Why Do We Rewatch TV Shows?

Published on 3/31/2021

“Forget the next big thing. We're all suckers for the last big thing.” - Derek Thompson, The Atlantic.

I have a list of TV shows that I’ve been meaning to watch, or rather that I intend to watch one day. Whenever they come up in a conversation, be it The West Wing or Buffy, I’ll mention that I’m planning to watch that. But when it comes to sitting down and watching a show or reaching the finale and determining what’s next, I won’t go for one of these series on my bucket list. Instead, I’ll turn to something that I’ve seen many times before, to the extent that I could probably quote it by now. I’ll watch Friends or Desperate Housewives instead of starting one of the shows that I claim to be eager to watch.

And I’m far from the only one guilty of this, as we all seem to prefer rewatching shows rather than discovering new content. The pandemic served only to highlight this, drawing attention to this habit instilled in us. TV classics, like The Office, saw considerable increases in watch time during the lockdown, more so than new shows that came out during this period.

Why do we elect to rewatch something rather than tick another series off of our to-watch list?

Energy consumption

Watching TV is intended to be a low-energy task. You’re not going to the cinema or theatre, but instead, you’re settling down on your couch or bed, and tuning in to a show to tune out for a while. The most energy-consuming aspect of the activity is choosing what to watch, which is why we feel relieved to have an entire show to binge-watch, as, for that period of time, the decision has been made for us.

The status-quo bias determines that individuals tend to stick with previous decisions as the cost of coming to a new decision is mentally tiring. We prefer things to stay as they are, using our current baseline as the reference point from which to work from. Examples include staying at your current job to avoid looking for a new one, which you could potentially dislike more. Shopping at the same store to avoid the hassle of finding a new one. And rewatching a show instead of choosing a new one to try.

To avoid the energy-consuming task of looking through possible shows and deciding which to watch, we prefer to repeat a previous decision and rewatch something. That choice doesn’t feel like a choice at all, but rather a continuation of when we first watched it. We rewatch shows to avoid unnecessary energy being dedicated to choosing what to watch instead.

Commitment

I won’t try to convince you that monogamy is dead, but rather that TV monogamy may be on the downfall. We’ve become commitment-phobic when it comes to TV shows, and so dedicating ourselves to several seasons of a new show can feel overwhelming. After all, it takes only one wrongful character death or poorly executed finale to ruin everything we poured our attention into.

One of the primary perks of rewatching a show is that you’re not committing; you’re not guaranteeing what you’ll watch for weeks or even months to come. Instead, it is just now, just one or two episodes. You can pick it up and drop it as you please. You know the story, so any point you join at allows you to visit and leave as you please. This is also why sitcoms tend to be the most rewatched shows, as there are no immediate storylines to follow; each episode is its own tale.

When tasked with the choice of watching a film or a series, many say that they go for a series for the smaller commitment. Even if they have the time for an entire movie, they’d rather watch several episodes. It seems like a smaller price. This may also relate to humans’ shortened attention span, as we find it easier to focus on one thirty-minute episode after another rather than an entire film.

Control

Humans don’t realise how much they cling to control until they lose it. This is why sudden events can traumatise us so much, such as losing a loved one or developing an illness. There is the event itself, but then also what this event means to us and our fragile state of being. It’s the reminder that we’re not in control, that life doesn’t owe us anything, and anything could be taken from us. We don’t get to choose our future, as much as we’d like to think we can.

Nowadays, control drifts even further from our reach. We graduated with unmentionable amounts of debt, it’ll be decades before we could ever afford to purchase a house, and many of us will end up doing jobs we despise due to this economy. We can’t control when we get up, where we go to work, or where we want to live, as the options are so limited. The pandemic only rendered the lack of control deeper, as we suddenly couldn’t leave our homes.

We clutch at the small things in our control, one of which is what we choose to watch. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime serve only to inundate us with choices. For once, we’re spoiled, with countless thrillers, comedies, dramas and more at our fingertips. We get to choose what we’ll watch; we’re in control of that. And so we may exercise this control with a safe choice, given how new a sensation it is. If we were to choose a wildcard and not enjoy it, we would blame ourselves, considering precious time wasted. We use this control wisely and choose something familiar to us if only to pretend it was a matter of control in the first place.

It is also a means of controlling what we see, as we know what is to come. We know, at least to an extent, how funny or sad or uplifting a show is, and so we’re controlling how we want to feel, what we want to experience.

