In the past year, a lot has been made of the rise of Netflix due to its quality original content and potential to change the TV landscape. When the company released all 13 episodes of House of Cards at once in February, many viewers were unsure of what to do. 13 episodes of a brand new, top-notch drama available in just an instant? It was a dangerous power bestowed on TV fans clamoring for something to tide them over until Mad Men and Game of Thrones reclaimed their Sunday nights.
As numerous fictional uncles of superheroes have taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. This new power split what otherwise would have been a united fan base into a countless different factions. There were those who chose to abuse their power and binge all 13 episodes in one day. There were those who took the opposite route and watched all episodes at their leisure. There were even some who didn’t know how to live in a Brave New World, and as such watched one episode per week, on the same night, sitting in the same couch butt groove, drinking the same vanilla-flavored diet Coke. The permutations of all the viewer-types in between were endless.
In a strange way, what Netflix started with House of Cards and continued with Arrested Development, Hemlock Grove (despite horrible reviews), Orange is the New Black, and Derek has created a new form of media somewhere in the cross-section of TV and books. By releasing an entire season of a show at once, Netflix has asserted that TV doesn’t need to be purely episodic. It’s also effectively presented as one lengthy, complete story consumed at one’s leisure, much like the chapters of a book. Considering the craze surrounding popular book releases like Harry Potter, it’s not absurd to think that with continued excellence in content, Netflix show releases might soon inspire the same type of rabid fandom.
That the Los Gatos, CA based company has so far succeeded in its original content experiments is impressive on its own, but also for the ramifications it has had on the actual experience of watching television. In foregoing the week-to-week episode release format, Netflix has stripped viewers of the camaraderie and perpetual hype-machines formed amongst die-hard, and sometimes even casual fans. So much about watching TV today has become the conversation surrounding it, and removing the weekly structure definitely hinders that to some extent.
With other players like Amazon Instant Video and Hulu following suit and pushing their own original content out as entire seasons, it’s clear this model is starting to show some kind of lasting power. That means we’ll be digesting shows more and more like we digest books—individually, waiting for others to finish so we can talk about them together. That, or we’ll be frantically trying to catch up to our friends so as not to miss out on the conversation. The coordination is somewhat stressful, and forces the experience to become more personal.
Think about the last time you read a really good book late at night. Back when you finished a chapter, looked at the clock, and hesitated a moment before reading “just one more.” Isn’t this just like watching House of Cards nine months ago? Frank did something crazy at the end of an episode, and even though it was 2am, you queued up the next one, because you could. Meanwhile, your friend fell asleep halfway through the first episode while watching in bed. It took her an extra month after you to finish the show, and by then the excitement of discussing it had worn off.
This isn’t to say the Netflix model of releasing shows is bad—just that it’s disrupting decades of traditional behavior when it comes to watching TV. Compounded with social media, Netflix has turned TV-watching into a completely different beast. The argument can actually be made that original Netflix shows aren’t exactly TV, and that’s appropriate, as Netflix isn’t a TV network. We’re still in the nascent phase of a complete shift in television consumption, so it’ll take a while for viewers to find a sweet spot in what they prefer when it comes to immediate new season releases.
Thus far, the rise of Netflix has led to an easier way for all of us to enjoy our favorite shows, catch up on classics, and discover all sorts of shows and movies we never would have found otherwise. As Netflix maintains its charge into the realm of original content, crusty old TV networks will be forced to adapt. That puts viewers in a great position—whether the shows we watch in the future feel like movies, books, or some totally unique form of media, we’re actually getting more flexibility, not being limited. Netflix’s model allows watching shows to be even more simultaneously personal and communal than before. We as viewers get to decide how to experience a show, not the network that brought it to us.
Great power, great responsibility. Let’s not screw it up.