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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 (such as AMC with the 2014 Hobbit Marathon), fan sites (such as TheOneRing.net), or by cable channels that show already-run seasons (such as AMC TV with The Walking Dead season 4 marathon in 2013), 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 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,
- when well known star of a show retires or dies (this is particularly popular on networks that specialize in reruns),
- to celebrate (or to take advantage of additional viewers on) a holiday,
- 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.
Television marathons originated at Nick at Nite, where Alan Goodman and Fred Seibert created the idea in 1985. Goodman and Seibert based the concept 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, that are sometimes to referred to mini-marathons. Documentary channels such as History and National Geographic Channel, in particular, have begun routinely to broadcast marathons of 12 hours or more of some programs. Separated by movies and other series, Law & Order and its related spin-offs air on TNT, USA, and Bravo a total of approximately ten times a day.
Because of the expense of producing new episodes, almost all marathons primarily feature reruns of episodes already previously seen, although a new episode may be tacked on at or near the end in prime time (the marathon may end by replaying that new episode into the overnight 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.
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 that 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.
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 2-6 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.
Some of the longest running marathons are the two Twilight Zone marathons that air on Syfy in the United States on New Years 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. The longest continuous marathon in the history of television was a nineteen-day marathon of Saturday Night Live on VH1 Classic, where they aired the first 39 seasons of Saturday Night Live in reverse order.
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.
- Perks, Lisa. (2014). Media Marathoning: Immersions in Morality. Lexington Books, p. ix.
- Quoted in John Jurgensen. (July 13, 2013). Binge Viewing: TV's Lost Weekends. The Wall Street Journal.
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- Perks, Lisa (2014). Media Marathoning: Immersions in Morality. Lexington Books, pp. xv-xxxix.
- Bradley, Bill. "'The Simpsons' Launches On FXX With Longest Continuous Marathon Ever". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 19 August 2014.
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- "Jon Stewart to Get Month-Long Send Off From Comedy Central". TheWrap. Retrieved 25 June 2015.
- Perks, 2014, xii.
- Brian Stelter, “Netflix Finds Plenty of Binge Watching, but Little Guilt,” CNN Money, December 13, 2013, accessed December 16, 2013.
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