Nostalgia

According to Clay Routledge, a psychologist who studies nostalgia at North Dakota State University, there are two strains of nostalgia: historical (nostalgia for the general past) and autobiographical (nostalgia for an individual’s specific past). This can apply to watching films or TV shows in two ways. We may watch older content in order to have historical nostalgia - “Weren’t things so much simpler before the internet?”- and rewatch content to have autobiographical nostalgia - “College really was the best!”

You may rewatch the same shows that bring you to a more favourable time in your life, one you want to reminisce over. Additionally, you may rewatch shows because of when you first watched them. If you first discovered Gilmore Girls in college and would watch it with your flatmates, you may rewatch it now to feel that same sense of security and possibility. If Friends was something you enjoyed with your parents on a Friday evening, rewatching it may make you feel closer to them.

The point is that nostalgia goes further than the content of the TV show but instead refers to everything that surrounds it. Rewatching a show isn’t merely about that show but includes everything surrounding it. Who you were when you first watched it, who you watched it with, even why you were watching it can have an effect.

Some shows hold a special place in our heart or memories, and so it is only natural that we’ll turn back to it when we desire to feel a certain way or remember something.

The Mere Exposure Effect

The more you see someone, the closer you feel to them. It’s as simple as that. There are exceptions to the rule, such as someone who you have negative connotations regarding or conflicting personalities. But generally speaking, we develop a fondness for people we’re exposed to repeatedly.

By rewatching shows, you feel closer to the characters portrayed. For example, Rachel in Friends holds a special place in my heart, one that makes me still follow Jennifer Anniston’s career. My mum loved Rachel, and so we would watch Friends together, and she’d mention how pretty or nice she is. This was passed on to me, as we bonded through this mutual affection for a character. In turn, Rachel now is someone I think highly of, even though I appreciate all the characters in Friends - as true fans do!

If you’re feeling low or static, you want to turn to people you know well, as you feel that you can trust them more. You don’t want to be encountered by strangers, characters who could do anything or have some secret revealed that will change how you see them. You want your friends, even if those are behind a screen.

The Mere Exposure Effect dictates this, a psychological phenomenon in which people tend to develop a preference for things they’re more familiar with. By rewatching a show, we have a stronger preference for that over something we’ve never seen before.

The most-watched shows in 2020

Just in case you doubted the extent to which shows are universally watched, let’s take a look at the most-watched TV shows in 2020. This data was obtained by Broadband Deals and published in January 2021.

  1. The Office (US) - Minutes streamed: 57.127 billion
  2. Grey’s Anatomy - 39.405 billion
  3. Criminal Minds - 35.414 billion

The most universally watched TV show of 2020 ended over seven years ago and yet graced more TV or laptop screens than any other show since or before. Whilst Grey’s Anatomy is ongoing, with season 17 currently airing, the large viewership is attributed to the show being added to Disney+ and more streaming services, suggesting it to be a rewatch as well. Criminal Minds concluded in February 2020, indicating a large portion of the viewership to be rewatches as well.

It’s no coincidence that these were the most-watched shows in 2020, when a pandemic drove us all home and TV became our primary outlet, aside from food. In times of trouble, we searched for the comfort and nostalgia of our favourite shows.

And here is the list of the most rewatched TV shows, as of 2020, here are the titles and the percentage of viewers who watched the series more than once:

  1. Friends - 63%
  2. Peep Show - 59%
  3. The Office (US) - 55%
  4. Brooklyn 99 - 53%
  5. RuPaul’s Drag Race - 51%

Incredibly, over half the people who watch one of these shows entirely will proceed to watch it again or several more times. And given that these shows are primarily comedies, it suggests that we do so for comforting purposes rather than to relive certain dramatic moments or search for further meaning in the script.

Is it bad to rewatch shows?

Rewatching shows allows us to counteract loneliness, especially in times such as now. The developed bonds with characters enables you to obtain a social connection right from your couch. Furthermore, it’s been shown to reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms, having a calming effect on your mind.

The issue comes when you rewatch shows as a manner of living in the past. You don’t want to move forward, and so you rewatch the same show about being in college, or one that reminds you of a better time. You remain mentally fixated on this time and hold yourself back in doing so. We refuse to enjoy the present by idealising the past, which could also include current TV shows. We need to remain optimistic about the future, and part of doing this is through expanding our choice of shows to watch.

We need to consider our TV habits as more than just what we watch, for the importance of TV has grown monumentally in recent decades. Our choice of shows reflects our choice of values, interests, mindset and sources of comfort. By rewatching a show, we choose it over a new experience, preferring this nostalgia or control over the potential another show may hold. It’s important to consider why we choose to watch a particular show, and if we decide to move forward, making it easier by selecting shows that could fill that same yearning.

Fleur

Fleur

Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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