Picture this: It’s January, 2000. Your Limp Bizkit CD is burnt out, so you’re driving over to your nearby FYE, picking up a Big Gulp from 7-Eleven along the way, to get a new copy. Browsing, you bump into your neighbor, Ted. “Ted, hey! Did you catch The Sopranos the other night? Hoo-whee!” Ted grins, putting down a Spice Girls record, and says “Yeah, I finished all of season two in just a couple of days!”
Your brain freezes — and not because of the sugary barrel of beverage you’ve downed — you can’t fathom the words you’ve just heard. “… All of season two in just a couple of days!” What does that mean? How could a television series be digested so quickly? Wouldn’t that just be like watching a long movie over the course of a couple of days? And is that something you’d want to do? So you shut down, find your Limp Bizkit CD (you also grab Shakespeare in Love on VHS; discounted deeply after the holidays) and drive home, nearly swerving into ongoing traffic while in a state of catatonia.
The painstakingly-detailed and accurate scenario you’ve just read is what it would be like if Netflix’s “binge-watching” approach to television were made available nearly 20 years ago, during the TV-phenomenon known as HBO’s The Sopranos. The fervor for that show was incredible, making each episode the definition of watercolor-talk.
Last week it was reported that Netflix would move away from its binge-watching format (the release of an entire season of television at once, to be accessed freely by subscribers at their whims). Though the first programs to try this wild and daring new method aren’t exactly heavyweights like Stranger Things or Mindhunter, it would seem to be a prophecy just waiting to be fulfilled.
I’ve heard some cry foul of the anticipated-move, citing their investment in the content and impatience with waiting week-by-week for new episodes. To be clear, I cast no judgement on anyone simply “too impatient to wait.” The shows Netflix develops and distributes are entertainment. People should enjoy this! There’s no “right” way to do so. Yet for the half-century-plus that TVs have broadcast into our homes, the binge-strategy has to be taken in context as a radical anomaly. A fad that had to pass.
Look at it this way: Netflix develops dozens of series, and purchases several independently-created ones, to be distributed exclusively on their platform. Great. But in the grand scheme of content you can stream this moment, the “Netflix Original” stuff like House of Cards (the original binge-watch pioneer!) and Orange is the New Black are drops in the pond. Netflix then turns to pre-existing content. They’ll turn to FX and buy up the full run of Sons of Anarchy for a fraction of the cost of creating a new series from scratch. You’re selling rights to The Office, NBC? We’ll take nine seasons, please!
In doing so, Netflix pads out their roster. In between Daredevil (RIP) and the latest hot new thing Netflix was cooking, you could revisit 30 Rock for the umpteenth time. That would keep you paying the Netflix bill, because once you grew bored of Tracy Jordan screaming “I am a Jedi! I am a Jedi!” you’d be sitting down to Ozark or Sense8. But you see how this paints an inevitable corner for Netflix.
You can only buy so much old content for your viewership. Eventually, and it may seem impossible, but it’s true, you run out of The West Wing to watch. The war in M*A*S*H is over. You’re tired of watching Lost because you still don’t understand what the hell happened. And you catch a lull, where Stranger Things is over and maybe those low-budget genre movies Netflix picked up aren’t catching your eye. Fair enough.
So if Netflix “runs out” of old content to repackage for its audience in-between main-event series, what could happen? People could say “Y’know, the 13 bucks we’re paying could go towards a nice dinner some night instead,” and maybe you’ve got a subscriber lapse a month. Sure, something new comes along, but it doesn’t catch their eye. “Eh, I’ll renew when I see something cool I want to watch.” A dangerous mindset to train your audience into, when I’d argue Netflix’s subscriber-base relies largely on “forgetful members.” Heck I’m someone who hardly thinks of canceling Netflix because I see it as a steady stream of movies. But for some who leave it on as background noise when there’s no new episodes of their favorite Netflix Originals to watch, maybe they start to think “Is this worth the cost for me?”
Re-enter the weekly model. Extra extra! Kevin Spacey is back in House of Cards as a rampant dictator leading a government coup! How freaking wild would that be? You’d want to take a look, right? Morbid curiosity? But what if the first episode of the season ended, Spacey in-character as the fourth-wall-breaking Frank Underwood turning to the camera (“Oh, did you think I’d forgotten you?”), and then the credits roll. Tune in next week to see Lord Underwood lead his armies against the Russians! You’d want to see that, right? So you’d wait. Maybe grumble a bit, because the idea of waiting for more TV is a bit of a shock. But you’d wait. Same deal that week; episode plays, tune in next week!, and you wait again. By hooking you and keeping your attention, Netflix keeps your subscription through the, say, 12 weeks that a new episode of House of Cards debuts.
So the $50 or $60 million dollars Netflix pumped into that season of House of Cards now kept their income afloat for three months, rather than three days. It only makes sense that Netflix would bear the brunt of some initial dissatisfaction over the weekly model to get greater mileage out of their content, and subsequently close the gap between their bombshell series premieres.
The financial upside to the switch, should it go into full effect, are entirely in Netflix’s favor, but also might be a necessary evolution for the giant’s survival.
All My Friends Are Leaving Me
Disney+. I could sort of just say that and end there. With the advent of the Mouse’s streaming service this coming November, Netflix is going to start looking a bit more thin around the bones. No more MCU films, zero Star Wars. Say goodbye to all the princesses, all the cute talking animals, and so on.
