This week, my wife and I have been binge viewing season one of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ amazing drama set in the early 1900s, which depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants who work for them. As fans of the show will know, the characters are beautifully drawn, and the show powerfully captures a pivotal historical era, beginning with the sinking of the Titanic but making reference to World War I and other historical events along the way. Much of the show’s drama hinges on issues of social mobility–the family struggles to navigate British inheritance laws that prevent daughters from inheriting property, while many of the servants reflect on desires for different work opportunities–a focus that has proven to be intellectual catnip for both of us (and obviously many, many others). But what has enabled us to become so engaged with the show so quickly is our ability to binge watch season one on Netflix, and we’ll finish the entire first season in four days (and then move to Hulu for season two).
For consumers like us, this is a great deal. We probably won’t catch up with the episodes in time to follow season three “live,” but it’s a nice way of watching, especially given our inconsistent schedules that might make live viewing difficult. There’s nothing new there, of course. DVD box sets started serving this function years ago, and people have been talking about on-demand TV and movies for a while now. It’s also not a bad deal for Netflix and Hulu to make this licensed programming available. I’ve binge watched a few other shows via Netflix, in particular, and there are usually enough movie selections to keep me engaged. But as Andrew Wallenstein and Alyssa Rosenberg point out, in a couple of sharp analyses, Netflix’s strategy of promoting binge watching may not be as successful or effective when it comes to their original programming. Although Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has touted the ability of streaming services to escape from the boundaries of linear TV programming, both Rosenberg and Wallenstein imply that the plan to release all 13 episodes of House of Cards simultaneously may work against getting maximum value for the show.
Wallenstein, in particular, highlights the dangers of “too much, too quickly” when it comes to Netflix. He points out that the goal of producing original programming (like House of Cards and the revival of Arrested Development) is to entice new subscribers into joining the service. Wallenstein then speculates that by dropping all thirteen episodes at once, Netflix may actually be encouraging people to join the service for one month, binge watch the original shows, and then cancel their subscription until a new show comes along that they want to watch. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. I suspect that, to some extent, Wallenstein is right. In an era of one-click, on-demand culture, people can walk away from delivery services like Netflix or Hulu simply and easily. Starting or quuitting a subscription service takes just a few minutes, and if House of Cards is all that somebody wants to watch, then it’s pretty simple to do that.
Rosenberg, drawing from reporting by Deadline Hollywood Daily, adds that Netflix is financing these productions, in part through the use of debt that will (obviously) eventually have to be paid down. Along with Netflix’s plans to expand overseas, this has led Moody’s to classify Netflix as a “risky investment,” and leaves Rosenberg to speculate that Netflix may have to increase its subscription rates to subsidize these costs and to keep investors happy. To avoid these problems, Wallenstein offers a somewhat compelling solution: instead of releasing all episodes of its original programs simultaneously, Netflix should adopt something closer to a linear programming model, in which it would release 3-4 new episodes of a show per month. Thus, users could engage in limited binge viewing, but they would be compelled to maintain their subscriptions for several months to follow an entire season of an original show (my hunch is that such a strategy would be less relevant for licensed shows like Downton Abbey). Wallenstein also makes the point that extending the show’s run over several months would also extend its social media presence over several months and that people who learn about the show late (as my wife and I did with Downton) could learn about the show from Twitter and Facebook posts and could catch up quickly in order to be in-the-know when the next set of episodes drops.
I have some doubts about whether Wallenstein’s proposal makes sense. If binge viewing is the primary mode through which consumers encounter Netflix, then alienating these audiences through artificially producing temporary scarcity seems uncool. In addition, I wonder how many people have the energy to start and quit Netflix every time the distributor introduces a new or original show. I’d imagine that Netflix hopes that people will be drawn in initially by an original show unavailable elsewhere and that the practice of binge watching that will keep them coming back for more. Like Wallenstein, I also wonder about the “casual viewer” who may not binge watch a specific show. It’s practice that I mention in passing in my chapter on Redbox in On-Demand Culture, but I suspect that it needs even more attention.My hunch is that the scarcity techniques will have less impact on these more casual practices. People can pick up or return to a show whenever it is convenient. More than anything, this discussion shows that there are still a number of questions that we can still ask about the viewing norms and protocols that will develop in an era of digital delivery. Binge watching is obviously the most visible form of this practice–especially when Netflix automatically redirects you to the next episode of a TV series–but this practice may eventually be subject to other issues such as changing distribution practices and limited libraries and data caps.