Could Netflix’s programming strategy kill the golden age of TV?

Could Netflix’s programming strategy kill the golden age of TV?

Shortly after the 30 Rock finale aired, I was talking with someone who’s around a decade younger than me. “I’m glad it’s ending!” he said. When I asked why, he said that he likes to watch things all at once, and now that the show was over, he could binge on it over the course of a week or two. Now that the story was “complete,” it was finally time to watch 30 Rock without having to wait. The marathon—of a season or a whole series—had become essentially the only way he watched television, and that was how he preferred it. Sitting and watching one episode per week was, to him at least, for suckers, for people who were tied too closely to the old ways of doing business, and weren’t ready for the wave that was coming to wash away TV as we know it.

Needless to say, as someone who edits and writes for a section that lives and dies by the weekly TV review, I take the opposite point of view, and not just because I’ve written before about the pleasures of “slow TV.” What my acquaintance described when it came to 30 Rock sounded almost horrifying to me. Part of the pleasure of that show was going to the water cooler—sometimes the virtual one—every week to relive the best jokes or talk about the best story developments in something like real time. Even with the advent of DVRs and online streaming, there was still a certain comfort in the idea that the story would be doled out one half-hour at a time. I couldn’t imagine a world where the events of the final season happened in a vacuum, where I didn’t live those with my friends, whether in reality or online. 

With the launch of the high-profile drama series House Of Cards, Netflix is betting there are a lot more people like my acquaintance than there are like me, and the company is betting that people like me will eventually be won over to the idea of binge-viewing—or will, at the very least, appreciate the ability to watch at their own pace. And Netflix may be right. I’m seven episodes deep into House Of Cards as I write this, and while I’m finding it a solid, if unexceptional, series, I’m also realizing that being able to watch it at my own pace is keeping me from utterly turning on it. If I had to spend a week between episodes pondering what was happening, the whole thing—particularly the way Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood seems to always get what he wants—might start to unravel even more. As it is, I can appreciate what’s good, while what’s bland recedes to the background.

In an enormously perceptive piece on the changes in distribution and presentation models for TV, critic Jaime Weinman argues that when a season of television is dropped onto viewers’ heads all at once, it becomes, essentially, a completely different work of art. In Weinman’s estimation, if TV seasons eventually morph into one giant, super-long movie—as placing all episodes online at once would suggest might happen—then they will necessarily get shorter and shorter. All TV seasons have built-in redundancies and repetitions, certain patterns that are enjoyable on a week-to-week basis, but become irritating when consumed all at once. Yet the rhythms of individual episodes—those patterns and repetitions—often serve to orient viewers within the series itself, even in a binge viewing. The gradual loss of these things would eventually boil down more serialized stories until they seemed more like movies than television.

Binge-viewing has advantages over watching episodes one at a time. I’ve already talked to a number of people—including our own Scott Tobias—whose first experience watching the much-debated second season of Homeland came via critics’ screeners or slightly less legal methods. And the reaction from those who’ve watched it in this format is almost uniformly more positive than the reaction from those who watched week-to-week. Individual episodes’ flaws become magnified when viewers have a week between episodes to stew over them, but in the middle of a binge, those flaws are diminished, simply because it’s always time to move onto the next thing. The flaws do still exist—everyone I’ve talked to about that season of Homeland cites some of the same problems with it that many viewers and I had, but those problems simply aren’t as important, because the sweep of the thing becomes even more apparent.

On the other hand, none of this is new. Critics and casual viewers of TV have known about this phenomenon since the advent of TV-on-DVD, which created the whole idea of watching a season of TV over the course of a week or even a weekend. What’s fascinating—and frustrating—about Netflix’s gambit is that it’s insisting this should be the only way we consume television going forward. Setting aside the numerous questions about whether this is financially feasible for Netflix, and whether this sort of original programming is aimed more at attracting new subscribers (which Netflix will eventually desperately need) or keeping the ones the company has, there are just as important questions about what this will mean for the television episode, how we’re going to approach these sorts of things critically, and whether this might spell the end of TV’s golden age.

To pull back a little bit, Netflix has frequently stated that it would like to essentially become an alternative to HBO before HBO is financially able to break its relationship to cable companies and become a streaming service like Netflix. HBO has inspired numerous imitators in the world of cable, from FX and AMC to Showtime and Starz. But there are good and bad ways to try to be HBO. HBO got where it is by taking chances on groundbreaking shows—The Larry Sanders Show, Oz, Sex And The City, The Sopranos—then extending the critical and ratings goodwill from those shows to change what television was capable of. Even today, the network has its big hits—True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Game Of Thrones, and Girls—but it also green-lights and takes chances on truly risky, challenging programs like Enlightened, shows that expand the definition of what good television can be. Yeah, HBO is the network of established TV classics like Deadwood and The Wire, but it’s also the network of odd experiments like Tell Me You Love Me and little-watched (but amazing) curiosities like Luck or Treme.

