episodes or an entire season, ending episodes in “cliff-hangers,” continuous
playing at the end of an episode, and releasing a show’s entire season at once,
typically on Fridays (Netflix, 2017). As a result, video on demand has effectively
conditioned a “mediated culture of instant gratification, infinite entertainment
choices, and immersive experiences in television fantasies” (Matrix, 2014, p. 133),
altering the very nature of the video consumption experience.
Academic literature on the topic has grown as well. Yet, notably, most research
on binge-watching has focused either on the determinants or on the conse-
quences of this new mode of consumption (e.g., Granow et al., 2018; Rubenking
& Bracken, 2018; Shim & Kim, 2018; Sung et al., 2018; Vaterlaus et al., 2019;
Walton-Pattison et al., 2018). By contrast, the present study contributes to the
literature by offering insights into the experience of binge-watching itself.
To date, this is an under-investigated domain. Our current understanding of
the subjective phenomenology of binge-watching comes primarily from a few
qualitative studies conducted in the tradition of uses and gratifications explora-
tory research (U&G, Rubin, 2002 or Ruggiero, 2000 for reviews). These studies
(e.g., Devasagayam, 2014; Panda & Pandey, 2017; Steiner & Xu, 2018)
MASS COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY 131
inventoried gratifications sought and obtained by binge-watchers, and offered
a much-needed contribution to the literature. Nevertheless, due to the inherent
nature of qualitative research, those contributions forego analytical exploration
of potentially significant associations between variables relevant to the binge-
watching experience. The present study analyzes quantitative data collected
from a relatively large sample of binge-watchers to hypothesize and test for the
existence of such relationships (see Pittman & Steiner, 2019 for another quan-
titative approach). In that sense, we build on, validate and expand existing
literature.
Specifically, this study examines a handful of important constructs per-
taining to the subjective experience of binge-watching, such as immersion
in a show’s narrative, or people’s perceptions of how gratifying binge-
watching is. How does one’s ability to experience flow influence the binge-
watching experience? Is there a connection between the level of transporta-
tion experienced by viewers while binge-watching a show, and how often or
how long they binge-watch? Are there differences—in the type and amount
of gratifications obtained from binge-watching—between those who binge-
watch a lot (heavy binge-watchers) and occasional binge-watchers? Can
certain individual traits predict how often people binge-watch? Such ques-
tions, if answered, would fill significant knowledge gaps in our understand-
ing of binge-watching as a relatively new and widespread mode of
consuming serial video content. The complexity of binge-watching still
remains to be understood despite that it has already led to major structural
changes in entertainment industries (Investopedia, 2019; Morgan, 2019)
and has altered ways in which video narratives are consumed, scripted
and distributed (Adams, 2017; Raab, 2018).
Conceptualizing binge-watching
There is no standard conceptualization of binge-watching in the academic
literature, but the behavior is typically construed as the continuous, accel-
erated consumption of multiple episodes of a video series over a very short
period of time. Most studies fall within one of two categories: a “minimum
number of episodes per session” approach (e.g., Schweidel & Moe, 2016), or
a “length of viewing session” operationalization (e.g., Trouleau et al., 2016).
Defining binge-watching by minimum number of episodes per session is
how actual binge watchers understand the behavior. A Netflix (2013) study of
approximately 1,500 television streamers revealed that 73% of respondents self-
defined binge-watching as “watching between 2–6 episodes of the same TV
show in one sitting.” Yet, some scholars have argued that since the duration of
an episode can vary substantially across shows, the length of the viewing
session should be the operating criterion (e.g., Perks, 2014). This conceptual
stance may also be considered reductionist. Indeed, whereas watching two
132 G. ANGHELCEV ET AL.
episodes of an hour-long program would not count as a binge in most people’s
view, the same 2 h spent watching six, 20-min episodes of a show in succession
will likely be considered binge-watching (Anghelcev et al., in press).
McNamara (2012) may have offered, arguably, the most appropriate
definition of binge-watching. She suggested that binge-watching should be
defined by both a minimum number of episodes and a minimum length per
viewing session. Yet, this approach has not been adopted by researchers.
One possible explanation is that most binge-watching studies have relied on
self-reports; employing McNamara’s definition would require survey
respondents to not only recall the number of episodes they typically
watch per session, but also to multiply that number by the average duration
of a typical episode, just to determine if they qualify as binge-watchers and
can take the survey (Anghelcev et al., in press). The practicality of this
conceptualization appears, indeed, limited.
Given such considerations, the “minimum number of episodes” view,
endorsed by a majority of communication scholars (e.g., Pittman &
Sheehan, 2015; Schweidel & Moe, 2016), researchers in other fields (e.g.,
Merikivi et al., 2018; Trouleau et al., 2016) and by the media industry (see
Pierce-Grove, 2017), is employed in this study as the operating criterion for
defining binge-watching. Binge-watching is hereby defined as watching three
or more episodes of a show in one sitting. Implicit in this conceptualization is
the understanding of “episode” as reflecting current practices of partitioning
serial video content in the commercial broadcast model. The number, three,
was selected as the minimum based on actual consumption data reported by
digital video-recording company TiVo (2015). It also matches observational
data reported in previous studies (e.g., Trouleau et al., 2016; Walton-Pattison
et al., 2018), and industry definitions of binge-watching (Deloitte, 2017).
