Netflix is brilliant. Netflix has transformed the television industry. Netflix has made the major networks sit up and take note.
These are the words on the lips of industry figures and viewers alike. At television festivals, Netflix is the buzzword that appears in every speech and debate. At last year’s Edinburgh Television Festival, Kevin Spacey said that we are entering a golden age of television, and he credited the viewers as the people who now hold the real power. We do. Increasingly, we can have what we want, when we want it. And Netflix is leading the way. Once an uncertain predator lurking in a very overcrowded forest, the success of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black (to name but two), has ensured Netflix’s emergence as a serious player in the broadcasting firmament.
Or has it?
Let’s look at the upside first. There is no doubt that the Binge Viewer is the new couch potato. Forget the image of the sloth getting fatter on the sofa, the BV is an altogether more glamorous concept: a highly motivated, high energy, enthusiastic viewer, who doesn’t just love and watch TV but needs to share his/her views with others who have enjoyed the same experience. Where the couch potato was a loner, the BV is out to show just how much they are capable of consuming without tiring, and to out-rival all viewer competitors in that consumption. The BV is a greedy creature, but can chew TV up and spit it out at an alarming rate. Binge viewing is the new black, and although, according to reports, 90% of people still watch TV in real time, increasing numbers of us are taking advantage of entire series being made available in one great feast, and gorging ourselves over hours, days, and even weeks.
The box set never quite managed that, despite having been around for a long time. It was the thing people bought before Catch Up and On Demand, when they wanted a permanent memento of shows that had already been aired. Some bought box sets because they had missed key episodes and wanted to experience the narrative from start to finish.
But the trouble with box sets is that they are what they say on the tin: boxes. Having only just recently dispensed with my video library (what were those bricks all about, eh?) and replaced them with DVDs in boxes, I now find myself consigning them to the scrapheap too, in favour of storing everything online and running it, through a feed on my laptop, to my 50 inch TV screen. The pain in the neck is having to keep getting up if I wish to pause viewing, as my sofa is on the other side of the room from the equipment, but I’m sure there’s a geek working on that even as I write (the magic tool might even already be out there).
Box sets were undoubtedly the first generation of binge products, but Netflix leads the new generation of bingers.
I was one of many who watched Kevin Spacey in Netflix’s first original series, House of Cards. Based on Andrew Davies’s original UK 1990 series (based on the Michael Dobbs novel), starring Ian Richardson as ruthless politician Francis Urquhart (changed to Underwood for the US version), it is a feast of massive proportion. I watched the first eight episodes on my laptop from my bed one Saturday and the remainder via the feed to the TV the day after (it is now, of course, available as part of my regular TV package).
Binge viewing is a bizarre experience. When immersed in the process, I don’t want to talk to anyone, go anywhere, or do anything else. I can’t even be bothered to cook. In the case of House of Cards, the production consumed me, not only for its extraordinary quality and Spacey’s breathtakingly brilliant performance (the man can do no wrong in my book), but because I lived within my own little bubble throughout, feeling protected from the horrid things going on in the real world.
It could be said that the box set can deliver the same, but there is something very different about opening a box, putting on a DVD, and the seamless, altogether more fluid experience of bingeing. I then watched another Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black, set in a women’s prison, and no sooner did one episode finish than a caption came up saying “Your next episode will start in 10 seconds.” And so, I was hooked. What the heck, I reasoned, now that it’s started, I might as well watch another one. I was finally falling sleep at 5am, having found it impossible to tear myself away.
It is the sharing experience, however, that makes binge viewing different from the old box set viewing. I can count on one hand the people I know who bought box sets, but the former has caught something unique: it is obviously not the shared experience as TV in real time, but in its intensity, it creates the sensation of being part of a global viewing audience. Traditional viewers continue to talk about big entertainment shows such as The X Factor the morning after the night before; but the discussions about House of Cards are ongoing. The proliferation of satellite TV largely removed that collective viewing experience – the “Did you see?” factor. Netflix has resurrected that experience, but in a different format: now, the collective experience is talking about bingeing the morning after the entire weekend before.
So far, so good. But at present, to me, Netflix cannot deliver in the area that matters most to viewers – ongoing quality. Where, for example, broadcasters such as CBS (The Good Wife, NCIS) and USA (Suits, White Collar) produce top quality drama that just gets better and better each season, both House of Cards and Orange is the New Black have under-delivered on their second series. The performances remain brilliant in the former, but the stealthy rise to power that characterised series one is something that would have been better suited to a run of at least five series before the protagonist achieved his goal. Francis did, quite simply, arrive too soon, and while his ambitious wife Claire (Robin Wright) has taken on Lady Macbeth type qualities, there is only so much a character’s staring into the middle distance a viewer can take as an alternative to more substantial content.
As for OITNB, the first two episodes of series two are not just inferior to their predecessors, they are downright bad. Number two is dire. Woolly writing, poorly constructed, weak storylines (not to mention the absence of the lead character, Piper (Taylor Schilling), it will be a triumph of force over desire that gets me to episode three.
Does Netflix have what it takes to sustain quality over at least half a dozen series, or is its fundamental skill hitting the ground running and making a loud bang before fizzling out? Is it, in essence, the Myspace of broadcasting, treading water until the Facebook of the industry topples it from its throne?
Netflix and binge viewing may be the new black, but there is more to innovation than being the new kid on the block. There are always smarter kids snapping at your coat tails.
Just ask the Winklevoss twins.