The future of network television is bleak. Live and weekly DVR ratings have plummeted for most broadcast programs, as many viewers can now catch their favorite shows on demand via Hulu or illegal torrents. Others ignore the tame, broad network offerings for grittier, more niche shows on cable. Neither of these represent the biggest problem facing TV – that would be Netflix. More specifically, it’s the streaming giant’s foray into the original programming game that should cause all couch potatoes’ skin to crawl.
The newly minted “Netflix model” of distribution, in which a full season’s worth of episodes are packaged together and uploaded in bulk, has the television industry up in arms. Netflix bills it as a step forward in creating the optimal viewing experience. Alternatively, it could very well irreparably disrupt the fabric of television and, inadvertently, bring Netflix itself down with it.
Television binging has existed for years. Cable networks thrive on airing marathon blocks of procedurals like Law & Order or hit comedies like The Big Bang Theory. Selling TV shows on DVD allowed fans to savor favorite moments, but also gave curious consumers a chance to see what all the fuss was about. No longer did audiences have to settle for what was listed in TV Guide – they had the power to make their own schedules.
Netflix took this idea to the extreme.
The entertainment hub boasts dense back-catalogues of hundreds of television shows. Nostalgic for an old Saturday Night Live sketch? Fortunately, all 37 past seasons are available at the click of a button. You can spend eight days marathoning the full series of 24 without even getting off the couch – the next episode instantly queues up when finished. For those with fluid workload schedules who catch one commercial-filled fresh episode of Scandal each Thursday, it’s possible to watch six episodes on Friday.
The service is a massive hit. Netflix currently takes up one-third of all the downstream bandwidth the web can provide. The average subscriber watches 87 minutes of programming per day. While short of the 18-24-year-old live television average of 3.5 hours per day, that latter number is split across hundreds of network and cable channels. Netflix has a captive audience.
Like any other binging behavior, Netflix binging is unhealthy to the person. Studies have been done on instant vs. delayed gratification, the most famous being the Stanford marshmallow test. Preschoolers in the study were left alone with marshmallows and asked either to eat to their heart’s content or refrain until an adult returned. Follow-up tests done ten years later showed that those who delayed gratification had higher SAT scores and exhibited more assertive, self-reliant behavior. Those who succumbed exhibited more impulsive, stubborn, and jealous behavior.
Netflix is like an indulgent parent – offering unlimited sweets without any responsibility on the child’s behalf. Subscribers are spoiled with the model, gratifying themselves on a whim by binging new releases without regard for any psychological implications that may take place. American culture now expects instant gratification: fast food, instant messaging, instant streaming. There is virtue in patience, a virtue Netflix disregards in the name of better serving the consumer. Unfortunately, faster service does not always equal better service.
Structurally, the Netflix model is maladaptive as well. Network episodes can be broken down to acts, and act-outs are the punchy moments that air before commercial breaks to sustain the viewer’s interest. TV is designed for breaks, and viewers often need breaks to process information or share reactions and theories with co-viewers.
When network shows are stripped of commercials and sent to Netflix, the viewing experience is somewhat hollowed. Audiences have grown more used to this with TV on DVD and the restructuring of story beats on premium cable channels, but many comedies still require room to laugh and dramas room to breathe. Binging on Netflix turns distinct three-act episodes into an elongated 13th-act behemoth.
Netflix originals could suffer from issues with structural rhythm, especially with comedy. Before the launch of revived Arrested Development, show creator Mitch Hurwitz warned fans not to binge on episodes, as prolonged exposure leads to comedy fatigue. Perhaps binge viewing requires a certain mental dexterity not yet fully adjusted in audience’s minds. If the ultimate goal of watching television is to be entertained, it’s important to maximize on that goal by watching in the most structurally rewarding method possible.
The Netflix model also disregards the social aspects of watching TV. While more personal than outings to the movies or concerts, television shows have evolved past the living room to the water cooler to Twitter and GetGlue. Message boards would crash immediately after new episodes of Lost as fans flocked to dissect the show’s mysteries. This all worked because everyone was able to watch on the same schedule – and those who didn’t know what to avoid. Unless you binged House of Cards or Arrested Development, you ran the risk of getting spoiled. Conversely, the socially conscious critics and bloggers who did binge had to abridge their speech, as not to offend the people out there who hadn’t caught up yet.
But at what point does “yet” end? Is it OK to talk about the shocking death in House of Cards? Maybe, but can we talk about the return of [SPOILER] in Arrested Development? Probably not – but maybe, because Arrested fans might have watched faster, right? We just don’t know. Conversation becomes stunted or clandestine, which eliminates much of the buzz that builds pre-season – buzz that is necessary come June when Emmy voters fill out their ballots.
Will Netflix binge-viewing mean the end of traditional TV viewing habits?