In line with Anghelcev et al. (in press), how often people engage in
binge-watching is seen in this study as a separate aspect of the behavior,
rather than as part of its definition. As with any other behavior, engagement
in binge-watching can vary on a continuum, from zero to multiple times
per week. Based on frequency of binge-watching, audience members can
thus be categorized along this continuum from non-binge-watchers, to
regular binge-watchers, to heavy binge-watchers.
Literature review, rationale, and hypotheses
One growing stream of research explores binge-watching from a uses and
gratifications (U&G) perspective. The U&G framework rests on three
basic assumptions: audiences actively seek out media content to gratify
certain needs; people are aware of these needs, are able to report them and
the self-reports are reliable; and media compete with other forms of
communication, including interpersonal, for satisfying those needs
MASS COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY 133
(Pittman & Sheehan, 2015; Rubin, 2002). Implicit in the U&G paradigm is
that in choosing when, where, and how to consume media, audiences try
to maximize gratifications obtained from the media consumption
experience.
Pittman and Sheehan (2015) adopted the U&G theory in their survey of
263 Netflix users who self-reported as binge-watchers. Engagement was
revealed to be the strongest motivator for binge-watching. Engagement
was operationalized by statements which characterized binge-watching as
an active viewing experience and as “a more interesting, entertaining, and
engaging way to watch television” (Pittman & Sheehan, 2015, p. 32).
Interestingly, of all factors analyzed (engagement, relaxation, passing time,
hedonism, social), only engagement was related to how often one binge-
watched. The researchers discovered that while binge-watching, people
become engulfed in the show’s characters and plots and that this immersion
increased the frequency of binge-watching. They attributed deep engage-
ment to either the show’s quality or one’s commitment to watching.
Another study employing the U&G framework was Steiner and Xu’s
(2018) qualitative investigation, which sought to uncover motives behind
binge-watching, affective responses to binge-watching, and the perceived
nature of the binge-watching experience. The researchers discovered that
one reason viewers binge-watch is for “an improved viewing experience.”
For the participants, “improved” referred to enhanced variety and quality of
content as well as improvement in narrative immersion. Those motivated
by narrative immersion perceived the viewing experience as authentic. This
authenticity was seen as being facilitated by the ways in which shows are
written–as a “unified arc,” which “allow[ed] viewers to experience that arc
without interruption” (Steiner & Xu, 2018, p. 11). Viewers’ proclivity for
uninterrupted experience manifested in unanimous preference for bingeing
over appointment viewing.
Also within the U&G framework, Panda and Pandey (2017) found that
escape from reality was a primary motivator for binge-watching. The research-
ers employed interviews and focus groups to develop a questionnaire that was
later administered to 229 college students. “Reality” for college students
entailed pressure related to tests and their study schedules, pressure from
peers, as well as uncertainty associated with grades and future job prospects
(Panda & Pandey, 2017). The researchers found that “the more [one] ends up
finding solace in binge behavior, the more [one] starts escaping reality, getting
further addicted to binging on TV shows,” (p. 435).
Escaping into a show has often been recognized as an important grati-
fication in traditional television research (e.g., Rubin, 1983; Greenberg,
1974; Katz et al., 1973), but binge-watching appears to foster an even higher
level of immersion into the dramedies, thrillers and sci-fi narratives of
a viewer’s favorite shows than traditional viewing. This higher degree of
134 G. ANGHELCEV ET AL.
immersion can be attributed to the binge model’s on-demand factor, which
allows users to binge-watch when few or no distractions are anticipated. In
addition, some streaming platforms (e.g., Netflix) further enhance immer-
sion by providing an uninterrupted, ad-free experience (Jenner, 2017).
Immersion in stories has been shown to induce a form of experiential
response known as narrative transportation (Green & Brock, 2002).
Narrative transportation consists of cognitive, emotional and imagery
involvement into the narrative (Green et al., 2004). When viewers experi-
ence transportation, the narrative world of the show becomes like a real
place, and they may “lose track of time, fail to observe events going on
around them, and feel that they are completely immersed in [the show’s]
world” (Green, 2004, p. 247).
Since transportation is associated with losing track of time, which can lead
to watching more content, it is entirely possible that higher levels of transpor-
tation could lead to longer binge-watching sessions. Therefore, we propose:
H1: There should be a positive correlation between transportation and the
length of a binge-watching session.
According to Green et al. (2004), being transported into a narrative
increases the enjoyment of the consumption experience. One consequence
of higher enjoyment is that people seek out the experience more in the
future (Green et al., 2004). Higher levels of transportation during binge-
watching should therefore be associated with increased binge-watching
frequency. Thus, it is expected that:
H2: Heavy binge-watchers will report experiencing higher levels of trans-
portation than regular binge-watchers.
As noted, H2 is based on the logic that both the frequency of binge-
watching and transportation are positively related to enjoyment.
Therefore, the following are offered as corollaries:
H3: There should be a positive correlation between transportation and the
enjoyment of binge-watching.
