Bellisario College doctoral graduate asks 'To binge or not to binge?'

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.— Upon successfully defending her dissertation, Arienne Ferchaud had an unusual group of people to thank.


Ferchaud, who recently earned her doctorate from the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, began watching the weekly AMC television show “The Walking Dead” a few years ago. After binge-watching the first few seasons, she was finally caught up on the story. But after discussing the latest season with friends, she noticed that her thoughts differed from those who had been watching since the show first aired.

“I thought the first two seasons were great, but the people who watched it week to week found the second season incredibly boring,” Ferchaud said. “I was curious … does it matter how you watch a television show? Does it influence the show as a whole?”

With the entertainment media’s intense turn toward digital streaming, she thought it was important to find out. So, Ferchaud asked those questions in her dissertation project, which she completed on Feb. 22.

Ferchaud has loved storytelling for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Gonzales, Louisiana, a small town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, she wrote many of her own. After high school, she enrolled at Louisiana State University. English seemed like the natural subject to study, but a lot changed in those four years.

It was 2009, and Ferchaud said people still “watched television normally,” week to week when the episodes aired. By graduation, the entertainment industry was flipped upside down and a new area of study emerged.

“I find all of this change — and there’s a lot — really interesting,” Ferchaud said. “So, that’s what I research the most now — new entertainment media.”

As a media consumer, Ferchaud is on board with the streaming revolution. She subscribes to Amazon, Hulu and Netflix and does not watch cable unless there’s a football game on. Ferchaud watches what she wants when she wants, and she is curious what that might mean to the industry.

Mary Beth Oliver, a distinguished professor in the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies and Ferchaud’s adviser, said examining how on demand streaming entertainment affects viewers is both timely and practical, as well as necessary given the rapidly evolving nature of the technology.

“Arienne examines the role of newer technologies and users’ psychological responses,” Oliver said. “This direction will not only inform current theorizing in media psychology, but it will also provide a very useful tool to industry professionals.”

After instructing two groups of participants to watch three episodes of an HBO show — one group all at once and another group over three weeks — Ferchaud compared the viewing experiences between the two groups. She asked the viewers to fill out a questionnaire, and the results, she said, were surprising.

“I thought people would be more engaged and more interested if they binged the show, be more likely to share it,” she said. “I found the opposite.”

Ferchaud discovered that when viewers have time between episodes, they think about the show and its characters more. They develop deeper relationships with the characters and the plot, and they are more likely to recommend the series to friends.

A previous study found that more suspenseful and serial-style programs were more “binge-able.” But knowing that viewers may interpret their experience more positively if they watch a weekly show may alter how networks and streaming services create shows.

“If you’re an advertiser, you may not want the show to be binge-able,” Ferchaud said. “You may seek out more episodic, less suspenseful programs that people can enjoy week to week.”

Ferchaud hopes to continue this line of research and examine how viewers watch, share, talk about and enjoy new shows. She hopes future studies can mirror a realistic viewing experience better. She noted that forcing people to binge a show likely affects their enjoyment.

Today, Ferchaud is on the job market and seeking a professorship where she can continue her research, as well as teach. Life in front of the classroom has become a new passion since arriving at the University Park campus. Over the past few semesters, Ferchaud has taught COMM 190: Game and Interactive Media and COMM 118: Introduction to Media Effects.

“Not every university values teaching as much as the (Bellisario) College or I do,” she said. “There is nothing like having a student who gets into a topic that you’re interested in. If you can inspire and help them work things out, it’s awesome.”

Oliver said Ferchaud’s experience working in the lab, teaching in the classroom and collaborating with colleagues has prepped her nicely for a career in academia. Having a research topic that’s relevant to today’s media landscape only sweetens the deal.

“Arienne has already established herself as an expert within the discipline,” Oliver said. “At this early stage of her career, she has already made a splash. I can’t wait to continue to see her flourish as a scholar.”

Arienne Ferchaud defended her doctoral dissertation on Feb. 22. Her project found that viewers felt more connected to TV characters when they watched the program week to week compared to watching all of the episodes at once. Credit: Jonathan F. McVerry / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated June 14, 2021