Life of the Mind

Media Marathoning

Exploring the rapid consumption of story worlds

by Lisa G. Perks

“I don’t always watch Netflix ... but when I do, I find a show I like, watch all seven seasons in two days, and get very depressed.”

This quote, taken from a Most Interesting Man in the World meme, captures a phenomenon that I’ve labeled “media marathoning.” Broadly defined, media marathoning refers to readers’ and viewers’ rapid consumption of entire story worlds. Adults dedicate their weekends (and weekdays) to watching full seasons of shows like Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, and Battlestar Galactica. Friends have parties around viewing all Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter movies. Teenagers can consume The Hunger Games trilogy or Twilight series in one weekend.

After four years of gathering information from 176 media marathoners and teaching a class on the subject, I have learned about the behavioral, emotional, and cognitive patterns involved in quickly consuming media series. Some people marathon only when they have time: A vacation, a holiday, or an extended illness all afford an opportunity to marathon. Other marathoners stay up into the wee hours of the night, eating poorly, ignoring housework, putting child care responsibilities on their spouse, and calling in sick to work to continue their marathon. The emotional and cognitive connections marathoners form with the stories explain why so many life events are put on hold just so one can keep reading or watching.

Story Immersion

The idea that marathoners inhabit or are immersed in the fictive world is central to the research findings. The words “involved,” “immersed,” and “engaged” commonly emerged in marathoners’ language. Dominick, who obsessively consumed The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Homeland, claimed that a television marathon makes him feel like “part of the show [...] I feel like I’m much more involved; it’s very intimate.”  This immersion happens across media, with Roberta explaining how she stumbled into a Harry Potter book marathon: “When I finished the seventh book, I immediately went back to book one and read them all again because [...] I didn’t want to leave those characters and their world.”

Marathoners experience real emotions when engaged with their stories: They cry along with characters, become indignant at injustices, and experience heightened anxiety surrounding cliffhangers. Mary wasn’t able to shut out Mad Men’s fictive world, explaining, “I watch a show, and then later in the day I’m like, ‘God dammit, why did he do that?! I’m so mad at him!’” She found it difficult to be Don Draper’s secret keeper, knowing about important plot twists that other characters didn’t see coming. Mary and other marathoners were so immersed in the story worlds that they experienced the events like an additional character, responding how a “normal” person would when faced with the situation. Marathoners also commonly mourn the end of the story and the perceived end of their interactions with the characters. After concluding her Hunger Games marathon, Debra confessed, “I tend to miss the characters as if they have become part of my life. I miss not being able to visit them.”

Morality Tales

In addition to learning about media marathoners, I have also been studying the stories they have consumed. My research required that I watch hours of television, read dozens of books, and scrutinize scores of movies. The purpose of this practice is to understand why these stories resonate with so many people. The answer to the question is morality. Commonly marathoned stories confront difficult questions of good, evil, and that gray area between. I have found that the villainous characters often use and abuse technology and magic, which is often their undoing. (Think of the exploding Death Star, Voldemort’s killing curse rebounding on him, Sauron’s ring destroying all of Mordor.) The heroes, in contrast, are ordinary individuals who have a healthy fear of power and technology, often with pastoral desires of “peace, quiet, and good-tilled earth.”

One of the most exciting findings is that the heroes are often guided by puppeteers who are focused not on fair treatment of the hero “pawns” but on their ultimate end goal of saving the world. We see the puppeteer’s ambiguous morality expressed in Severus Snape’s anger toward Dumbledore: “I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter--” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). The puppeteer characters allow readers and viewers to confront the age-old question of whether the end justifies the means.

The New Storytelling

The final question my research answers is, “Why has media marathoning recently become so prevalent?” I articulated answers to this question in a research project with Rachel Montpelier ’14, which we presented in November at the National Communication Association Conference in Washington, D.C. Our essay attributes the marathoning phenomenon to digital content delivery technologies (such as video streaming services and e-books), involved audiences who are willing to “do their homework” and study a text, and increased density in media content. Just as the written word allowed easier transmission and greater scrutiny of ideas, convenient, user-directed content delivery technologies have empowered readers/viewers and enabled them to more readily understand complex stories. Although it is possible to comprehend convoluted television shows such as Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and How I Met Your Mother when watching them on a weekly basis, or to remember the many characters and regions in Middle Earth when reading the books or watching the films over an extended period of time, the marathon is like an immersive study session that keeps all of the plot threads and characters straight in our minds.

Although James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly criticizes the addictive tendencies of television marathoners by comparing them to Breaking Bad’s “meth-heads,” he ultimately throws up his hands regarding the marathoning trend, stating, “If technology permits us to watch full TV seasons over days or weeks instead of months, we’ll do it.” All cultural signs point to media marathoning as a novel, yet sustaining practice that indelibly alters the way stories are told and comprehended.

Lisa G. Perks, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and program director of communication and media.

Lisa Perks

Dr. Lisa Perks with the Harry Potter books, just one of many series marathoned by fans.

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