H4: Heavy binge-watchers will report finding the experience of binge-
watching more gratifying than regular binge-watchers and non binge-
watchers.
Panda and Pandey (2017) argued that while binge-watching, viewers “enter
a state of ‘flow’” that enables strong feelings of enjoyment and relaxation
(Panda & Pandey, 2017, p. 430). Flow is conceptually similar to transportation,
MASS COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY 135
but unlike transportation (a state), flow can be construed both as a state and as
a psychological trait (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). That is, people have been shown
to differ in their ability to experience flow. Given that binge-watchers value the
improved viewing experience associated with being immersed in the shows
(Panda & Pandey, 2017; Steiner & Xu, 2018), it would be reasonable to assume
that they would binge-watch at least long enough to enter the state of flow that
makes binge-watching enjoyable. Those with lower ability to experience flow
should therefore binge-watch for longer. Formally,
H5: There should be a negative correlation between binge-watchers’ ability
to experience flow and the length of a binge-watching session.
If some binge-watchers need to watch more episodes to experience flow,
they would need to ensure that enough episodes of a show are available
before they start binge-watching. Otherwise, their experience of binge-
watching will not be as gratifying. In practice, this means,
H6: There should be a negative correlation between binge-watchers’ ability
to experience flow and their willingness to delay binge-watching until
enough episodes are available.
Narrative immersion has been found to facilitate high engagement and
development of relationships with a show’s characters (Giles, 2002; Hassim
et al., 2019; Jin & Kim, 2015; Rubin & McHugh, 1987). Such relationships,
known as parasocial interactions, are defined as “intimate, friendlike rela-
tionships that occur between a mediated persona and a viewer” (Rubin &
McHugh, 1987, p. 280). They mirror some requirements of real-life rela-
tionships and are more likely to form the more time the viewer spends with
the characters (Eyal & Dailey, 2012). It is plausible, therefore, that the
length of a binge-watching session would have a positive impact on the
level of parasocial interactions developed by binge-watchers. As noted in
H1, this should happen because longer binge-watching sessions increase
transportation into the show’s narrative. Therefore, we expect,
H7: The relationship between the length of a binge-watching session and
the level of parasocial interactions experienced by binge-watchers will be
mediated by transportation.
In the same manner, hypotheses 1 and 3 are consistent with a theoretical
model of simple mediation, wherein session length should impact enjoy-
ment via transportation. The indirect effect should occur because longer
sessions increase transportation (H1), which in turn increases enjoy-
ment (H3).
136 G. ANGHELCEV ET AL.
H8: The relationship between the length of a binge-watching session and the
enjoyment of binge-watching will be mediated by transportation (see Figure 2).
Method
A purposive sample of US college undergraduates (N = 378) was surveyed
to test the hypotheses. College students are the demographic group most
likely to engage in binge-watching (Devasagayam, 2014; Panda & Pandey,
2017). They are part of an age cohort who binge-watch in higher numbers
(90%) and more frequently than other age groups (Deloitte, 2017). Thus,
the chosen sample was relevant to the phenomenon being studied.
The study was approved by the requisite IRB and consisted of an online, 15
min long Qualtrics-based survey. Students received extra credit for participa-
tion. Those unable or not willing to participate were assigned an equivalent
task. Sixty-three respondents were dropped due to failure to complete the
survey, the presence of significant response outliers, writing unintelligible
answers to the one open-ended question and/or for completing the survey
significantly faster than in the time required to read all questions.
Measures
Transportation
Perceived transportation was measured using an adapted version of the scale
developed by Appel et al. (2015), scored 1 = “disagree” to 4 = “agree”: “When
I binge-watch a show, I can picture myself in the scene of the events,” “I am
mentally involved in the story,” “The story affects me emotionally” and “I
can’t wait to find out how it ends.” Another item was added as a general
measure of transportation: “When I watch a good TV show, I often get
completely caught up in it.” The scale was reliable (α = .707).
Binge-watching level
Binge-watching level (non-binge-watcher, regular binge-watcher, heavy
binge-watcher) was determined based on self-reported binge-watching fre-
quency. The question asked participants how many times a week they
watched three or more episodes of a show in one sitting. Those who
answered “0” were designated as non-binge-watchers. Those who answered,
“1,” “2” or “3” were designated as regular binge-watchers, and those who
answered 4 or more times were categorized as heavy binge-watchers (in line
with observational data reported by previous researchers, e.g., Walton-
Pattison et al., 2018). All respondents indicated they watched serial content.
MASS COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY 137
Ability to experience ow
To capture trait differences in ability to experience flow, a 5-question scale
validated in prior studies (e.g., Engeser & Falko, 2008) was used: “How
many episodes do you need to watch in one sitting in order to: (1) feel
completely lost in the show, (2) feel just the right amount of challenge, (3)
not notice time passing, (4) be totally absorbed in what you are doing and
(5) completely forget you are watching a show.” Note that the higher the
score, the more episodes are needed to reach a state of flow. In other words,
the higher the score, the lower the ability to experience ow. The scale was
reliable (α = .780) and was reverse-coded for analyses so higher scores
reflect higher ability to experience flow.