In copying HBO, networks had two different paths to take. One involved working with interesting people who had projects that would be built around one deeply integral personal voice. FX found Shawn Ryan and The Shield, Ryan Murphy and Nip/Tuck, and Denis Leary and Peter Tolan with Rescue Me. (Note that I didn’t say these shows had to be good all the way through, just that they had to be heavily driven by a central showrunner with a distinctive voice.) AMC found Matt Weiner’s Mad Men and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, before getting sidetracked by The Walking Dead (a good show that  raised the network’s ratings capabilities). But the flipside of that was to try to reverse-engineer a kind of HBO style success, by borrowing some of the channel’s subject matter and content, rather than its artistic vision. Showtime tried to do this for years—Huff, Brotherhood, and so on—before finding its own personality with Weeds and Dexter, and though some of those earlier shows were good, they did nothing to establish Showtime as a network with a separate identity. Similarly, Starz has gone out of its way to seem HBO-esque with the low-rated Boss and Magic City, when the channel’s true identity could be most succinctly described as “naked people stabbing each other.” (I love you too, Spartacus.)

Sadly, in its bid to change the way we consume television—and open itself up as a content provider on the level of those other networks—Netflix has mostly gone the reverse-engineering route. In fact, going by this Salon article by Andrew Leonard, that’s exactly what the streaming site has done. Chasing after distinctive voices isn’t necessary when a site has algorithms that will predict roughly how well any given user will like its product, algorithms it can then use to decide which projects to pick up and which to pass on. House Of Cards didn’t have to be a wild bolt out of the blue to be a success; it just had to be good enough and check off most of the right boxes to draw in an audience. The series has been sold as coming from David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, but its primary creative voice occasionally seems to be a computer program, rather than showrunner and head writer Beau Willimon, or even the writers of the British original.

Is there anything wrong with this? I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t give any of the seven House Of Cards episodes I’ve watched higher than a B+, but I also wouldn’t go lower than B-. The show neatly splits the difference between being just good enough and never trying anything risky enough to turn off large portions of its audience. Weirdly enough, it reminds me of a CBS procedural like NCIS, one that knows exactly what its audience is—it doesn’t include me—and goes out of its way to service that audience. I’m distinctly in the audience for House Of Cards, so I more or less like what I’m seeing. But it never pushes too far or tries too hard; it’s a narrative of hyper-competence, where Underwood never truly has to take risks, and that sheen extends to the production of the show itself. Instead, the risk extends to the method in which the show is presented, in offering up the whole series at once and gambling that those who pick up a free trial month to watch the show will be convinced to stick around, thanks to all of the other stuff Netflix has on offer.

This isn’t meant as a condemnation of Netflix’s strategy. House Of Cards has been a disappointment for me so far, but if anyone is going to figure out interesting things to do with this new distribution method, it’s Mitch Hurwitz, and more installments of Arrested Development are next on Netflix’s slate. It’s also possible Netflix is simply pursuing an original programming slate, mostly financed on debt, as a kind of loss-leader, a way to drive down its operating costs as prices for streaming content skyrocket, thus making it more attractive in the case of the eventual (and probably likely) buyout by another company. But it still seems as if any artistic success Netflix achieves will be wholly accidental, rather than as part of a twinned artistic and business strategy. Create a show a lot like the serialized, dark dramas its viewers like, then pick up the fourth season of a beloved cult sensation? Easy enough to do. It’s when it comes time to green-light the Enlighteneds and Wires of the world that things become more difficult, and that’s where HBO has always excelled. I have less faith Netflix would take a chance on something bracingly uncommercial, yet artistically necessary. (Though that’s because HBO has always had the spare cash to pursue such a strategy; like many online companies, Netflix is operating on an imagined future of huge profits that haven’t arrived yet.)

All of which circles back around to the beginning of this piece. If Netflix’s greatest risk comes from how it makes its content available and whether it’s betting big on changing the way we watch TV, then maybe I’m looking in the wrong place for innovation. By forcing us to consider TV seasons as cohesive units, instead of TV episodes, perhaps the site will ultimately free creative types from artificial constraints placed on them for advertising reasons in the 1950s and ’60s. Perhaps it would be impossible to expect artistic greatness in the face of a paradigm shift of this magnitude, and I should be looking further out, to an imagined 2018, when a Netflix flush with cash offers to bankroll the next project of Vince Gilligan or David Milch, simply because it can.

But I’ll still miss the idea of everybody watching everything together. With every new freedom comes a kind of loss, and sometimes, those can’t be quantified. We’ve been consuming content in serialized fashion for centuries now—people made weekly visits to theaters long before the novel was even a glint in Cervantes’ eye—and that habit will likely die hard. And maybe I’m being a stick-in-the-mud here, tied to a method of TV watching that was already in its death throes when I was a child. But when I can watch a great episode of TV with my watercooler—real or virtual—around me, that increases the value of it to me, increases the sense that I’m a part of something. Watching tweets about various pieces of House Of Cards fly around, with no real conversation taking place, because everybody’s watching at a different pace, I really miss that. Perhaps my children will find that attitude strange, but to me, that idea of a great, imagined audience, gathering in the dark for its favorite program… Well, that idea will die hard.