It looks like we’re about to enter into a new era of television. I’m of course talking about streaming service Netflix beginning to produce original content, such as the exceptional House of Cards and the revival of much loved series Arrested Development.
Normally, when an era is ending, it’s on to pastures unequivocally better. However, there is a little cause for concern about the ‘Netflix Model’ of television production. Enough concern that has me wavering as to whether the future of television is all good. But allow me to start on a positive note before dwelling on the things that have me concerned.
Quality and Creative Freedom
One of the things that is most noticable about Netflix’s first forray into creating content, with the House of Cards, is just how fucking good it is. The quality of this series is extremely impressive. The Fincher-produced political drama is extremely well-written by Beau Willimon (with some of the best lines ever spoken on television), gripping performances by the cast, led by Kevin Spacey who’s clearly having the time of his life in the role of Francis Underwood. To top that all off, it looks beautiful. It’s an impressive feat of television-making. This is what happens when the makers have a massive budget to play with, with a figure of around $100 million being reported.
I have no doubt that the quality of this series is down to the manner of which Netflix produced it; by giving the filmmakers complete creative freedom. As screenwriter Willimon told The Hollywood Reporter, “They didn’t give any notes, like you’d see in other series. They trusted us to deliver, creatively.” It is perhaps this fundamental difference that gives Netflix the edge over the likes of FOX or NBC: Their ability to hire talented, creative people to make a television show, and actually leave them to it, without meddling. If only Netflix was around 10 years ago, we may have had more than one season of Firefly.
This element of the Netflix Model is something we should really treasure as T.V. fans. It’s something that gives the streaming service the edge of ‘regular’ television, and is the greatest thing about their move into original programming. In addition to this, Netflix committed to two full seasons of House of Cards without an inital pilot order. An incredible statement of trust in the makers of the series, but also a wise one. It allows the writers to take their time, carefully plan out and structure the story. Nothing is being rushed, they can move along at their own pace and really let the story breath. They don’t have to try and compete with ratings or worry about being renewed. They’re over that hurdle already.
It’s with these points that suggests the future of television is one that is very bright indeed. The quality of the series and the committment shown by Netflix is not something that is available on network television. It’s something that, should networks fail to adapt, could see the demise of television as we know it.
However, there is one major sticking point that puts me on the fence when it comes to Netflix as Network, something that I haven’t fully decided whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing thing. That sticking point is the way the series is distributed; the release of the whole series of episodes at once.
The Series Dump
The key, unique difference available to the viewer of Netflix’s original content, is the manner in which the streaming service distributes it’s series; all at once. The Netflix Model, unlike traditional television, favours making the entire series available for the viewer to consume at the one time. Now, I know some of you are probably thinking I’m a little crazy, like I’m griping about getting awesome content all at once. But bear with me just a moment.
One of my favourite things about serial television viewing, is the sense of watching with a collective audience. By watching something at a set time each week, or at least at an episode a time, there’s a sense of unity across a national, and international audience. There’s a community forming aspect of watching a television series unfold episode by episode, week to week. This shared experience gets a little lost if the series is available all at once and audiences can watch it whenever they like. I’m halfway through the series myself, but I know people have already finished it and moved on to the next thing. By the time I talk to them about it, it’s quite possible they’ve forgotten a certain episode or are pre-occupied with something else. This idea of a shared consciousness surrounding a television series gets muddied with the series dump that Netflix provides.
Another thing about the traditional way of watching television is that we have the chance to take a breather each week and talk about the latest episode, (something that The Walking Dead capitalises on with live after-show The Talking Dead). This is one of the main pleasures of television viewing, but also the great thing about being drip-fed the series. If the audience’s viewing pattern is scattered or they’ve watched it all at once, you lose this ability to talk about the episode that’s just aired. The chance to anticipate the next episode or speculate about what might happen is another thing that gets lost with the Netflix Model. It almost renders cliff-hanger moments useless. Almost.
The audience being provided the series all in one go feels like we’re feeding this generation’s impatient, child-like nature of ‘I want it all and I want it now or I’m not going to pay attention’. Surely this can’t be good. Audiences should be made to wait. We all appreciate something more when there’s a little anticipation involved.
I prefer to consume my television in little pieces rather than just shoving it all down my throat in one go. Sure, I can do that by making my own schedule of how I want to watch the show, but it just isn’t the same as watching at the same time as everyone. Besides, a series that’s as dark and morally compromising as The House of Cards, I don’t think it’d be all that good to gorge on it.
However, the way I like to consume television may not even be in my hands anymore. With the upcoming revival of Arrested Development, Netflix are practically tearing down the old way of watching television and building in a shiny new model. The basis of the episodes is around each individual characters’ stories, which are happening simultaneously. But rather than jut watching one episode then move onto the next, the viewer will have the option to opt out of the current episode when a character comes on screen, choosing instead to follow the other character into their episode. Essentially, we are getting the equivalent of two episodes, which is the amount each individual character is getting. It remains to be seen whether this will work or not, but this reformatting practically forces the new way of television consumption on the viewer, and I’m not sure I like that.
If the future of television does indeed hinge on The Netflix Model, I think it’s far from perfect. If it means more series like the sheer quality of House of Cards, and the creative freedom they provide their programme makers, then I’m all for that. However, it if does mean the lose of that communal, drip-fed style of television, then I’m not so sure. Maybe a balance between the two is in order. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.