Length of a binge-watching session
This was measured by proxy, using the number of episodes participants
reported watching in a typical binge-watching session. Prompted by the
question, “When you have the time, how many episodes of a show do you
typically watch in one sitting?,” respondents entered a number of episodes
in numerical format.
Delayed gratication
Two items in the questionnaire assessed respondents’ willingness to delay
watching a show until multiple episodes are available. The items were, “I
wait for an entire season to be over so I can watch it at my own pace” and
“When I hear about a good show, I prefer to wait until the whole season is
available to start watching it” (1 = “never” to 5 = “always”). The items were
combined into a reliable delayed-gratification scale (Guttman’s split-half
coefficient = .748).
Enjoyment of the binge-watching experience
A two-item scale assessed how much respondents enjoyed binge-watching.
The items were: “Binge-watching makes the show better” and “Binge-
watching is the ideal way to watch a show.”(1 = “disagree” to 4 = ‘agree)
The scale was reliable (Guttman’s split-half coefficient = .792).
Parasocial interaction
Parasocial interaction was measured using a 5-item scale adapted from
Rubin and McHugh (1987): “I sometimes think of my favorite characters
as real people,” “If the actors or characters in my favorite shows are in
138 G. ANGHELCEV ET AL.
another program, I would watch that program,” “I miss my favorite char-
acters when the show is on break between seasons,” “I wish the characters
on my favorite show were real so I could get to know them,” and “I wish
I could enter the world of my favorite show.” (1 = “disagree” to 4 = “agree”)
The scale was reliable (α = .815).
Results
Hypothesis 1 predicted that the higher the level of transportation, the
longer the typical binge-watching session. Analysis showed a positive
Pearson correlation between transportation and session length (r
(277) = .178, p < .01). H1 was supported.
Hypothesis 2 predicted that those who binge-watch more often (heavy
binge-watchers) should report higher levels of transportation than those
who binge-watch less frequently (regular binge-watchers). An independent-
samples t-test revealed a significant main effect of level of binge-watching
frequency on transportation, with transportation among heavy binge-
watchers (M = 3.34, SD = .43) being significantly higher than among
regular binge-watchers (M = 3.04, SD = .50); t(276) = 4.29, p < .001). H2
was also supported.
Hypothesis 3 postulated a positive relationship between transporta-
tion and binge-watching enjoyment. Lending support for H3, data
analysis revealed that increases in transportation corresponded to
increases in binge-watching enjoyment (r(278) = .453, p < .001).
Hypothesis 4 predicted that heavy binge-watchers find the experi-
ence of binge-watching more gratifying than regular binge-watchers
and non-binge-watchers. A one-way ANOVA revealed a significant
main effect, F[2,312] = 25.361, p < .001. According to a post-hoc
Tukey test, heavy binge-watchers (M = 2.99, SD = .59) considered
binge-watching more gratifying than regular binge-watchers
(M = 2.60, SD = .73), p < .001 and non-binge-watchers (M = 1.93,
SD = .80), p < .001. The difference between regular binge-watchers and
non-binge-watchers was also significant (p < .001). Therefore, H4 was
supported.
Hypothesis 5 predicted a significant inverse relationship between ability
to experience flow and the length of a binge-watching session. Supporting
H5, the results showed a significant positive correlation between the
reversed flow ability scale and binge-watching session length (r
(277) = .138, p < .05).
Hypothesis 6 predicted a negative correlation between binge-watchers’
ability to experience flow and their willingness to delay binge-watching
until enough episodes were available. This hypothesis was not supported (r
(277) = .017, p = .780).
MASS COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY 139
Hypothesis 7 predicted that the relationship between binge-
watching session length and level of parasocial interactions will be
mediated by transportation. A mediation analysis was conducted
using the PROCESS macro for SPSS (Hayes, 2017). Ignoring the
mediator, the analysis showed a significant effect of session length
on parasocial relationships (B = .073, t(274) = 2.49, p < .01,
R2 = .02). Binge-watching session length also predicted the hypothe-
sized mediator, transportation (B = .063, t(274) = 2.99, p < .01,
R2 = .031). The effect of the mediator (transportation) on parasocial
interactions was also significant, controlling for session length
(B = .829, t(274) = 12.40, p < .001, R2 = .376). Finally, the direct
effect of the length of a binge-watching session on parasocial interac-
tion was reduced to a non-significant effect (B = .024, t(274) = .847,
p = .397) when the mediator was added to the model. Rendering
support for H7, the influence of binge-watching session length on the
development of parasocial interactions was fully mediated by the level
of transportation (see Figure 1).
Hypothesis 8 predicted that transportation should mediate the rela-
tionship between session length and binge-watching enjoyment. The
analysis revealed a partial mediation. Results showed a significant
direct effect of session length on binge-watching enjoyment (B = .11,
t(274) = 5.07, p < .001, R2 = .08). This effect was reduced when
accounting for the mediator (B = .03, t(274) = 4.12, p < .001).
Session length predicted the hypothesized mediator, transportation
(B = .063, t(274) = 2.99, p < .01, R2 = .031). The effect of the mediator
(transportation) on binge-watching enjoyment controlling for session
length, was also significant (B = .591, t(274) = 7.80, p < .001,
R2 = .376). Supporting H8, the effect of binge-watching session length
on the development of parasocial interactions was partially mediated by
transportation (see Figure 2).
