One of the characteristics normally associated with on-demand programming is the idea that it is menu-driven, rather than being driven by the continuity of television channels. Even so, a number of people who use streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu used these services to engage in binge viewing practices, where they would watch several episodes of a show in sequence by clicking through ordered menus. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about this practice, one that points out some of the industry ramifications–most notably the fact that binge viewing cuts into traditional revenue models based on advertising and syndication–but it also touches briefly on how this changes the culture of TV viewing (notably one Netflix executive discourages the use of the term “binge viewing,” suggesting that it makes the practice sound “pathological”). But as these practices have evolved, it is interesting to see Netflix attempt to program binge viewing into their streaming video service using a feature they call “Post-Play.”
The feature, which has been available on the laptop and PS3 versions of Netflix was recently announced on their official blog, and essentially the feature is set up so that the credits are minimized and the following episode will be cued up in another corner of the screen. If the viewer does nothing, the next episode will automatically start. As a result, binge viewing becomes the default option rather than something viewers have to actively create. In a sense, this brings us to a new version of what Raymond Williams referred to as “televisual flow,” in which TV is structured or organized in a way that is deliberately designed to keep us watching (and in Williams’ case, designed to keep us watching the same channel).
But what I find fascinating about the announcement is the reaction to the feature in the comments. Hating Netflix has become kind of an art form, where bloggers, commenters, and others complain about some aspect of Netflix (often in a manner that seems excessive, given the relative novelty of streaming video), but in the comments, you can also begin to see a fairly sophisticated discussion of how on-demand movies and TV shows are contributing to an evolution in viewing practices. Some commenters complain that the feature makes it more difficult to view the credits, while others state that having the new episode start right away disrupts the sensory pleasures of savoring an episode while the credits and music play. Others suggest that the feature should be opt-in so that viewers who want to continue watching an episode don’t have to hit a button to continue watching. Finally, many viewers point out that extra scenes are often embedded deep into the credits so that a viewer may miss an important scene. These comments point to valuable questions about how viewing practices and interfaces are constantly in negotiation in the current moment of media in transition.