A downside to Netflix-style binge viewing? Say it ain’t so!

tv-banana1From Wired.com, March 2013.

Yesterday I landed on the Web page that’s home to tech omnivore Pete Nowak, where I was stunned to read the headline, The downside of Netflix-exclusive series. Impossible, I thought. Must be a typo, mental or otherwise.

As luck would have it, I’ve been posting notes myself on how the boob tube is morphing – including notes for my interminable series of posts on must-carry TV. Moreover, I’m a devoted Netflix subscriber and big fan of Reed Hastings and his disruptive business activities (apart from occasional lapses like his privacy-busting partnership with Facebook).

Nowak pins his critique on the latest Netflix original series, Hemlock Grove, launched in a 13-episode avalanche on March 27 to disappointing reviews. No fan of horror, I watched the whole thing anyway, in my relentless search for the truth about TV. I can assure Nowak it sucks. It comes across to me as a grownup’s take on Pretty Little Liars (my teenage daughter made me watch it): it has better production values, some suave acting and righteous special effects. I think the reviews of Hemlock Grove may reflect issues around difficult expectations management, especially for anyone who caught the Mature Audiences Warning: “mild fornication, fellatio, heavy cocaine use, lesbian necrophilia and violent hemorrhaging.” That’s setting the bar pretty damn high for a TV show.

Nowak draws several conclusions: a) this series is sub-par; b) it’s too much to release a whole season at once because it closes out any chance of feedback; and c) as a consequence, a single sub-par series throws the whole binge production and viewing model into question (I prefer marathon viewing, so as to avoid the implication we’re working our way through the liquor cabinet and other condiments while we watch). As he puts it:

“The biggest problem with producing a show in its entirety up front and then releasing every episode for watching all at once is that there’s no room for it to change or grow according to input from the public.”

I think Nowak has drawn the wrong conclusions, for a whole bunch of reasons:

1 – Quality TV. Almost an oxymoron, except in Ottawa, where television is a kind of Platonic Ideal – a national treasure and cornerstone of our cultural sovereignty. In the real world of North American TV, most people have a much longer list of TV shows they hate than ones they’re crazy about. That’s the thing about popular culture: very few books, musical recordings, movies or TV shows are ever going to achieve a high ranking for sheer artistry. So the idea that Netflix has produced one expensive dud isn’t cause for alarm quite yet. (In case you were wondering, viewing of TV shows on Netflix began to exceed viewing of movies in early 2012, at least in the US market).

2 – Feedback. Then there’s Nowak’s claim that conventional TV provides producers and networks with opportunities to listen to the audience and make creative mid-course corrections. On the contrary, network television executives are famous for not listening to feedback, especially when that means taking creative risks. TV shows of all kinds get cancelled for all kinds of bizarre reasons – often despite strong, positive feedback from followers. Perfect case in point: Arrested Development, which I gather Nowak is looking forward to on May 26 as much as I am. Years of pleading to bring back this remarkably witty series fell on deaf network ears – until Netflix stepped in.

3 – Discovery. Marathon viewing is not, of course, restricted to original productions on Netflix. And since we subs pay our $7.99 a month for access to the entire library, I think you have to factor in other opportunities Netflix provides to find things you like, entirely on your own time.

The many other TV series in the Netflix library are a mixed bag, to put it mildly. Nowak notes in his earlier post on the Netflix viewing model that he tried out It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and quickly grew tired of it. Me too. The benefit in trying out a series Netflix-style is you can start and stop, mix and match – whether the show is good, bad or indifferent. That flexibility really shines through when you discover a show you never heard of that turns out to be awesome. My favorite example is a stunning 4-season series called Damages, starring Glenn Close. It’s unpleasant, unsettling and absolutely mesmerizing, with a narrative structure unlike anything I’ve seen on TV. I’m watching it again, for the third time.

4 – Loyalty. The conventional TV business operates not by selling soapflakes to viewers but by selling viewers to advertisers: you are the product. Today, one of the biggest developments in TV is the shift from eyeballs to loyalty as the measure of success. The basis on which producers and distributors mold their products to capture a following is changing drastically. TV shows that get big audiences often have weak links with their viewers: they may be technically tuned in without being personally tuned in. That notion, grabbing your mind not just your remote, has become a commonplace in digital media: it’s called engagement.

There’s another adage about TV that’s getting stood on its head. We’ve said for years viewers are loyal to programs not networks. Netflix makes it easy to change that sentiment. Not because everything they produce, let alone everything in their library, is brilliant. Rather because Netflix is there to offer a good subscriber experience. But don’t be fooled by sentiments. Netflix is also winning the numbers game. It says its US customers watched four billion hours of streaming video in the first quarter of 2013. Media reporter David Carr noted recently in the New York Times that these numbers make Netflix the most-watched American cable TV network… “Except it isn’t on cable, isn’t on television and isn’t a network.”

5 – Algorithms. Nowak concludes by noting Netflix has broken ranks in yet another respect: unlike the studios, it doesn’t test-screen every show and movie 16 ways to Sunday. Instead, it relies on algorithms and Big Data, based on the trail viewers leave behind that includes what they’ve watched, how often they’ve watched, when they’ve stopped and resumed – on top of the active preference notes they’ve added, such as whether they’ve liked a certain show. With Hemlock Grove as exhibit A, Nowak states the Netflix approach “may be another case where the almighty algorithm turns out to be less than capable of delivering the goods.”

Compared to what? would be my question. The studio system for making TV shows is incredibly inefficient and wasteful. Thousands of ideas get pitched by producers, from which a bunch of pilots get made, after which a few select shows get put on the air, many of which are then promptly cancelled. We know from years of viewing – and reading about shows disappearing – that the studios are throwing pasta against the wall and hoping something will stick. In Hollywood, as the saying goes, nobody knows anything. And movies? They start a franchise, get tons of feedback – reviews, ticket sales, social media chatter… then make a sequel that stinks and sinks.

Nowak is probably right to suggest algorithms and learning engines are over-used and over-rated. I also have serious misgivings about the Netflix servers recording my every move. Apart from invading my living room, their algorithms certainly don’t spit out the right suggestion every time. While I have low expectations for a piece of code that’s trying to learn about my taste, however, I have much lower expectations for the self-important dweebs that run the US studios and networks.

tastebynumbers~~~

I like what Wired.com had to say about this media shake-up back in March, when it ran a series of features on the “new rules” of TV. Go read it. Meanwhile, three points really hit home:

  • The Netflix model promotes loyalty: “The more that ­people binge-watch, the more attached they become to the show.”
  • It promotes creativity: “Though releasing all of the episodes of a series at once has its risks, it also encourages complexity.”
  • And it promotes innovation: “The new Arrested Development is not just a seven-hour movie. It’s something new—a collection of episodes released altogether that can be remixed and recombined and that gain something from each juxtaposition.”

After 60-odd years of ad-supported network TV, I think we deserve something new. More on this next time.

D.E.