The correlations between the study’s key variables are listed in Table 1.
Figure 1. The mediation model proposed in hypothesis 7.
Note: **p <.01 (2-tailed), ***p <.001 (2-tailed), B = unstandardized coefficients.
140 G. ANGHELCEV ET AL.
Discussion
Binge-watching, or viewing three or more episodes of the same show in one
sitting, has emerged as the “new norm” in the consumption of serial video
content (DTVE Reporter, 2015; Netflix, 2013). According to some media
scholars, its rapid adoption by audiences worldwide altered television and
video entertainment industries, triggering structural changes in the produc-
tion, creation and distribution of video content (Bernadin, 2018; Mittell,
2015; Radošinská, 2017).
The growing body of academic research on binge-watching has been
primarily focused either on its antecedents (Conlin et al., 2016; Pittman &
Sheehan, 2015; Tukachinsky & Eyal, 2018) or on its consequences
(Chambliss et al., 2017; Exelmans & Van den Bulck, 2017; Horvath et al.,
2017). The present article adds to the literature by exploring phenomen-
ological aspects of the experience of binge-watching itself. Particular atten-
tion was paid to experiential aspects related to immersion in the shows,
such as transportation or ability to experience flow, and their relationship
with binge-watching enjoyment. Recognizing that not all who binge-watch
do so in equal manner, we also compared differences in perceptions of the
binge-watching experience among heavy binge-watchers, regular binge-
watchers and non-binge-watchers. Variables such as the duration of an
average binge-watching session or the development of parasocial relation-
ships with the shows’ characters, were also examined.
Figure 2. The mediation model proposed in hypothesis 8.
Note: **p<.01 (2-tailed), ***p<.001 (2-tailed), B= unstandardized coefficients
Table 1. Pearson product-moment correlations between the key variables.
Measures 1 2 3 4
1. Binge-watching enjoyment
2. Parasocial interactions .308***
3. Transportation .392*** .560***
4. Length of binge-watching session .344*** .166*** .117*
*p <.05 (2-tailed), ***p <.001 (2-tailed)
MASS COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY 141
Importantly, these facets were investigated in the context of a quantitative
survey, drawing a relatively large sample from a population well-known for its
binge-watching proclivity: US college students. The use of quantitative data
analytic techniques allowed us to advance knowledge about the subjective
experience of binge-watching, thus building on, validating and expanding the
insights offered by the few available qualitative inquiries into this specific aspect
of binge-watching (e.g., Devasagayam, 2014; Flayelle et al., 2017; Steiner & Xu,
2018).
First and foremost, the study enhanced understanding of the relationship
between a key feature of the binge-watching experience—the number of
episodes watched in a binge-watching session—and several constructs
related to the subjective perception of binge-watching. The correlational
nature of the relationships notwithstanding, it appears that regardless of
binge-viewing frequency, watching more episodes per session makes the
experience more enjoyable and facilitates the development of parasocial
interactions with the shows’ characters.
Binge-watching duration has been at the center of some recent investi-
gations of binge-watching. Most notably, Merrill and Rubenking (2019),
who operationalized it as hours spent bingeing during the most recent
session, discovered that predictors of binge-watching session length were
separate from predictors of binge-watching frequency. That study focused
on trait variables, examining self-regulation, procrastination, regret, and
gender as predictors. The present article expands Merrill et al.’s findings,
suggesting that the lack of overlap they noted between trait predictors of
session duration and frequency may not be observable in the case of state
variables—particularly those associated with immersion into a show’s nar-
rative, such as enjoyment and transportation. Indeed, in our study enjoy-
ment and transportation were associated with both session length and
frequency of binge-watching.
It is, of course, possible that the discrepancy between the two studies’
findings are due to differences in how the length of a binge-watching
session was measured. In this study, session length was determined using
number of episodes as an indicator. This likely is a reliable indicator of
session length only when using large samples; it also assumes that the
current landscape of video content adheres to the commercial broadcast
model of 30-min comedies and 60-min dramas. Although for now the
assumption may hold, the operationalization will soon become obsolete
given that more extreme variations in episode length occur with indepen-
dently produced serials that are meant for online streaming platforms,
rather than traditional television. As one of the study’s reviewers aptly
observed, in this sense “episodes are terminological vestiges of the twentieth
century, which binge-watching necessarily disrupts.” As a necessary step
toward understanding binge-watching and developing an integrative
142 G. ANGHELCEV ET AL.
explanatory model of this contemporary form of serial video consumption,
future studies should converge on common operationalizations of key
constructs and assess session length via time-based duration measures.
