In Defense of Netflix Being the Future of Television

The 18th day of the seventh month of the year 2013. Remember that date, friends, because that’s the day the company that once earned fame for sending red envelopes to our homes officially became so much more than a movie rental business. Because that was the day a bubbling sea change within an entire sublet of the entertainment industry finally boiled over to scalding temperatures. Because that was the day the underdog, never-taken-seriously, pimple-faced geek forced its way into a spot at the big boys’ cool table. 

Because that, friends, was the day Netflix earned itself 14 prime-time Emmy nominations.

The relevance and subsequent impact of such an achievement very simply cannot be overstated. It was the first time that programs never aired on traditional broadcast or cable networks were nominated for some of the more recognizable categories at television’s most ballyhooed trophy show. House of Cards enjoyed the brunt of the acclaim, landing nominations for the series in the best drama category, as well as nods for the series’ two leading players, Kevin Spacey and the outstanding Robin Wright. Arrested Development‘s somewhat polarizing fourth season walked away with three nominations, including one for Jason Bateman in the lead actor in a comedy series race. And Hemlock Grove, the other Netflix original series, also scored spots in a couple lesser known categories. 

If this doesn’t justify the rumblings about Internet TV being the future of the medium, nothing will. People can gripe about how unreasonable Emmy can be each year, but let’s be honest: Being recognized in this air can do wonders for the vindication of a single television series, no matter how bogus some of the awards might be (what’s up, Homeland?). And to be recognized this much in a single year is — and this is the correct word — revolutionary. 

“The future of television — a place where cable is not the only answer for average viewers — just drew a little closer,” The New York Times‘ David Carr wrote, “Netflix has earned its place in that future. It won some victories on the programming side by financing creators and staying out of their hair, an approach invented and perfected by HBO. Given that HBO pulled in 108 Emmy nominations last week, Netflix has a long way to go.” (“TV Foresees Its Future. Netflix Is There.”, 21 July 2013)

Yes, but that journey appeared a bit more daunting on, say, 17 July, don’t you think? What made the announcement so important wasn’t the prospect of winning a couple awards; rather it was the admission by a format’s top-level taste-makers that this stuff — and more importantly, Netflix — is a genuinely quality product that should be recognized among its traditional TV counterparts, that no more is Internet television a mere niche form of consumerism reserved for forward-thinking fans of the small screen. Scoff all you want at Jon Cryer’s two separate prizes for his work on the abominable Two and a Half Men, but for a relatively obscure outlet for original content, landing these nominations after operating for only a single season is a statement of arrival for an approach that has been, ’til now, stuck on the mainstream’s fringe. 

Actually, Carr’s HBO reference is a lot more crucial to the context of this moment than one may imagine. Before Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano, the network toiled in the cable universe abyss for decades, never quite getting over the hump and becoming a go-to place for original programming. To most, it was just another network that played movies most of the time without the annoying presence of cereal ads appearing in-between plot points. There was value in it, sure, but pony-ing up that extra ten bucks a month to watch an unedited version of Pulp Fiction repeat its way through a weekend simply didn’t seem practical.

But then both Sex in the City and The Sopranos became staples in popular culture’s unforgiving zeitgeist and the network began to gain a fan base more concerned with what was perceived as a higher level of original television programming than they were with B-movie reruns. HBO mattered. Whereas consumers before found every excuse to opt against setting aside the extra money for access to the network, fans of the shows were coming up with reasons to justify that extra monthly expenditure. The preconceived lack of relevance HBO endured was transformed into a very valuable tool in the company’s toolbox. Nobody was paying attention to what it was doing and because expectation for its success was low, the minds behind the network’s original programming decided to concentrate on playing the long game by utilizing the ability to develop layered stories and complex characters.

It took time, but once viewers fell in love with the network’s product, there was no turning back. That love, in essence, was built almost exclusively to last.

And if HBO was Napster, then Netflix has become iTunes, an updated, of-the-times-and-for-the-times alternative to roads that were beginning to develop potholes. Shawn Fanning’s baby was first to the party, a short-lived company that subconsciously devoted its time to changing the landscape of the music industry. The problem? You never want to be the first in line when evolution takes its most drastic turns. Instead, it’s always wise to be No. 2, the one who understands and appreciates the idea, but wants to view the possibilities with the gift of perspective along with the always-valued component of hindsight. Napster failed because of its ego and its illegality, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t pave the way for Apple to come in and make the practice of collecting music through use of the Internet an actual realistic and viable option. 

Likewise, HBO took the movie-channel mantra to another stratosphere when it finally landed some valuable original content, and, almost single-handedly, made TV infinitely more sophisticated. Cuss words were allowed. Nudity became a staple. Graphic violence was accepted. HBO created a Brand New Day in the evolution of television consumption when it became a valued source for producing fresh, new and daring programming. You had to pay to get it, but after enough time, that expense became as essential to a family’s budget as milk and toiletries.  

Netflix has now been the first service to achieve that exact amount of credible success in the Web TV vernacular, a vernacular that, by the way, appears to be on its way to eventually becoming the sole platform for all things television. Does that mean that Francis Underwood is the new Jimmy McNulty or that Piper Chapman is the new Sookie Stackhouse? Of course not. But does it mean that the ability to create those widely popular characters on widely popular series is now a very real possibility for a niche that to this point has been reserved for things called webisodes or “extra, behind the scenes footage?” Well, did somebody actually make an app for George Michael’s FaceBlock after seeing the bit on Netflix’s Arrested Development reboot? The defense rests.

And that’s why these Emmy nominations mean far more than just a quirky stroke of luck for television shows the majority of everyday people haven’t even probably seen. These things are beloved. Those who have taken the time to seek out AD, House Of Cards, Hemlock Grove or Orange Is The New Black almost universally acknowledge their high quality of production, constantly taking to Twitter or Facebook or other social media outlets to proclaim their love for these series. To think that the same sentiment won’t continue to grow as Netflix’s user-base expands would be nothing more than a disservice to yourself, a depravity of the most foolish kind. This stuff is just too damn good to ignore. 

“While Netflix’s Emmy breakthrough can be construed as further evidence that digital production has passed an arbitrary threshold of industry acceptance,” Variety‘s Brian Lowry wrote, “it might also signal the first step toward the kind of shakeout that has been commonplace in the past — one that will eventually separate those truly determined to become key players (and inevitably suffer the occasional major flop) from those who retreat or fold the first time their noses get bloodied. For now, Netflix can enjoy being the newest belle at the Emmy ball — a status that can be as heady as it is fickle and fleeting — unfettered by the public scorecard of ratings in measuring how its programming choices impact its business. Chalk that up to a shifting media landscape where, unlike the Emmys, it can take quite a while to ascertain who the winners really are.” (“Netflix Takes Page From HBO’s Prestige Playbook”, 23 July 2013)

Ahh, but you see, Mr. Lowry, the 18th day of the seventh month of the year 2013 was the day that shift took a turn toward redefining what a loser is, what a winner is, what success is and what failure can be within a world previously weighed down by tradition and pragmatism. Indeed, Mr. Lowry, the 18th day of the seventh month of the year 2013 could very well be looked upon as the first day of the rest of a brand new television industry’s life by the time it’s all said and done.