What The New York Times Isn’t Telling You About Media Marathoning

In the last 24 hours, three friends have sent me Brian Stelter’s New York Times article about television marathoning. He and other journalists (e.g., John Jurgensen and Jim Pagels) have been writing about television marathoning and introducing the public to this popular viewing behavior. (Some use the term media bingeing, but I’m sticking with marathoning because of the commitment, exhaustion, sense of accomplishment, and memorability viewers report taking from their intense media experience.)

Image from oregonmusicnews.com

Image from oregonmusicnews.com

Stelter conducted interviews with many television and technology executives to inform his article, but he could use more information from two key components of this marathoning trend: the audience and the texts. I’ve recently wrapped up research with 176 media marathoners and am currently halfway through taking notes on commonly marathoned texts. Based on my immersion in the world of marathoning, I see five key points Stelter omits that are integral to understanding the marathoning experience and I agree with five key marathoning points he raises.

Stelter’s Omissions

  1. Every popular press account of marathoning that I’ve seen has focused only on television. Readers are also marathoning book series and viewers are marathoning film series. (Just ask any reader of the Hunger Games series how quickly s/he finished them all.)
  2. Marathoning can be a form of addiction. People I interviewed called in sick to work (or marathoned at work), gave up sleep, put off household responsibilities, and relied on their spouse for child care. Life’s daily rigors couldn’t stop some marathons.
  3. Marathoning does have a “healthy” side, too. Some readers and viewers used marathons strategically when recovering from surgeries and illnesses. Others rode out labor pains or depressive states with media marathons.
  4. Some marathoners are tourists wanting to get through their texts quickly to “see what happens” and others are residents who want to immerse themselves in the mediated world.
  5. Many marathoned texts share common features: the villain often exploits technology (Death Stars, Death Sticks, evil rings, and even social media) to attempt domination; the heroes are often merciful (think Frodo, Harry Potter, Buffy, and Michael Bluth–not Dexter); there is often a puppeteer (wise wizard, “watcher,” victor of “the games,” oracle, etc.) who controls the hero’s strings.

Stelter’s Hits

  1. Media marathoning is “empowered by DVD box sets and Netflix subscriptions.” (It’s also empowered by illegal downloads, e-readers, and marathons on the cable networks.)
  2. Marathoned texts are ignoring “some of the traditions that are so common on network TV” and are assuming that viewers have seen, studied, immersed themselves in the show. Viewers don’t need to be carefully led along anymore. They want to be rewarded for paying attention.
  3. Viewers do have “command of what they watch and when” because of these time-shifting technologies such as DVRs, video-on-demand, and streaming. (We can thank their precursor, the VCR.)
  4. Television producer Glen Mazzara’s vow to watch HBO’s Girls when the full series is over is not unusual. Marian, a 71-year-old marathoner, confessed, “I hate TV shows with all the advertising breaks and wait until they come out on video.” Although HBO solves Marian’s advertising problem, many viewers still like getting the series all in one go.
  5. Many television marathoners agree that the practice is “like reading a novel”–or like watching a movie series.

I love that media marathoning is being covered in the popular press, but I do wish there was less of a top-down approach to covering the phenomenon through executive’s eyes and more bottom-up research on audience members and texts. Or maybe I’m just jealous because I don’t have access to media and technology executives. An Amazon executive probably wouldn’t go for the $10 Amazon gift card incentive I gave to other interviewees…





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