The results underscore the centrality of transportation, or the subjective
experience of immersion into a show through emotion, cognition, and
mental imagery (Green & Brock, 2000; Green & Brock, 2002), in shaping
both consumers’ perceptions of the binge-watching experience and their
binge-watching behaviors. Not only did respondents who reported higher
levels of transportation binge-watch more frequently and for a longer time,
but transportation was also significantly related to binge-watching enjoy-
ment and the development of parasocial interactions with the shows’
characters. Green et al. (2004) theorized that the effects of transportation
on media enjoyment will occur via well-constructed narratives, interactiv-
ity, and an appropriate level of cognitive capacity. The present findings
expand theoretical knowledge of the role transportation plays in binge-
watching enjoyment by revealing that transportation can serve as
a potential explanatory mechanism for the effect of binge-watching session
length on both binge-watching enjoyment and viewers’ development of
parasocial interactions with shows’ characters. The effect of session length
on enjoyment was partially mediated by transportation, whereas transpor-
tation fully explained the relationship between longer binge-watching ses-
sions and higher levels of parasocial interaction.
Our results also show that those with low ability to experience flow do in
fact binge longer, presumably because they are motivated by the enjoyment
gratifications resulting from attaining a state of flow. Samuel’s (2017)
exploration of contemporary television-viewing habits provides additional
insight into the relationship between binge-watching and viewers’ ability to
experience flow: choice fatigue and unrestricted amounts of available con-
tent contribute to the disruption of flow in the contemporary experience of
television consumption. By binge-watching, “audiences’ relationships with
television remain fluid and continuous, perhaps intensely so” (Samuel,
2017, p. 83–84). More specifically, binge-watching’s ability to provide an
experience that is “linear and fluid” enables the reinstatement of flow, or
“planned flow,” for contemporary viewers by relieving the burden of choice
and by providing greater structure around accessible content (Samuel, 2017,
p. 86). The present study refines understanding of the relationship between
binge-watching and flow by revealing the possibility that one’s trait ability
to experience flow can act as a motivator for binge-watching more episodes
per session among those scoring low on the trait variable.
A distinctive feature of binge-watching is that it enables self-paced
consumption of the content, unlike traditional appointment-based viewing.
Green et al. (2004) speculated that ability for self-paced consumption gives
books an advantage over other media in facilitating narrative
MASS COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY 143
transportation. To our knowledge, the impact of self-pacing on transporta-
tion has not been tested empirically for other media, and particularly not in
the context of binge-watching. The present findings reinforce the possibility
put forth by Green et al. (2004) and highlight the need for future research
on “pace of consumption” as an important variable for understanding
binge-watching, as well as other contemporary practices of user-directed
engagement with media. It may also be worth examining if actual control
over the self-pacing of content, or just the perception that one has the
ability to self-pace, is what fosters narrative transportation during binge-
watching. This distinction becomes apparent when certain seasons are
made available on a temporary basis at no cost, before the release of
a show’s new season. Research on the perception of user control over
communication technology has found that subjective perceptions of control
may be more important than actual control levels in shaping the user
experience (e.g., Southwell et al., 2007). This distinction notwithstanding,
the ability to self-pace, which underlies core variables in this study such as
binge-watching frequency or duration, could explain some relationships
revealed by this study’s data.
The finding that longer binge-watching sessions are accompanied by
higher enjoyment and transportation reinforces the idea that flow and
transportation can become desired states in themselves (Csikszentmihalyi,
1988; Green et al., 2004). In that sense, results here suggest that engage-
ment in binge-watching can fuel the development of an intrinsic motiva-
tion resulting from gratifications associated with long and frequent
viewing sessions, to the point that binge-watching becomes a self-
reinforcing behavior—a proposition advanced by Panda and Pandey
(2017), but not yet tested empirically. Pittman and Steiner (2019) noted
this possibility in a recent quantitative investigation of binge-watching.
They interpreted correlational links between narrative transportation,
attention and binge-watching regret as indicators that narrative transpor-
tation may motivate binge-watching. Specifically, they found that when
viewers consider narrative transportation important for binge-watching,
attentive viewing produces the least amount of regret; when the impor-
tance of transportation was low, attention levels to content did not
influence binge-watching regret. In view of the current study’s data and
Pittman and Steiner’s (2019) cross-sectional survey results, there is an
opportunity here for binge-watching research to expand Green and
Brock’s (2000; Green & Brock, 2002) transportation theory, by bringing
in insights from psychological research on the intrinsic motivational
forces that drive human behavior.
Self-determination Theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000) explains how
extrinsic motivational drivers for various activities can be internalized
over time to become intrinsic reasons for those behaviors, particularly
144 G. ANGHELCEV ET AL.
when accompanied by a sense of enjoyment and autonomy. This tenet of
SDT is consistent with our data and puts forward for empirical validation
the thesis that transportation could be an intrinsic motivational driver of
binge-watching, even when other reasons are absent. This thesis awaits
empirical validation in causal research designs. If supported, the well-
developed framework of SDT offers a solid theoretical ground to assume
that transportation might play the same role in other media consumption
domains, expanding Green and Brock’s (2000; Green & Brock, 2002) con-
ceptual view of narrative transportation from a subjective experience of
immersion into the realm of powerful intrinsic motivational forces that
drive human engagement with media more broadly.
One practical implication of the connection between transportation,
enjoyment, and binge-watching session length concerns the promotion of
new video series released on binge-watching platforms such as Netflix or
Amazon, via electronic word-of-mouth campaigns, which rely on consumer
endorsements of shows on social media. Green et al. (2004) reported
increases in the likelihood of recommending a story among participants
who experienced greater enjoyment and transportation while reading it.
