We're living in a golden age of TV right now. Every fan will differ on when exactly it started, but many would say that The Sopranos kicked off a new era in TV quality, with cinematic production values making shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and so many others compulsive, must-watch viewing.
Add virtually unrestricted access via services like Netflix and digital downloads, and it's easier than ever before to binge-watch whatever you want. But while that's great for immersing ourselves in the worlds of our favourite characters (and missing out on sleep), what are the environmental consequences of heavy TV watching?
A new study by researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology found that a small percentage of heavy TV watchers – being people who on average watch TV for 7.7 hours every day – end up consuming a significant chunk of the overall amount of electricity consumed by TV sets in the US.
Using data from the American Time Use Survey, which collects information on the daily schedule of about 10,000 Americans every year, the team found that heavy TV watchers account for 34 percent of all the electricity consumed to power US televisions, despite this group only making up 14 percent of the population.
By comparison, most people in the US (54 percent of the population) are only considered light TV watchers, watching just 1.1 hours a day, and only using 26 percent of the total energy – even though they vastly outnumber the heavy watchers by a factor of almost four.
The remainder - about a third of the population - lies somewhere in between the heavy and light groups. These people watch 3.5 hours a day, consuming around 40 percent of TV electricity overall.
How does the heavy group have the time to get through 7.7 hours of TV every day? Well, they're not necessarily binge-watching seasons of House of Cards and The Walking Dead back-to-back.
According to the researchers, the heavy watchers come from a range of different demographic groups, but they're often older than 65 and are primarily unemployed or working part-time, and are less educated. In other words, they're more likely to leave their TV running for a lot of the day, and often from the early afternoon into the evening.
Apart from offering an interesting glimpse into the viewing habits of people, the main purpose of the study is to point out that if we can get the heavy watchers to switch to more power-efficient TV sets, the benefits overall would be significantly greater than persuading light watchers to do the same thing. And would probably also be a lot more successful than simply encouraging people to watch less TV.
"While a few might go along, asking people to change their behaviour, especially with regards to something they obviously enjoy, isn't likely to gather a huge following," one the researchers, Eric Williams, wrote at The Conversation.
"Instead, much of the problem can be mitigated using better technology. Flat panel televisions use far less energy than the old cathode ray tube (CRT) type. Newer flat panel screens use even less energy when lit with light emitting diodes instead of miniature fluorescent tubes."
The personal savings from lower electricity consumption due to switching to a more-efficient TV aren't huge – about US$20 per year on electricity bills, and more if switching from a CRT, the team says. But when you add up the power savings over millions of people, particularly the heavy watchers, the environmental benefits of better TVs would be considerable.
To entice people to make sure they're using an efficient TV, the researchers suggest power companies should base energy-efficiency programs around the amount of electricity people actually use, rather than focusing on averages that don't apply to particular individuals. That way we can binge-watch to our heart's content, but minimise the impact on the grid.
"With 300 million televisions in America, almost one for every person, even small changes can add up quickly nationally, especially if the highest users switch to the most efficient televisions on the market and adjust settings to ensure their TVs aren't needlessly wasting electricity," Noah Horowitz, director of the Natural Resources Defence Council's Centre for Energy Efficiency Standards, who wasn't involved with the study, told Chris Mooney at The Washington Post.
"After all, every energy efficient TV helps reduce the need to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity to run it."
The findings are reported in Energy Policy.