And then all the other guys get wise. CBS starts to make Star Trek only on CBS All Access. We have DC Universe already creating exclusive content like Doom Patrol and Swamp Thing. Is it a matter of time before Gotham is relocated from Netflix’s all-encompassing arms to DC’s home turf?
With more networks entering the Streaming Wars and more content being created for within the walls of exclusivity, the fact is, plain and simple, Netflix will be running out of things to buy. With that in mind it’s going to become clear, as the wealth of third-party content starts to dwindle, that Netflix will need the crutch of their original programming more than ever. It becomes not only a financial decision, but a necessary move for the survival of the once-dominant service.
Balancing financial scruples with survival instincts, the move away from bingeable content has to be colored as less of an arbitrary thing Netflix is doing to harsh your mellow. I even think the return to weekly episodes of TV can be seen as a good thing!
Making Event Entertainment… An Event, Again
But I don’t quite give a hoot about some big company benefitting–what about meeeee? Well, I think there’s a lot to be gained by readjusting to a little less instant-gratification in our media consumption.
Watercoolers. Y’know, big jug-‘o-water. You work in an office? Your office probably has one. You and your co-workers hang around there, the kitchen maybe, and talk shop. Did you freaking see when Daenarys shot that insane three-pointer in last night’s Game of Thrones? Or back when Mad Men was on, Dude, when Don Draper did that backflip and fired off those two machine pistols in last night’s episode–wild!
The aspect of television that fascinates me most at times is the long-form approach, and the way you’re able to digest a story over the course of time greater than simply the runtime of the actual content. And a big part of that is the discussion and involvement of the viewership. I’m sure as Breaking Bad was speeding towards its finale you took part in at least one conversation with a fellow viewer, figuring how it was all going to end for Walt and Jesse. At least for me, I can recall the giddy joy and anticipation of reviewing what I’d seen, hoping for this or that, and just geeking the hell out with pals. Things are even bigger in scale when you factor in social media.
The way Twitter erupts with live-Tweeting (which I never understand; are they watching or Tweeting?) or banners and ads for this or that show stream across every site you visit, there’s a sense of global attention for this one thing. The fervor can be exciting, it can be annoying, but either way it is often all-encompassing for an Internet-user. At least, for a weekend. The “current hotness syndrome” that comes with binge-watching feels amplified by the wave of themed-emoji and other fanfare for a moment, only to be abruptly replaced by the next big thing. Parsing out a season allows for fans to live in that excitement all the longer. It’s a bit why some people enjoy putting up Christmas decorations a month in advance; it’s prolonging the magic.
The weekly schedule kept everyone mostly on the same page, eager to sit for the next episode. And the down-time between the content was time to discuss or even rewatch older episodes, combing through what I’d already seen. Which brings another plus to a deliberate pace: Appreciation.
Television is at the point where Game of Thrones was getting $15 million budgets per episode. Purely for context, Green Book, the 2019 Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, was made on a budget of $23 million. My point is that the production values of TV have reached levels to rival those of feature filmmaking. The craft put into the costumes of Outlander or the fight choreography of Daredevil? All top-tier. Giving the audience time to revisit past episodes is an invitation to take in the hard work of hundreds of people, and to enjoy the show itself more. I’ll note a recent personal anecdote, having walked out of Tarantino’s latest Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood greatly entertained, though not necessarily in love. I then saw it again. And again. Now I think it’s a work of genius. Rewatching content has great value, and a slower trickle of episodes encourages that.
The the same effect that better appreciating a show’s artistry can impact you, spreading the fun out over several weeks rather than days has a way of making the time spent stick with you. I know I remember the weeks where the final Breaking Bad episodes were airing; the final days of summer leading into my senior year of High School. For me, I find a sort of comfort in associating entertainment, whether it’s a GameCube game I played as a kid or a book I read during a relationship, with parts of my life. Having a season of television “inhabit” a stretch of time allows for the potential to encompass more of your life as you watch it, as well as further-represent a period of time at large for a group of people. The summer of 2013 could be recalled as “Oh yeah, that was when Breaking Bad was ending.”
My points here might seem ethereal and overly-sentimental, but I think the value of savoring something you really enjoy has its worth in our age of instant-gratification.
Wheels in Motion
For all the sense it makes to the suits and maybe the artistic (pinkies up) value I think the notion of spacing your TV-viewing grants an audience, I get that some people just won’t want to go back. And hey, that’s just, like, your opinion, man. The biggest point of opposition I’ve heard is along the lines of “I’m a busy guy or gal, I want to watch what I want to watch, when I can and want to watch it.” Fair enough! I know the struggle of trying to balance an insane amount of movies, video games, literature, and other important things with unimportant things like work, family, and friends. Though the beauty of streaming kicks in when you realize that an episode might release and rather than scramble to set the DVR, that episode simply “exists” now. It’s a part of the streaming library. Watch it when you please!
I said it before: There’s no right way to enjoy TV. Whatever floats your boat, Warren Oates. But what I do think is important is to consider that TV shows had been weekly, or otherwise-episodic for decades before Netflix reared its 21st century head (disclaimer: Netflix was actually founded in 1997; crazy!) and shook up the idea of TV as we know it. The motion-picture medium is one whose history is wrought with change. Sound? In a movie? You’re off your rocker, buster! Or perhaps it was the dawn of 3D films, a major draw for theaters during a time where many were just turning to their brand-new televisions in the comfort of their home. Or then it was VHS, where you could wait awhile and just catch up on new films at home, and watch them over and over.
Change is scary, but change can be good, even when it’s a return to the norm.