Our findings suggest that because enjoyment and transportation were
positively related to binge-watching frequency and duration, consumers
who binge-watch more frequently or watch more episodes of a show at
one time are the ideal endorsers for the show. Such influencers should be
willing to recommend the show without monetary incentives, simply due to
the intrinsic motivation resulting from enjoying the show (Anghelcev,
2015). In addition, their recommendations may be longer and more con-
vincing than other promotional messages (Anghelcev, 2015). Thus, instead
of disseminating large-scale paid promotional messages, the producers and/
or distributors of a show could preferentially identify influencers among the
avid binge-watchers of a particular show and target them with event
invitations, previews, and exclusive sneak peeks about incoming seasons
or other releases. These influencers, in turn, would promote the show
organically among their networks of followers by sharing that “exclusive”
knowledge. Research has shown that such influencer campaigns are more
effective than traditional paid promotional messages (i.e., an advertising
campaign).
Also in practical terms, the present findings cast a shadow of doubt on
the viability of recent content release models adopted by some streaming
platforms in the face of increased competition. Specifically, in 2019 some
online content providers announced they would release shows on an
appointment-based calendar, mimicking traditional, appointment-based
television. For example, Netflix elected to release two of its original
shows, Rhythm & Flow and The Great British Baking Show, on an appoint-
ment viewing model (Caraan, 2019). The shift was spurred by the desire to
MASS COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY 145
build anticipation around those reality competitions, thereby occupying
uncharted middle ground between scheduled and on-demand viewing.
While Netflix has since issued a statement of its intention to stick to the
binge model for the foreseeable future, releasing entire seasons of its other
shows (Netflix, 2019), the timing of the new strategy’s implementation is
nevertheless interesting. It appears Netflix is testing the waters just as new
players, such as Disney+, which has committed exclusively to the appoint-
ment-view release model, and Apple TV+, which is taking a hybrid
approach, are entering the streaming market (Hill, 2019). Given the sig-
nificant increases in enjoyment and transportation associated with longer
and frequent binge-watching revealed by our data, this study suggests that
the new model might not prove superior to the strategy of releasing an
entire season at a time to encourage binge-watching.
Limitations
The results of this study should be interpreted while bearing in mind
the correlational nature of the data obtained from cross-sectional
surveys. Although logic would suggest certain directionalities for the
significant relationships revealed by the data, causation cannot be
inferred based on these data and should be tested via experimental or
longitudinal designs.
In addition, there are limitations associated with the sample. Whereas
choosing this particular sample was appropriate given college students’
proclivity to binge-watch, they likely differ from other groups in how they
relate to binge-watching. For example, they likely have more flexible sche-
dules and perhaps more free time than others, which may allow them to
binge-watch more often or view more episodes per sitting. Since session
length is positively correlated with transportation, the latter might be more
important for defining college students’ binge-watching experience than in
the case of other audience groups. When the meanings and functions of
a communication behavior differ among groups, results might not general-
ize from one group to another (Berkowitz & Donnerstein, 1982).
That does not mean that this sample was not as appropriate as any
other sample of binge-watchers for testing the hypotheses of the study. In
a review of scholarship on generalizing from student samples in commu-
nication research, Shapiro (2002) pointed out that attempting to ensure
the representativeness of any particular study or sample is not
a productive approach. Rather, generalizability arises from the accumula-
tion of similar results from multiple studies over time, each using different
(and inherently limited) samples and contexts. What informs general-
izability in the case of any one study is its ability to offer insights about
what relationships can occur among variables that are theoretically
146 G. ANGHELCEV ET AL.
relevant to the communication behavior under investigation (in this case,
binge-watching; see Berkowitz & Donnerstein, 1982; Shapiro, 2002). How
often those relationships will occur in other contexts, among other sam-
ples and at different points in time, should be elucidated in the discipline
as studies accumulate (MacBeth, 1996).
Future research: Reconsidering conceptual denitions of
binge-watching
Perhaps the most important limitation of the present study concerns its
conceptual stance on binge-watching. Herein also lay the most promising
paths for future inquiry. Binge-watching was defined in this study as the
practice of viewing three or more episodes of the same show in one
sitting. The minimum-number-of-episodes-per-session approach, as
noted earlier in the paper, is perhaps the most popular view of binge-
watching endorsed by researchers, popular media and the public. Yet, as
one of this study’s reviewers rightfully pointed out, this definition
excludes other modes of consuming serial video that could be considered
binge-watching, such as “the accelerated viewing of a show’s episodes to
the point that a season is consumed beginning to end, over several days,
one episode at a time.”
It is perhaps time to conceptualize binge-watching as describing more
than one type of viewing behavior (and experience). The form of binge-
watching discussed in this study assumes a close relationship between the
viewer and the text, which can be sustained because in this approach (the
prolonged sit) viewing sessions are measured in hours rather than days. It
may be easier to focus one’s attention exclusively on the show when one
watches in isolation for a few hours, typically on a device that cuts off the
surrounding environment (e.g., a tablet with noise-canceling headphones),
thus allowing viewers to become fully immersed in the narrative.
