What’s The Difference Between Marathon And Binge-Watch?

Ohmigod, I loooove that show! I binged it last summer! – someone you know, probably

In today’s TV culture, watching several episodes of a show in a row is common. Thanks to Netflix and other various services, having access to more episodes and shows than you can imagine means no waiting for viewing material.

The term for watching many episodes in one sitting has two names: marathoning and binge watching.

These two words mean the same thing, and yet I wonder, is there a difference? Why do we need two words to describe the same specific act? For the longest time, I personally said marathoned. Even when Netflix was around, I still said marathoned. Though Wikipedia says the term binge watch has been around since the late 90’s, it really came into popularity when Netflix did. Netflix advertised the term so much that right now, it’s more popular than marathoning.

But why?

Well, let’s think of the words themselves. What’s a marathon? If you Google “define marathon” this is what you get: a long-distance running race, strictly one of 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 km). Naturally, we think of the running race. Marathons are not easy to complete. It takes months of training and preparation and running one takes a lot of strength and determination. Goodness knows I could never do one. I can’t even run up the stairs without getting winded. But all in all, marathon is not a bad word. It’s associated with powerful, prideful things.

But then there’s binge. Google search “define binge” and you get: a short period devoted to indulging in an activity to excess, especially drinking alcohol or eating. Of course that word is tied to the unpleasant ideas of binge drinking and binge eating, which is tied to the deadly eating disorder anorexia. Bingeing is not seen in a positive light at all. Unlike marathon, it is a bad word, I’d argue.

So why do these very different words both mean the same thing in the TV sense?

portlandia binge watching binge watch next episode

If the use of the word was to critique the idea of watching many episodes of something, you’d think society would use marathoning so to make it seem like a good idea that more and more people should participate in doing. And yet, here we are, almost glorifying the idea of bingeing. So I suppose my answer is it’s because we know that spending hours upon hours in front of a TV isn’t necessarily a great habit, so we use the term binge more.

In the grand scheme of things, I guess it’s not that big of a deal. As someone who has marathoned/binge watched shows several times (and enjoys doing it), I can tell you I’m not too affected by the technicality of the name. It’s just something kind of interesting to consider.

If you have thoughts on the matter, drop me a comment and we can discuss! And take this poll because it takes literally two seconds and polls are fun!

P.S. If for some reason you’ve read this exact post before on the internet, I actually wrote it for a blogging course I took last semester in university, so it’s all my own words, I’m just resposting it on my real blog!

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26 thoughts on “What’s The Difference Between Marathon And Binge-Watch?

  1. I think there may be a simple explanation for using both terms. In the day before Netflix and streaming there was a considerable amount of “marathoning” going on via the VCR. I recall a few rainy weekends in the summer of going to the local video place and getting 2 or 3 movies of a certain genre, or with certain actors and watching them all as fast as possible (it was not cheap to have them past the return date). At any rate, we did marathon watch even 25 years ago, provided you had a VCR and something on a tape to watch.
    Even two decades ago I would set my VCR to tape episodes of shows I liked, and then I would sit and watch several episodes in one evening. Now you don’t necessarily have to PVR, as a lot of it is available on various platforms for you to watch whenever you want.
    Viewing material just wasn’t as accessible and convenient as it is now. And I think that this convenience factor morphs into binge-watching. Also, there is way more TV out there to be watched than there ever was, making it easier to binge. Once a season ended of a TV series, you would just wait until the next season. And movies were available at the theatre and then on VCR a good while after the release dates.
    Marathoning is limited and finite like the running races. It’s hard to run a lot of marathons in quick succession. Binging can happen more frequently, and it’s not necessarily good for you.
    I think we are in the era of binge-watching, for better or worse.

  2. This is very interesting timing, because I was just about to write a post that began with classifying some of my viewing habits not as a binge but as more of a steady diet (ie, marathon). Mainly because I *don’t* think a binge and a marathon of shows are quite the same. If I’m binge watching a show, it sucks up the bulk of my free time, so much show so that I may get through a full, 24-episode season of something in about a week or a short season in a long weekend.

    A marathon, however is when I’ve committed to nearly daily viewing of a show, and I may even watch a few episodes back-to-back a couple days a week but I don’t plow through it quite so voraciously or necessarily make it the ONLY thing I’m watching right now.

    • That is a good way of defining them, actually. Looking back, I can classify most of my multi-episode viewings as binge-watching, but I can label a few as marathoning as I went slower.
      I hope you do decide to write that post because I’d love to read it!

  3. Yeah, I think that for me when I say I binge, I will literally watch one whole season (or more depending on the show) in one sitting. I’ll grab a snack or two or some water but never a meal and I’d just be in bed all day. But a marathon is a … “healthier” version where I’d give myself a set number of episodes per day.

  4. lrski said pretty much exactly what I was going to say. 🙂

    It wasn’t unusual for my friends and me to say on a particular weekend, “You want to watch the Star Wars trilogy back-to-back?” or “You want to watch ‘Princess Bride,’ ‘NeverEnding Story’ and ‘Willow’?”

    However, even though I had a lot of episodes of “Quantum Leap” on VHS, we would have never said, “You want to watch every episode of an entire season without taking a break?” That would have seemed like way more trouble than it was worth.

    But to be fair, back then, TV stories were much more standalone. Even despite the cliffhanger at the end of every episode of QL, and the occasional two-parter or small bit of continuity, the events of one episode didn’t directly affect the events of another. Over the summer, NBC would re-run the episodes in a different order than they originally aired, and it didn’t seem weird. In fact, there was a new surprise: “Oh, cool, they’re gonna show *that* one next!”

    One couldn’t show episodes of, say, “Daredevil” out of order and hope that the audience could have any idea what was going on. Since each season represents a complete story, I can at least partly understand people’s desire to keep going, like binge-reading a good novel. The story hasn’t reached its completion, and the audience won’t be satisfied until it does.

    Whoops, I guess I did have a bit more to say than I thought I did. 😀

    • Good point, I never did consider how stand alone TV used to be compared to now, and I think you’re very right; it does play a part in this new culture. That being said, I think a lot of comedies nowadays are still fairly stand alone, but I do like bingeing those too if I haven’t seen it before.

  5. It’s definitely binge-watching. It sounds more shameful, yes, but it’s closer to the truth. I’m not much of a binge-watcher myself; I prefer to divide my time doing a variety of things, and I don’t like the blinking-in-sunlight feeling when you’ve spent the whole day staring at a screen. (The only exception I made was when I watched all three extended LOTR films back to back, stopping only for food and toilet. It was glorious).

    • Yeah I agree that bingeing doesn’t make you feel great physically, but there is a sense of accomplishment and even a little pride when a session is complete that kind of outweighs those bad feelings!

  6. Maybe it’s a culture thing? I’ve never heard anyone my side of the pond call it a binge. I mean a friend and I watched all Harry Potter films in one sitting – just over 19 hours – and if that isn’t a marathon, I don’t know what is.

      • Yes, although ours is not nearly as extensive, more like a diet Netflix. I had the misfortune of staying in Chicago last year, and the place we were staying had it. I should never have looked 😦

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