How has binge-watching changed the way we experience TV shows?

By Melinda Houston

One binge session blurs into the next, with more TV shows available to watch than ever before.Credit:Matt Davidson

What was your favourite show of 2021? Was it that – you know, that one, it was on Netflix … Or was it Stan? It starred that guy, the one with the square jaw … He was a cop. Or was he a serial killer? Was that show on last year or the one before?

If you’re struggling to remember what the heck you’ve watched, don’t worry. You’re not alone. And there are very good reasons why one binge is blurring into the next, as two experts on memory and learning, Dr Jared Cooney Horvath and Elise van den Hoven, explain.

Why can’t I remember the show I just binged?

In 2017, Dr Jared Cooney Horvath and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne conducted actual laboratory research into binge-watching (the published paper is The Impact Of Binge Watching On Memory And Perceived Comprehension) and concluded binge-watching may affect both sustained memory – and perceived enjoyment – of a show.

Cooney Horvath explains our binge-watching-blanks this way. “You’ve got a two-pronged issue. The first is – the way memory works, we lock down our memories of things we learned that day at night, while we’re asleep. We call that consolidation. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough consolidation time, we’re awake far more than we’re asleep, so we tend to forget about 60-70 per cent of anything we learned any single day.” So if you binge a show in one sitting, you can assume off the bat you’re going to forget as much as 70 per cent of it.

Recaps help us dredge up memories of a previous TV episode, says Dr Jared Cooney Horvath.Credit:Getty Images

“Beyond that, to strengthen a memory you have to use it. Any time you recall a memory, that makes that memory deeper, stronger or more durable. So when you sit down to binge you never have to recall anything. You watch from beginning to end, you put it away, done.”

Watching episodically, on the other hand, you’re obliged to keep dredging up the memories. “This is why we have recaps. You have to remember: who was that guy? Why are they driving there? Oh yeah, that’s right. All those little moments – that actually deepens the memory.″⁣

“Attention is the really big one,” says Elise van den Hoven, a Professor of Human-Computer Interaction, who leads the Materialising Memories program at the University of Technology Sydney. (“We basically study people, and how they use their memory.″⁣) “If you’re not paying attention, you’re not actually receiving the information in the first place.”

The first true-crime series might leave you shaken and shocked … but by series 20 it probably won’t have the same effect.

Were you tired, stressed, distracted? Then there’s your problem right there.

Why do some shows stick with me and others evaporate?

There is a range of things that help us pay attention to a show – and therefore help it stick. “You are more likely to remember things that you’re emotionally invested in,” says van den Hoven. It’s a survival response. Our brains are primed to lock down the memories that trigger us emotionally, to keep us out of danger. Van den Hoven also refers to what’s called “the reminiscence bump” – the fact that new experiences are often remembered more strongly than subsequent ones.

“The same might be true for TV shows,” she says. “The first true-crime series might leave you shaken and shocked by what some people do to others, but by series 20 it probably won’t have the same effect.”

That’s why people are more likely to remember the first season of a show than the last – even though they watched the last season more recently. But there may be exceptions. “One of my favourite shows is Schitt’s Creek, which I didn’t really like in the beginning, but then it got better over time,” van den Hoven says. “And it’s one of those rare shows that won the most awards for the last season. It would be really interesting to do memory research on that because does that mean the viewers will remember the most from the last season? Usually, it’s the other way around.”

Schitt’s Creek would be a prime candidate for research into binge-watching and memory.

Cooney Horvath agrees that emotional impact, which might include a show’s relevance to our own life, will strengthen our focus – and maybe the likelihood of us discussing it with other people – and therefore our memory. But he has some intriguing insights into the role novelty plays. “The shows that stick out are the shows that do what we call prediction breaking,” he says. If you had the genius to invent an entirely new genre, chances are audiences may not actually remember it that well. We react more warmly or attentively to shows that are familiar – but not too familiar.

There are two forces at work. If we can link information to stuff that’s already in our brain, we’re more likely to remember it. But if it’s too similar to stuff that’s already there, we won’t bother remembering it at all. “So if you really want to grab attention, you have to break a prediction,” Cooney Horvath says.

In terms of memory, the conventions of a genre are what’s called a preprint. To make a show memorable, you have to begin with that preprint – and then diverge from it.

That, says Cooney Horvath, is precisely what powered the Game of Thrones phenomenon. “For the first nine episodes of that show it’s the most generic fantasy show you’ve ever seen. But then in episode nine when they killed the lead character – unless you’d read the novels – no one expected that. You had a preprint for the way the show would go, and when it didn’t go that way – now you’ve got my attention, and you’ve got a really deep memory.”

As Game of Thrones progressed, that initial novelty became its own preprint, and so less memorable. “It became ‘who’s gonna die this time’. That became the pattern. And other shows that try the same thing – killing off the lead in the third episode – are less memorable because we’ve learned to expect it.”

Game of Thrones broke with convention by killing off Ned Stark (Sean Bean) at the end of season one.Credit:HBO/Foxtel

Why can I remember details of a show I watched 20 years ago, but not one I watched two weeks ago?

“It’s likely to be to do with the reminiscence bump,” says van den Hoven. “When we look at people’s memories for the events in their lives, they have the most memories from young adulthood – say 20-35 years of age. For most of us, that’s a period in which we have a lot of new experiences that shape our lives.” A show we watched 20 years ago was more likely to be novel. We’ve also had plenty of time to “rehearse” the memory. “That’s basically a way of saying practice and repetition – the way you learn and remember anything, including TV shows.”

