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The case against binge-watching TV

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LAKE CITY, Pa. - It's no secret technology is changing our television-viewing habits.

Americans are increasingly engaging in a practice known as television binge-watching — going through several episodes of a TV show in a single stretch. In the old days, of course, people watched one episode a week. That changed with digital video recorders and Internet streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. DVDs and online services also make it possible to start shows from the beginning, even years after the finale has aired.

I used some recent trips to finish Showtime's "Dexter" and start CBS' "The Good Wife." In between, I breezed through Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black" and the second season of "House of Cards." I have about 50 series on various watch lists — and people are continually recommending more. I know what I'll be doing this Labor Day weekend.

So why am I unhappy about this new way to watch TV?

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— AVOIDING SPOILERS:

The biggest challenge with binge-watching is avoiding mentions of plot twists and other spoilers in the news media, on social networks and in casual conversations. Although friends on Facebook restrain from giving specifics, they often say enough to signal that something surprising just happened. Please! When I got to one of those episodes in question on "Game of Thrones" last year, I thought to myself, that's it? It became a letdown rather than a shock as fans watching at the time experienced it.

Worse, I knew how the serial-killer drama "Dexter" ended long before I got to watch the final season during a trip to California this summer. Yes, it's my fault for not keeping up; the finale was shown last September. But this column is about what I miss about watching television the old-fashioned way.

I also know what's coming on "The Good Wife" three seasons from the one I'm currently watching. Then again, hearing about that plot twist this spring got me interested in the legal drama. Amazon Instant Video made it possible to start watching from Season 1.

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— AVOIDING SPOILING:

Aware of how it feels to hear about spoilers, I'm careful not to "spoil" others. But it's hard to keep track of what I can say to whom.

"How I Met Your Mother" ended its nine-year run in March. To minimize the risk of spoilers, I watched it the day after the finale aired on CBS. But my friends were still months behind and weren't available to discuss the meeting of the mother with me.

Same goes for "Breaking Bad," which ended last fall after five seasons to critical acclaim. It's a show many people want to watch, but relatively few have finished. Will you hurry up so I can talk about it?

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— THE PASSAGE OF TIME:

I lose the sense of time by binge-watching. I don't mean hours lost to television when I could be doing something useful to society, like laundry. Many television shows follow the seasons. Characters mark Christmas in December and Valentine's Day in February. Leaves are colorful in the fall. When I binge-watch, I don't always get a good sense of whether something I watched just four hours ago really took place four weeks or four months ago.

I also miss having a week or even a summer to reflect. Instead of challenging my mind to play out potential outcomes following a cliffhanger, I can simply press "play" to find out in the next episode.

The last series I truly watched live was "Lost." I don't mean watching on a DVR that night or the next day. I mean watching it as it aired — usually at a bar in New York filled with fans who were quick to shush anyone who tried to talk. I spent the week between episodes discussing theories with friends, reading blogs and listening to podcasts devoted to the show. For the finale in May 2010, a friend in Belgium at the time even dropped by our gathering in New York for a surprise visit. Alas, a friend who just went through the entire series online this spring didn't have those opportunities.

Of course, "Lost" isn't like most series. And it's true that some shows are easier to follow by bingeing. Twist-heavy shows such as "Revenge" and "Scandal" come to mind. But overall, you're losing something when you're not watching shows as they air.

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— TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING:

Netflix has been one of the biggest promoters — and enablers — of bingeing. As it does with all other original series, Netflix released the entire fourth season of "Arrested Development" at once last year.

I watched all 15 half-hour episodes in a single day, even after I started getting tired toward the end. I felt I had to race through the season or risk hearing about plots and jokes from other sources. Those final episodes were less enjoyable and less memorable as a result.

I've also let too much of my life slide trying to catch up on shows. In the past, when you heard about a good show, you started with the next episode that aired, and you managed to figure out what was going on. Nowadays, there's a temptation to start from the beginning, even as new episodes air, such that it becomes overwhelming to catch up and keep up.

That happened to me with "The Good Wife." I borrowed a friend's Wi-Fi connection in Boulder, Colorado, to download the entire first season. I got through a good part of it as I travelled by train from Denver to New York. All the while, I felt guilty that I wasn't doing more productive things, such as finishing this column that I'd been procrastinating on for months because the "play" button was so easy to tap.

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