A marathon is an event in which viewers or readers engage many hours' worth of media (film, television, books, YouTube videos etc.) in a condensed time period. This phrase represents a two-fold shift from binge-watch in that it incorporates other media (not just television) and it reduces the negative connotations associated with bingeing. In the 2014 book Media Marathoning: Immersions in Morality, Lisa Perks describes media marathoning as a "comprehensive and complimentary phrase" that "connotes a conjoined triumph of commitment and stamina. This phrase also captures viewers' or readers' engrossment, effort, and sense of accomplishment surrounding their media interaction." Netflix executive Todd Yellin is quoted as saying "I don't like the term 'binge,' because it sounds almost pathological. 'Marathon' sounds more celebratory."
Media marathons can be organized around particular series, particular artists (e.g., Kurosawa or Hitchcock), or genres (e.g., horror films or chick flicks). Marathons can be user-created: one person decides to undertake a marathon solo or to organize a group marathon. Marathons may also be producer-created. Producer-created marathons are usually orchestrated by movie theaters, fan sites, or by cable channels that show already-run seasons, and, more recently, with original first-run programming through streaming services (such as Netflix's House of Cards). In television, a marathon is an extension of the concept of block programming.
The most common reasons for a network to run a marathon are:
- to celebrate the acquisition of a series,
- to commemorate the loss of rights to a series
- to lead into a highly anticipated episode of a series (such as a return from a hiatus or a series finale),
- likewise to allow viewers to catch up on a series before a season finale,
- to honor the retirement or death of a person associated with the series (this is particularly popular on networks that specialize in reruns),
- to mark a milestone associated with that series (such as the anniversary of its premiere, or reaching a certain number of episodes)
- to celebrate (or to take advantage of additional viewers on) a holiday, especially with holiday-themed episodes,
- to burn off a contract for a television series that has proved unprofitable,
- to signal the end of a channel format and/or the start of a new one,
- or to inexpensively counterprogram against more popular programs such as the Super Bowl,
Marathons are attractive to genre movie fans, or families that like watching their favourite movies/TV shows in blocks at a time.
Japanese manga magazine Weekly Shōnen Jump developed a successful formula of publishing individual manga chapters and then compiling them into separate standalone tankōbon volumes that could be "binged" all at once. This Jump formula produced major Japanese pop culture hits such as Dragon Ball (1984 debut), One Piece (1997 debut) and Naruto (1999 debut). According to Matt Alt of The New Yorker, "Jump presaged the way the world consumes streaming entertainment today."
Marathon viewing sessions of Japanese anime television series have been a common trend in anime fandom for decades, dating back to the late 1970s to 1980s. According to an early American anime cosplayer, Karen Schnaubelt, Japanese anime were "incredibly difficult to come by" with "nothing available except broadcast TV until" VHS videotapes became commonly available in the late 1970s, allowing fans to import anime shows from Japan; she noted that a friend "would record the episodes" and then "a group of us would gather at his apartment and watch a marathon of the episodes." At comic conventions and sci-fi conventions in the 1980s, fans brought video tapes to hold marathon anime screenings; BayCon 1986, for example, held an 80-hour long anime marathon.
On broadcast TV, the first TV marathons aired on Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite, on July 1, 1985, presenting multiple episodes from Donna Reed and Route 66. The idea by Alan Goodman and Fred Seibert was based on a similar concept that radio stations used, in which songs by one particular artist would be played for a prolonged period of time.
While early marathons were rare and special, in modern time it is common for some networks to air a television series in three- to four-hour blocks, sometimes on a daily basis, mainly to appeal to and compete with subscription video-on-demand services (such as Hulu and Netflix) that have enabled voluntary "binge-watching" of television series.
Almost all marathons primarily feature reruns of episodes already previously broadcast, although one may be used to lead into the premiere of a new episode. To compete with the typical practice of streaming services releasing entire seasons of original productions all at once, TBS premiered the entire first season of Angie Tribeca as a marathon, running the 10 episodes on a loop for 25 hours. In a few cases, especially with classic television, lost episodes, originally unseen television pilots, and other programming that may not have been seen during the show's original run may be included.
Marathons have proven to be a viable way of rerunning reality television contests, which have otherwise been relatively difficult to rerun in traditional forms (e.g. daily "strip" syndication) because of the loss of the element of surprise. In December 2012, MTV announced that it would air a seven-day (168-hour) marathon of Jersey Shore before the series finale on December 20, 2012; this marked one of the longest marathons in television history.
It has been speculated in the early 2010s that marathon television viewing or binge-watching, usually done on-demand by ordering a whole season of episodes of a television series on a service such as Netflix, is increasing in popularity. Infomercial blocks are generally not considered marathons beyond jocular mentions of such for networks such as CNBC which program heavy infomercial schedules on weekends or financially struggling stations which schedule them in high-profile time periods.
Perks attributes the contemporary marathoning trend to three factors: advances in content-delivery technologies, active audience behaviors, and increasing complexity of storytelling.
On June 25, 2015, Comedy Central announced that it would stream a marathon online of every episode of The Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart, known as "Your Month of Zen", running between June 26 and August 6, 2015, in honor of his retirement.
Researchers have operationally defined media marathoning and binge-watching in different ways. Perks provides medium-specific definitions. Marathoners must have "viewed a television season in a week or less, watched three or more films from the same series in a week or less, or read three or more books from the same series in a month or less". A Netflix-commissioned study defined "binge-watching" as viewing 2 to 6 episodes of the same show in one sitting. A 2014 TiVo survey defined binge-watching as watching 3 or more episodes of the same show in one day. In extreme media marathons, such as the Simpsons Marathon (which lasted 86 hours and 37 minutes), the viewing time can last an exceptionally long time. A marathon generally has to have at least five episodes in a row to be considered as such; as writer Patrick Hipes noted, "some networks (promote) 3–4 episodes as a 'marathon,' but that's more like a 5K."
Some of the longest-running marathons are the two Twilight Zone marathons that air on Syfy in the United States on New Year's Day and Independence Day; not counting early-morning infomercials, each run for roughly three days straight. Holidays are a common time for marathons; for instance, on Thanksgiving in 2010, over 40 cable networks aired marathons of various lengths.
For a time, the longest continuous marathon in the history of television was a twelve-day marathon of The Simpsons that aired on FXX, which aired non-stop from August 21, 2014 until September 2, 2014. The marathon featured the first 552 episodes of the series (every single episode that had already been released at the time) aired chronologically, including The Simpsons Movie, which FX Networks had already owned the rights to air. The first day of the marathon was the highest-rated broadcast day in the history of the network so far, the ratings more than tripled those of regular prime-time programming for FXX. Ratings during the first six nights of the marathon grew night after night, with the network ranking within the top 5 networks in basic cable each night.
The record was surpassed in 2015 by VH1 Classic, which broadcast a nineteen-day marathon of Saturday Night Live from January 28 to February 15, in honour of the program's 40th season (with its end date coinciding with the 40th-anniversary special episode on NBC). The marathon primarily featured the series' most notable episodes in a reverse chronological order (beginning with season 39 and concluding with its October 11, 1975 series premiere), along with blocks focusing on specific celebrities (such as Eddie Murphy and Justin Timberlake), a block of the program's retrospective episodes on February 15, as well as Saturday-night airings of films featuring alumni of the series (such as Black Sheep and Wayne's World).
Popcorn is considered a staple for movie marathons. Some people prefer to provide multiple flavors of popcorn, while others prefer to provide plain popcorn and flavoring separate so that participants can flavor it themselves.
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