Television executives have a right to be both frustrated with and terrified by the advent of the Netflix model. It’s the antithesis of what made them successful and disregards the established norms of entertainment business and finance. Television is – spoiler alert – creative content strategically arranged around advertisements; the true backbone of Hollywood. Advertisers spend money funding shows so people will see and buy their products. There’s a symbiotic relationship between networks studios, advertisers and viewers in which everyone wins.
Original shows ushered in using the Netflix model, like House of Cards and Hemlock Grove, have cut out the advertisers. Netflix functions as the network, and if the company decides to evolve from simply licensing original programming to actually producing, they’ll be the studio, too. Netflix is making all the money, monopolizing our attention and making poor consumers out of its subscribers. If this model becomes the norm, the producer/advertiser relationship will be pushed to the breaking point.
The Netflix model is the antithesis of what made the industry successful, and executives are rightly concerned. Under the model, binging is assumed – according to Variety, “Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos disclosed that 50,000 [subscribers] watched the entire 13-episode fourth season of Breaking Bad the day prior to its fifth-season premiere on AMC.” If Netflix really wanted people to watch one episode per week, they’d only release one per week.
While network executives look for ways to keep people watching, Netflix’s promise of instantaneous full seasons has disoriented the small number of viewers TV has left. As more people wait for broadcast programs to arrive on Netflix in full before starting them, fewer people watch the shows when they air the first time around. This means more shows are cancelled prematurely due to low ratings, which means there’s a chance they’ll never even reach Netflix. This process is slowly starving the networks down to nothing while Netflix flourishes off back catalogues and, increasingly, original programming.
But what happens once Netflix reaches the point where profiting only on its own original programming makes more sense than continuing to pay licensing fees, which will skyrocket as the studios jack up prices due to diminished on-air returns? Netflix is positioning itself as its own network, assembling a lineup of programming that will survive the inevitable scripted network TV apocalypse. And once the people lose instant access to former network favorites like How I Met Your Mother and The Office, they’ll rebel by cancelling their subscriptions, the fees will also increase as competition is defeated. But by that point the damage will be irreparable – both television and Netflix will be dismantled by the impatient viewer.
The average viewer may read this as nothing more than histrionic fear-mongering and choose to embrace the new era. For television purists, the sky is falling. The days of viewer parties are fading, as watching TV becomes even more personal, thanks to Netflix and its individually tailored recommendations based on browser history. Gone are the glory days of television spectacles, when tens of millions of people would tune in to see the American Idol winner crowned – even reality TV is transitioning to an online presence. What television is will soon cease to exist.
The folks at Netflix have little to fear. House of Cards executive producer Beau Willimon, in a recent Q&A for Vulture, responded to a question regarding the Netflix model and said, “Our show simply gave people the experience they had already grown accustomed to on Netflix — viewer empowerment. People like being able to decide for themselves when, where, and in what quantities they will watch their content.”
That power is increasing, and all content providers must either adapt or fall by the wayside.
The television viewer has more power today than ever before. But is that smart, from a producer’s point of view? Shouldn’t he or she be worried about giving unlimited choice to the people? We’ve seen how this user-driven, consumerist approach has transformed the music industry into a shell of its former self. It’s enabled piracy of movies and decreased theater attendance, despite investments in expensive newfangled visual distractions like 3-D. Television has always been a more personal medium than film, but rather than allowing audiences to control the remote, Netflix gives them control of the schedule, something the networks can’t do and can’t compete with.
Like it or not, the Netflix model is not going away. Sarandos suggested Netflix might double the number of original programs in their arsenal next year, and all signs point to those following the same purged release-style. With Amazon and XBOX joining the original programming game as well, there’s a possibility of even more outlets for escapist binging across multiple consoles.
What is the informed television devotee to do? Netflix is not inherently evil, and at only $8 a month, the access to vast libraries of programming is an invaluable asset. The answer doesn’t lie in unsubscribing from Netflix, but rather in promoting the traditional broadcast model. By watching live, conversing with friends, coworkers and strangers on Twitter, and even purchasing overpriced merchandise from beloved shows, TV buffs everywhere can help keep the industry afloat. In the hands of the responsible, Netflix is a mighty tool for good. In the hands of the ignorant, it’s a weapon that could destroy all television.
While the Netflix model has many advantages over the glacial network schedule, the decision to allot so much power to the viewer is ultimately shortsighted. Refraining from Netflix binging is quite possibly healthier psychologically, more fun socially, more satisfying structurally, and more profitable as a whole economically. The greed for more products – enough to binge on – is devastating the television landscape; we’re killing our golden goose. Netflix is such a beautiful service that it’s terrifying. It’s given us everything we ever wanted, and one day we’ll look back on what a tragedy that was.