Via a Facebook friend, I came across Alyssa Rosenberg’s insightful post about Netflix’s announcement that they will be releasing fourteen new episodes of the cult TV series, Arrested Development. As Rosenberg points out, this is hardly big news–many in the TV industry were already aware that new episodes were being produced–but what is significant about the announcement is that Netflix may be recognizing that it is well positioned to cultivate new forms of storytelling that may not be as feasible on linear broadcast television.
For one, Rosenberg observes that Netflix can produce episodes of varying lengths, given that they don’t have to worry about squeezing eight minutes of advertisements into a 30-minute episode or even the conventions of a 30- or 60-minute episode typically seen on premium cable series. Most of the episodes will still run for thirty minutes, but some will be slightly longer, and the online (and on-demand) format enables that. In addition, Rosenberg reports that although the episodes will be linked so that events become clearer as viewers watch more and more episodes, users can watch them in any order they wish, with each episode focusing on a specific character or point of view. I’ll be incredibly curious to see how this plays out in actual practice because if it works well, it could represent a pretty powerful formal innovation in serial storytelling.
When working on my forthcoming book, On-Demand Culture, I used Arrested Development as an example of how on-demand viewing menus could be used to revive niche series, but this announcement may signal that series producers are starting to explore how these online menus of series can be used in more complex ways. To some extent, I’m sure there are a number of examples of web series that make use of variable episode lengths, but given the high-profile visibility of Arrested Development, this could help to push others to innovative storytelling techniques as well.