Transportation emerged as a key variable for understanding this type of
binge-watching experience, as shown by the results of this study. Yet, the
same degree of immersion, isolation, and uninterrupted focused attention
may or may not be possible when engaging in the other form of binge-
watching (the accelerated view of one or more seasons over several days).
The latter type may incur more frequent pauses between episodes, either
due to fatigue or the need to attend to minor disruptions like phone calls or
meals, or for other reasons such as simply letting the content sink in. This
type of binge-watching may also take place on technological devices that do
not necessarily cut off the surrounding environment (a living room TV or
the large screen of a home desktop computer may provide more viewing
comfort over a few days than a tablet). It is possible that this latter type of
binge-watching is best understood in connection with other variables than
MASS COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY 147
transportation. It might also involve different gratifications, such as rapidly
catching up with a show before the premiere of an upcoming season or to
enable chatting with others (a social gratification). These possibilities
remain to be tested empirically but should prompt us to rethink the current
widely adopted conceptual definitions of binge-watching, shaping our
research agendas as we attempt to understand this multifaceted mode of
serial video consumption. Advancing a conceptual definition that includes
both binge-watching modes described in this paragraph as distinctive
experiences that nevertheless fall under the same umbrella, and then exam-
ining their respective correlates, causes and gratifications, could be fruitful
steps going forward. Binge-watching, it seems, should be conceptualized to
include at least two behaviors: the consumption of several episodes of
a show in one sitting, and the accelerated viewing of a show’s episodes to
the point that a season is consumed, beginning to end, over several days,
one or more episodes at a time. The essence of binge-watching appears to
be the self-paced, accelerated consumption of extensive serial video content
over a reduced period of time. That said, binge-watching scholarship would
benefit from studies that aim to develop knowledge about the accelerated
view. Extant research has focused almost exclusively on the prolonged,
continual sit.
What constitutes a “sitting” also merits further discussion. Perhaps most
daily disruptions can be cut off during the type of binge-watching examined
here (the prolonged, continual sit), but to what extent does the tendency to
multitask interfere with the viewing experience? And is engagement in
other tasks necessarily perceived as disrupting? In this study, the number
of interruptions per viewing session was by necessity treated as a constant.
Yet, experientially not all binge-watching sessions are the same because the
nature of the tasks in which viewers might engage simultaneously can vary
considerably. Responding to social media notifications can be seen as
disrupting the immersive experience, but can other departures, like looking
up details about a show’s characters, help sustain transportation into the
world of the show? Future research should investigate how potential dis-
ruptors associated with technological affordances, social viewing, and mul-
titasking shape what constitutes a sitting. Such studies would considerably
further our knowledge about the role played by transportation in facilitating
binge-watching enjoyment, frequency, and session duration. In quantitative
approaches, examining multitasking as a moderating variable might be
a promising line of inquiry. Qualitative research on the nature, frequency,
psychological triggers, and consequences of disruptions in shaping audi-
ences’ binge-watching experience would also be worthwhile.
Finally, notions like “episode,” around which the current conceptualiza-
tions of binge-watching are centered, may also become fluid or even lose their
current meaning. Upon scrutiny, the term “episode” is part of widely
148 G. ANGHELCEV ET AL.
embraced conceptual definitions of binge-watching to help delineate a portion
of serial video content and to signal that a minimum “quantity” (three or
more episodes) should be consumed for the experience to qualify as a binge.
Yet in a streaming-dominated milieu, where length of episode has started to
vary considerably (with some indie shows being released in 1-min episodes),
time-based measures of session-length may be needed to define what consti-
tutes binge-watching. We believe that what that minimum duration is, where
“normal” viewing ends and binge-watching starts, may not even be objectively
determinable by researchers. It may be again time to let the subjective
perceptions of audience members guide our assessments of what constitutes
binge-watching and define its multifaceted nature.
Funding
This study was supported in part by an internal research grant from Northwestern
University in Qatar to the first author. Open access funding provided by Qatar
National Library.
Notes on contributors
George Anghelcev (PhD, University of Minnesota, 2008) is associate professor of
strategic communication at Northwestern University in Qatar and senior research
fellow at the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, Penn
State University, USA.
Sela Sar (PhD, University of Minnesota, 2006) is associate professor of advertising
and director of graduate studies in the Charles H. Sandage Department of
Advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Justin D. Martin (PhD, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2009) is
associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar.
Jas L. Moultrie (MS, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2019) is graduate
of the Charles H. Sandage Department of Advertising at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign and communication doctoral student at the University of
Washington.
ORCID
George Anghelcev http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2173-8496
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... Unlike traditional cable and satellite television, viewers can watch OTT programmes anywhere, anytime. Although binge-watching was there right from the days of video box sets, it is reinvigorated normalised by streaming television [3] . Also, traditional television is dominated by advertisements. ...
... Past literature has identified relaxation as one of the gratifications behind television viewing [ 64 , 90 , 102 ]. Recent studies on OTT platforms [ 3,128,129 ] further endorsed relaxation as one of the significant gratifications obtained from OTT viewing. Consistent with recent literature current study identified relaxation as one of the significant predictors of OTT subscription intention. ...
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