I don’t think it’s an overstatement to claim that box sets have been a sort of therapy for millions of us during lockdown.

Streaming service provider Netflix is the most subscribed to, followed by Amazon Prime and Disney+, although there are many other popular ones.

With the introduction of these media services, it is now possible to binge-watch an entire series in one sitting. The finest of dramas, comedies and documentaries are all right there, readily available to us, from Breaking Bad to The Crown, from the The Queen’s Gambit to The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, from Game of Thrones to Vikings. In fact, the 21st Century has been labelled as the golden age of box set television.

According to Finder.com, streaming services have changed the way we watch TV and more than 14 million UK homes have at least one streaming subscription, up by almost 20 per cent from 2018. Although this phenomenon was already apparent before 2020, apparently viewers now spend up to 40 per cent of their day on average watching TV since the lockdown measures have been in place!

The website, tbivision.com claims that SKY has seen the highest ever TV viewing among its customers “equating to a grand total of 5.5 hours a day”. Our overall media consumption is clearly continuing to rise. In times of such uncertainty, we’re understandably relying on TV to inform, educate and entertain. It is providing a much-needed sense of national connection for us all, especially programmes like I’m a Celebrity and Strictly Come Dancing.

Our daily routines have changed in general and as many of us are waking up slightly later, with no commute and going to bed later, we can binge on content. Apparently 16 to 24 year-olds are the most likely group to binge-watch, with over 80 per cent reporting to do it monthly.

Practically everybody I speak to is engrossed in one series or other, including me. I am enjoying The Crown; watching the amazing Emma Corrin as Princess Diana, with her subtle tilt of the head and her soft watery voice. Then there’s Bridgerton, a 21st Century adaptation of a period drama with plenty of emotional entanglements and lavish locations.

This so-called ‘box set effect’ appears to be helping us to cope during lockdown. These dramas are of interest to us, promoting pleasure and some much-needed escapism. We love to watch memorable and gripping scenes that really push its characters. We subconsciously identify with characters who are flawed or maybe inspire us. The power of drama touches upon the very roots of human storytelling, providing an emotional release and sense of catharsis.

Although I must admit, that during the very depths of lockdown I didn’t really go down the box set route, I felt that I needed more of a ‘nostalgia fest’ to see me through the dark winter of 2020, so I turned to the power of film. The safety and comfort of rewatching old movies allowed me to reminisce and reconnect with protagonists I already knew, who maybe take back their power, rediscover their true selves, emotionally heal from destructive relationships and find new love.

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Strangely, when we watch our favourite movies, we always catch something new. Nostalgia cultivates optimism, puts us in touch with feel-good feelings. I have enjoyed taking that journey back to my teens during 2020 with St Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club, with Top Gun and Fame; or with films that make me reflect like Erin Brockovich or Logan’s Run.

I have noticed during lockdown friends, family and neighbours talking about Netflix dramas with passion and enthusiasm. It makes me wonder, does anybody still read? Are we being overly saturated in worldwide media consumption? Are we losing our boundaries with reality by living in these dramas?

Should we assume that this 21st century box set phenomena is a good thing? Well, it certainly is for the owners of Sky, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney, not to mention many other streaming services.

I’ll never forget a book I came across years ago entitled Four arguments for the Elimination of Television. I was intrigued as it just had a black cover with white typescript. It looked like a warning, like a book that was not for the faint hearted. It was a very interesting read and changed my perceptions considerably. After reading it, I adjusted my TV watching habits permanently.

It was written back in 1978 by Jerry Mander, who worked as an advertising executive for over a decade and wanted to share what he had learned from his industry. It’s amazing how now, many years later, this book is more pertinent than ever.

Mander makes some interesting observations like how the literacy rate has fallen since the invention of television, how our experiences of the world are no longer ‘direct’ or what he calls ‘primary;’ instead they have become secondary, that is, ‘mediated’. The author claims that advertising unplugs us from “our natural connection to the environment and we are re-plugged into the new consumer environment.” TV is not that different. “The people who control television become the choreographers of our internal awareness.”

Mander tells us about the Emery report finding that, after children have been watching TV, they have difficulty recalling what they have just seen. The brainwaves slow down and slip into alpha level during which the mind is at its most receptive and “information can be placed into the mind directly, without viewer participation” decreasing beta waves. It was discovered that reading and conversation produces a much higher amount of beta activity.

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Television is described as a “time out” or an “anti-experience". Streams of images can have a hypnotic effect, creating a passive mental attitude, a sort of anaesthesia and the viewer “is little more than a vessel of reception”. An overload of information can make us feel spaced out and mesmerized.

The danger in all of this is of course that we become unconscious of our daily habits. We need to stay aware of what we are doing. Lounging on the sofa for more than three hours of TV a day is not a healthy habit. For me, it’s not about eliminating TV but remaining self-aware and exercising a little discipline to watch it here and there and not become overly dependent on it, as with all things I guess.

Of course, these lockdowns have been tough, and we have needed to stay sane amid social restrictions. What’s wrong with a bit of pure unadulterated escapism? Writer Marcel Proust assures us that “If we are to make reality endurable, we must all nourish a fantasy or two.”

On the other hand, this surge in TV-watching continues and it has clearly become a little addictive lately, but now that the weather is warmer and lockdown is easing, instead of bingeing on that second or third series, perhaps we can make more of an effort to go for a walk instead of tuning in? Or after we’ve watched about an hour of TV, fit in a hobby?

I suppose we can be forgiven as we’ve all been through a lot recently so who can blame us really, but in the end, I have to agree with Groucho Marx who jested: “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” Boom Boom!

  • Marisa Laycock moved to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city. These columns are also available as podcasts from 92.6FM Radio Verulam at www.radioverulam.com/smallcitylife