What rewatching old shows teaches us about ourselves

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Returning to familiar TV shows is about more than nostalgia.

In the early 2000s, just a few years before Netflix began offering streaming services and when time spent watching TV in America was at its peak, Cristel Russell had an observation: Amid the boom of new television series, why did so many people choose to rewatch shows they’d already seen? Russell, a professor of marketing at the Graziadio Business School at Pepperdine University, realized the phenomenon applied not only to television, but books, movies, and travel experiences, too. “I thought this question had already been studied,” she says. “And it turned out it had not.”

Russell and a collaborator, the marketing researcher Sidney Levy, interviewed 23 study participants to parse their motivations for revisiting familiar media. Published in 2011, Russell and Levy’s paper helped define the concept of a rewatch — volitional reconsumption — and explained why nostalgia isn’t the primary motivation for returning to these shows.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What did you find motivated people to revisit certain media?

Going into this, I thought that it would be nostalgia, because that would have seemed like the most logical reason. Participants would say [shows were] like comfort food. They would go back to something that was familiar, and they knew they liked it, but they didn’t necessarily remember the details of why they liked it. They knew that it was a funny show, but they couldn’t really remember exactly what was funny about it, or they knew that it was a movie that made them feel good at the end, but couldn’t remember the details. They enjoyed it that much more because now they were rediscovering it as if it were new because they couldn’t remember exactly.

If it’s not nostalgia, then what’s at play here?

The definition of nostalgia is a yearning for the past. It’s a desire to go back to a previous time. What I found in my research is that it’s not so much [participants] were yearning for the past. It’s that the rewatching experience allowed them to appreciate how much they had grown. It wasn’t yearning for the past; it was an appreciation of the present. The deep connection that you make to [the show] provides this self-reflexive moment that you’re like, “Wow, when I first watched this, I was 20. And now I’m 40. And I have kids.” You see it differently and that allows you to be like, “I’m a different person than I was then.”

What other misconceptions exist that are widely accepted about rewatching?

I thought this would be a passive behavior. I thought that people rewatched because they wanted something mindless. But it’s usually very engaging and active. They really wanted to be transported into their show but also into themselves and trying to recapture the enjoyment that they remember having. We call it volitional because you choose it. You want it and therefore you are really into it and paying attention to it.

During the pandemic, many people were rewatching shows, partly due to the fact that production on new shows and films had stalled. But what else fueled our decisions to revisit TV during this time of crisis?

Comfort. I do think there’s an element of, “I know this is not going to disappoint me because I remember liking it.” Just like when you look at a big menu at a restaurant and you look at all these other things that you’ve never tried, but you always end up ordering the pad thai with shrimp. We have a tendency to revert to the familiar — that’s a human drive — and especially at times of crisis. I think we saw some of that in the pandemic. But because of streaming access, you have so many choices that you just don’t know how to make sense of it all. So you end up just being like, “Oh, I’ll take the one that I know because I can’t digest these hundreds of thousands of different options that I have on my Roku and Netflix.”

It’s interesting that you point that out because I’ve been noticing people around my age rewatching the HBO show Girls which aired about 10 years ago, which is not that long ago. But I think for people of my generation, we’re reflecting on our youth.

We also sometimes see how society has changed. It makes you realize the progress that society might have made, or at least the changes. I see it as progressive where you see that you yourself have changed, but maybe also the world that you live in has changed. So it’s a little window to the past. But this window to the past allows you to see the present more clearly.

What makes a good rewatch show? Do they have certain qualities or characteristics or is it more so about the individual’s taste?

Honestly, I am still searching for the answer. In fact, I have a project going on right now that is about what makes a hit because I do think there are certain patterns. My co-author and I think there’s something related to the cultural zeitgeist — that a show taps into a particular cultural zeitgeist and that’s what makes it become a hit when it first comes out.

There are universal characteristics that will make it stick across these generations, like friendships. Seinfeld is a group of friends. Friends is a group of friends. So there’s a lot of factors, which is why it’s so hard to answer these questions. And my job, as a researcher, is to try to distill it down to the essential factors.

I think likely it’s going to come down to the basic Greek styles like tragedy, comedy.

Does binge-watching impact the way that we revisit and reinterpret a show that we probably watched when it aired weekly?

I have another paper called Narrative Navigation, it’s also about TV, and in that one, what we noticed was in the streaming age, people navigate the shows that they watch, and especially the shows that they rewatch, very differently. I rewatch things from start to finish. We would find that people would watch the ending first. Or they would skip entire scenes because there’s a character that they don’t like. Or just watch the last season.

Most of the people we interviewed were doing all this piecemeal viewing or skipping or pausing. Many were even going on the internet to book a trip so they could go visit the spot that they just saw on the show.

What do people get out of it by watching it in these ways?

Basically now they’re in control. In the old days, it was here’s your Thursday night lineup. And you’ve got to wait until next Thursday to see the next episode. Now we’re fed the entire three seasons of a series all at once, and so you get to choose the pace at which you watch it. It’s not one size fits all anymore. It used to be linear. Even if they recorded it, most people watched TV pretty close to when episodes were released. Now it’s all over the place.

What has surprised you the most from your research on rewatching?

No matter how many times people repeated watching the same TV series, they would always pick up on new things in it. The reason is because people are hyper-responsive. In other words, they’ve fully dedicated their attention. We’re so distracted in modern life. This is actually a way of focusing your attention on something because you love it so much. This hyper-attentiveness and hyper-responsiveness makes you think, “I didn’t even notice, in the background of the garden over there, they’re growing this flower.” The first time you never even noticed there was a garden in the background because we’re looking at the characters. It’s almost like an endless supply of novelty, even though you’re actually doing something that’s the same.

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