“TV used to be an event,” says Cooney Horvath. “There were so few shows – everyone used to watch the season finale of Cheers, or everyone would talk about this week’s episode of Seinfeld. Whereas now there are so many shows, even in an office of 10 people, the odds that we’re all watching the same show at the same time are almost zero. Unless it’s Squid Game.” Goodbye the water cooler conversations that help rehearse and consolidate a memory.

From left: Cheers, Seinfeld and Squid Game speak to our changing TV habits.Credit:Sony Pictures Television, Youngkyu Park/Netflix

“And once you lock a memory down, to keep it strong you have to keep periodically activating it,” Cooney Horvath says. “And the more you do it, the less you have to do it.”

For instance, in a school or academic environment, where “remembering” is just another way of talking about “learning”, a good rule of thumb is to take in a new piece of information today, recall it tomorrow, and again in a couple of days. And then again in a couple of weeks. And so on. “You can get to the stage where every five to 10 years, as long as you bring that memory up once, it will stay as strong as it was the day you locked it down.”

Viewers of a certain generation will have rich and detailed memories of a show like Get Smart. It was, for its time, both novel and it worked within our existing genre preprints (spy movies, scripted comedies). It was familiar, but it surprised us. It had so many quotable lines that we couldn’t help repeating. Most of us watched many, many repeats of episodes, consolidating and rehearsing the memory every time. Now, how many of us – 20, 30 or 40 years since we last watched it – can still vividly recall our favourite scenes? Or periodically still say something like: “Missed by that much.”

“But we rarely start that basic process with new shows now,” says Cooney Horvath. “And if we don’t lock it down, then we don’t recall it tomorrow, or later in the week, or in a couple of weeks. In two years we’re not going to remember much at all.”

Repeats have helped viewers forge vivid memories of classic TV shows like Get Smart.

Is memory of TV shows/details better among digital natives?

With the caveat that van den Hoven hasn’t specifically studied this, she has a couple of very important points to make. One, the memory of middle-aged or elderly people is not actually worse than that of younger people (unless there’s some medical reason, like dementia). “A lot of people assume that when you age you become forgetful, but that’s not necessarily true,” she says.

“Knowledge should stay stable and might even get better with age. Because you have more life experience, which makes it easier to link new information to what you already know.

“Sadly, though, research has shown that this myth that we get forgetful when we age can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – you subconsciously start putting less effort into trying to remember things.” Young people forget things all the time. They just worry about it less.

If you were using Twitter to talk about a show afterward, now we’re building a good memory. If you’re talking about it during, you’re losing focus.

Her other point is this. Multi-tasking is a myth. So a digital native and a middle-aged adult watching a television show on a television, with complete attention, are going to have very similar recall. But digital natives are far more likely to be on a second device while they’re watching TV – or be watching TV on a device with one or more other tabs or windows open. They’ll be less focused, and their memories are actually likely to be worse.

Cooney Horvath agrees. “I always have a giggle when these reality shows have Twitter polls while the show’s on air. Get online! Talk! But as soon as I’m on Twitter, I’m not watching the show, and you’ve pretty much just begged me to forget and not care about your show,” he says. “If you were using Twitter to talk about a show afterward, now we’re building a good memory. If you’re talking about it during, you’re losing focus.”

As digital natives tend to watch TV while simultaneously using another screen, their recall is likely to be worse than an adult’

He also says older adults tend to interact more effectively with technology – at least in terms of learning and memory – because we’re more likely to treat it like a book. “Kids, because they grew up with computers, as soon as they sit down in front of one it’s immediately a hundred tabs open. And they’re jumping from one to another. And that’s terrible for memory and learning. Or deeply enjoying something. Like anyone, when they’re focused, that’s when they learn. And that’s why at uni I have banned all tech from my room.”

Why do I keep confusing actors and can’t remember their names?

Unlike a computer, the human brain is not an unlimited database of every single detail we’ve ever come across in our lives. The brain doesn’t care about specifics. It cares about generalities, similarities, and patterns. “The brain is a prediction machine,” says Cooney Horvath. “It tries to take in information and then make the best prediction about what’s going to happen next. And the reason we’re good at making predictions is because we take so many specifics, and smoosh them all together into a pattern. Otherwise, our brain would be overwhelmed.”

“I would ask: why do you expect to remember them in the first place?” van den Hoven says. “We have memory for survival, and names of actors are – for most of us – not necessary to survive.”

She also makes the very important point that if we need to Google that actor’s name, it’s not because our memories are worse. It’s because we’re now remembering different things. “We just use our memory differently,” she says. “In today’s world we often use it to remember where or how to find information: which search term to use or where to find contact and birthday details.” And we non-digital natives forget how much we had to learn to be able to do that. “It was like – what would you enter there? You had to learn what words to use, how to make sure you don’t get too many results, how to find reliable information, what is actually a good source. So there’s a lot of knowledge in that whole searching activity.”

So yes, technology has revolutionised how we watch television, what and when (and even what and how we remember). But so what? “People automatically assume that when they forget even the smallest thing there’s something wrong. There’s not,” van den Hoven says. “A lot of what we do in everyday life is completely irrelevant to our future. Forgetting is healthy. Forgetfulness is actually the by-product of a healthy memory.”

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