Movies and TV
Netflix and the Cultural Capital of Air Dates

Nick Hurwitch | 3 Jul 2014 18:00
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Spoiler Alert
As you can see, the House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black graphs come with one spike a piece: The day or weekend of release. From there the conversation peters out and slowly washes away into the white noise of internet chatter.

This isn't because people aren't watching the show or don't find it conversation worthy -- it's because the method of release does not allow them to talk about it.

From the day a new season of a Netflix show appears, its viewers become increasingly fragmented. If my fiancé and I make it through three episodes the first weekend, and my colleagues make it through seven, 13, and zero, respectively, things are going to be awfully quiet around the water cooler. Dividing the audience further is not only antithetical to our "no spoilers" culture, but to the viewing experience itself, which is, and always has been, communal. Netflix has effectively limited the conversations about their shows to the one prior to its release, and the one whispered around the office or social media weeks later, as viewers who have crossed the finish line are relieved to find someone else has, too.

In an increasingly cluttered cultural landscape, dividing the viewing audience further isolates us from one another and decreases the number of common cultural touchstones.

Not that you should have to pander to those so spoiler-fearful that they can't enjoy a show if they become aware of a single detail of its content, or to those who are so far behind the cultural curve they aren't likely to ever catch up (listen, I'm going to watch The Wire some day, I promise). But the communal experience of TV viewing is something we should want. The "cultural capital" Netflix is denying themselves is being denied to us as well. Watching things "together" and talking about it afterward is how we connect to friends, family and co-workers. It's how we examine ourselves and encounter new ideas. It gives us ownership over the characters and plot. If we're cut off from our ability to talk about our cultural experiences, those experiences lose cultural and emotional value.

For Netflix, the "meta" television-watching experience isn't the one being impacted. The effects of "all at once" releases are leaking into the content of their shows as well.

This is more subjective matter, but season 2 of House of Cards was troubling and often frustrating because it was a show that seemed to be written with the expectation that it be binge-watched. Dropping redundant or plot-telegraphing "Previously On" and "Next Time On" stingers are welcome innovations to modern TV -- not being able to follow a plot because you take a couple weeks off between episodes is not. Is the assumption of binge-watching any more democratic than a network dictating when you're allowed to watch its shows?


Find Release
All this is not to say that the old ways of television distribution are better by virtue of having come first. Streaming and binge watching are surely the way forward. Netflix and Amazon Instant Video allow us to catch up on series we otherwise might have missed (The West Wing, Veronica Mars) and to enjoy brilliant shows with diverse casts like Orange Is the New Black that might otherwise not exist. We should only hope that Netflix isn't done experimenting.

If the strict dogma of release dates and times are one camp, and "all at once" releases are the other, what's the compromise? Perhaps it won't surprise to learn I would be happy to see Netflix adopt a weekly release schedule. It wouldn't be a reversion to the old form. Rather, it would allow for the best of both ideas: Yes, there would be a single release date per episode, but then it would be available to watch forever after. No frantic search for a re-airing or a stockpiling of your favorite shows on your DVR, or the incessant request from the entertainment providers to buy and buy again and, as soon as they work out a new format, buy again. My friend Phil Hornshaw over at suggested releases in three episode bursts. Good for mini-binges and mini-rallying points of conversation and speculation.

Whatever they try next, I think it's fair to say that the platonic ideal of television distribution has yet to be achieved.

Netflix recently announced a new "late night" talk show with Chelsea Handler, for which they've promised an "updated format." For all the host juggling and channel swapping that keep it in the public conversation, late night television is a format in desperate need of new ideas - I only hope that "updated format" doesn't simply mean releasing Handler's first season all at once.


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