Is Netflix aiming to change the way we watch television … again?
When the news broke earlier this week that Netflix was planning on releasing all ten of the new ‘Arrested Development’ episodes at the same time – some yet unannounced date in 2013 – it was a happy surprise for fans, but it also sparked an important discussion. What does this mean for the future of television and streaming media?
Back in 2008 I wrote two columns for my college newspaper on the future of television and how we consume our media. One column discussed the introduction of instantly streaming media, and the other discussed the rising popularity of web series like ‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog’ and ‘The Guild’ and whether or not the Internet would eventually replace our televisions as the way we consume most of our entertainment.
At the time, Hulu had just launched as a streaming website for film and television. Hulu’s catalog was probably only 4 percent (no math was done for this post) of what it is now, not including the content exclusive to paying HuluPlus customers. But having been a loyal Netflix subscriber since Nov. 2006, I realized things were changing. It was one thing to release shows on DVD or to have a service that allowed you to rent single DVD discs and return them whenever you were finished, but the idea of instantly streaming televisions shows for free was a new, slightly insane, concept – and one that would have a drastic effect on how we consumed our media.
At the end of one of the columns I wrote, “It’s only a matter of time before our television sets become obsolete and we consume all our news and entertainment from the Internet.” Flash-forward four years later to today and I’m wondering whether or not I’m psychic. But we’ve also got a new problem on our hands. It’s no longer a debate about whether or not the Internet will replace television – it’s fairly clear by now that we’re in the early stages of this very transition as HuluPlus, Netflix Instant Streaming, and HBO Go are all popular alternatives for regular cable services. But with this latest news by Netflix, what else does it mean?
It wasn’t enough to simply make the shows available for instant streaming online, now we have to look at the various possible sources of production and distribution on a worldwide scale.
Netflix premiered its first original series ‘Lilyhammer’ – also exclusive to the web – in Feb. 2012 with a single-date complete season release. The online service has yet to release viewership numbers, and it’s possible they never will, but a second season was green-lit so it probably did pretty well (thanks to star, ‘Sopranos’ vet and E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt, no doubt).
But in the classic television model, where a regular season is anywhere from 13-24 episodes depending on the channel on which it airs, the episodes are dropped weekly, one episode at a time. On the regular networks – ABC, FOX, NBC, CBS and the CW – there are, of course, intermittent breaks during these seasons. There’s the winter/holiday hiatus where viewership declines because of the holidays. And there are other shorter hiatuses throughout the season in order to stretch it from September to May (and Fox usually has that break in October to allow for the World Series).
But pay cable networks like AMC, FX, HBO and Showtime release their 10-13 episode seasons in one uninterrupted batch, thus allowing for three months of fervor (not including the couple of months up to the premiere) for a single show. This distribution style makes for a more positive retention in viewership. There are no breaks between episodes where viewers have the chance to become apathetic. The risk of viewers getting confused about the schedule and missing an episode is lessened in this distribution style. This shortened season also allows for tighter storytelling because writers don’t have to stretch their story arcs out to cover nine long months. The BBC in Great Britain uses this shortened season for all of their shows – and I think one could probably successfully argue that their shows are better for it.
Pay cable networks and regular broadcast networks examine their ratings closely, watching the way they rise and fall week to week, using the numbers to determine whether or specific shows should be renewed for another season. And with the rise in the number of homes with DVRs, they also take into account overnight numbers and these delayed viewings. So if services like Netflix start producing their own original content, and releasing all of the episodes at one time, what does that mean for ratings? What does that mean for viewership? We won’t be able to compare these series to the shows that air first on television before being made available on network websites or pay services.
It’s become commonplace for people to use HuluPlus, Netflix Instant Streaming and HBO Go to watch shows they missed the first time around. And they do it this way because they can sit down and consume several episodes at once. I myself am guilty of marathon-ing shows as if at any moment they might be taken away from me. I watched the first three seasons of FX’s motorcycle drama ‘Sons of Anarchy’ in the span of one week and I don’t regret it one bit. I watched all of ‘Terriers’ 13-episode series in a weekend. Americans love this option. Because in today’s day and age we don’t have the time to commit to nine months of one show, let alone several. And we probably don’t have the attention span either.
So maybe Netflix has the right idea. Maybe releasing all of the episodes at once will allow for greater viewership. People won’t have to find the time to sit down at their computer (or if they’re the lucky ones – their TV) each week to watch the new show. They can watch as many episodes at a time as they want. There’s really no risk that people will forget about the show, or that they might miss an episode. And considering ‘Arrested Development”s rabid fan base, I have a feeling that’ most people will watch the show’s newest episodes in one sitting, probably the day it’s released.
And who knows, four years from now I might be looking back at this piece wondering why I questioned this at all. Maybe cable service will be a thing of the past and everyone will have access to these services and more through their large television sets mounted on their ceilings. Maybe in 2016 all of our shows will be released and distributed this way. I think it’s a very real possibility and something the major networks and pay cable networks should be taking very seriously. Because for a culture as obsessed with television, this could change everything.