Déjà View: The Psychology Behind the 'Rewatch'

When Netflix greets Kate Galyon with its bottomless buffet of TV shows and movies, she almost always goes for her comfort food instead: another serving of “The Office.”

Ms. Galyon, a 21-year-old baker in Denton, Texas, recently finished watching all 201 episodes of the comedy series for the 10th time. She tried sampling other shows but didn’t feel the same spark. So she started her 11th cycle through “The Office.”

A nine-season mockumentary about petty power struggles and shifting relationships at a Scranton, Pa., paper company, “The Office” leaves Netflix at the end of next year for a new streaming service from NBCUniversal. The show is more popular now than it was during its original broadcast run ending in 2013—not just because people are discovering “The Office” via streaming for the first time, but because they keep coming back to its ensemble of familiar misfits.

“I have connected with those characters. It’s tedious to try doing that again” with a new series, Ms. Galyon says. “Why would I waste my time when I could watch a show that I know that I love?”

In the decade since streaming TV technology ushered in the concept of binge viewing, the “rewatch” has evolved as a phenomenon with motivations and rituals of its own. While bingeing is associated with devouring new shows, rewatching is more about savoring old favorites.

Rewatchers slip back into reliable shows to summon certain moods, like music lovers teeing up playlists of nostalgia-inducing songs. Rewatchers use words like “self-care” and “comfort” to describe what it’s like to anticipate plot twists and romantic pairings as they unfold in “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Pretty Little Liars.” Rewatches also serve as an oasis from the deluge of new releases that have pushed TV production to record levels, and overwhelmed even the most diligent consumers.

Back in the days of old-fashioned reruns, generations of TV viewers got passive exposure to recycled shows from “Gilligan’s Island” to “Law & Order.” In the DVD era, fans invested in series sets to pore over intricate shows like “Lost” or “The Sopranos.” Now, the frictionless controls and vast inventory of streaming platforms make rewatches easier—and help satisfy a distinct consumer need at a time of media overflow.

According to the “paradox of choice,” a psychological concept popularized by a 2004 book of the same name, an overabundance of options stymies consumers’ ability to choose among them. It’s a feeling many TV viewers already experience when they pick up their remote controls, and will only increase as four major streaming platforms, including from Disney and Apple, launch in coming months with more and more programming.
“The problem with limitless choice is that choice is daunting,” says Derek Kompare, a media studies professor at Southern Methodist University and the author of “Rerun Nation,” a book about the business history of repeats.

‘Why would I waste my time when I could watch a show that I know that I love?’ says Ms. Galyon. Photo: Kate Galyon
Rewatching is one of the forces driving a spate of blockbuster TV deals, as rival streamers lay claim to classic shows that can help keep subscribers locked in. For its coming streaming platform HBO Max, AT&T’s WarnerMedia secured U.S. streaming rights to the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” a five-year agreement worth a reported $500 million. Similar sums fueled deals for “Friends” (moving from Netflix to HBO Max next year), “Parks and Recreation” (from Netflix to NBCUniversal’s Peacock service next year) and “Seinfeld” (from Walt Disney’s Hulu to Netflix in 2021).

Though streaming TV companies gather comprehensive data on their users’ viewing patterns, including rewatching, they don’t make much of it public. Rewatch potential is among the indicators that help measure a show’s value in the streaming market, especially as streamers look beyond the most popular classics for shows to acquire, says Keith Le Goy, president of worldwide distribution for Sony Pictures Television, the studio whose holdings include “Seinfeld.”

Does the show have fans who quote dialogue from memory, or return to favorite episodes looking for new details? “To the extent those things are going to help gain and retain subscribers, that’s what [streaming buyers] are looking for,” Mr. Le Goy says. Rewatching is part of a consumer trend toward the perceived security of the familiar, he adds. “In a world with insecurity of all sorts, that level of comfort is something people are gravitating to more than ever.”

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TV Time, an app people use to catalog their viewing history, says an average 8.2% of its U.S. users logged a rewatch of at least one episode per month this year.

However, on social media, the conversation around rewatching has spiked. Twitter says there was a median 542,110 posts per month last year that included the term “rewatch,” a 60% percent increase from 2017. So far in 2019, the rate is already 23% higher than it was last year.

Derek Hay, a 35-year-old retail manager in Jacksonville, Fla., turns to a handful of familiar shows based on his mood. The fish-out-of-water family comedy “Schitt’s Creek” when he wants to zone out; the British period drama “Downton Abbey” when he wants to be transported. But it’s the defunct NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation” he comes back to most often. After Mr. Hay’s nine-hour shifts of dealing with customers at an Old Navy, the comedy about small-town civil servants is an antidepressant that comes in 21-minute doses.

“The show is endlessly optimistic,” says Mr. Hay. He dips into “Parks and Recreation” a few times a week, always watches chronologically, and is on his sixth round through the series. He singles out Amy Poehler’s lead character—an indefatigable booster for her fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana—as the show’s biggest magnet. “Leslie Knope is such a force for good. I love her so much.”

Mr. Hay, a streaming subscriber of Amazon, HBO Go, Hulu and Netflix, works to keep up with current shows like “Euphoria” and “Succession.” But a growing numbness to new options has only strengthened his embrace of standbys like “Parks and Rec,” he says: “Going on vacation is nice, but it’s always nice to come home.”

Nostalgia is a powerful hook for rewatchers, even for those who didn’t experience the original production runs of their tried-and-true shows. Ms. Galyon, the serial “Office” viewer, was 7 years old when the U.S. adaptation from the U.K. premiered.

But she grew up with an older brother who often quoted “The Office,” and associates the show with her time at culinary school when she was “coming out of my shell” and unwinding with episodes after an internship in San Francisco.

Now, the show serves as a “universal experience” for people of her generation, she says. But it’s also personal: An “Office” rewatch helped her weather the end of a long-term relationship last summer, and the characters’ absurd but predictable presence lifts her mood. “They take my mind off my anxieties,” says Ms. Galyon, who often makes paintings or cleans up as the show plays.

For fans of certain shows, the rewatch offers a respite from the crowded streaming ecosystem itself. “Homicide: Life on the Street” is one of those old series that isn’t available on Amazon, Netflix or Hulu. So Tanis Fowler, a 39-year-old news editor in Toronto, has been firing up her ailing DVD player to work her way through the 122-episode crime show.

Tanis Fowler, a 39-year-old news editor in Toronto, has been watching ‘Homicide: Life on the Street’ on her ailing DVD player. Photo: Tanis Fowler
Her DVD detour helps avoid her low-level guilt about falling behind on newer shows, including “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix and “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu. Ms. Fowler says the teeming browsing menus in those apps can feel “like a chore list that you have to do.”

She enjoys tracking the evolution of “Homicide” actors, including Andre Braugher and Richard Belzer in younger form, while studying the show’s gritty style.

However, as a repeat viewer, Ms. Fowler already knows she’ll probably cut her current “Homicide” rewatch short. “The last two seasons,” she says, “are a bit of a slog.”
The Most Rewatched Shows, According to Twitter Mentions
A ranking of the TV shows most mentioned in association with the term “rewatch” during the past five years
“Game of Thrones”
“Friends”
“Gossip Girl”
“The Office”
“Grey’s Anatomy”
“Lost”
“Pretty Little Liars”
“The Walking Dead”
“Breaking Bad”
“Timeless”

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