Defining Digital Spectatorship

It’s almost impossible to know where to start with Netflix’s latest publicity gambit, the Flixies, a series of awards in categories that are meant to mock the conventions of watching movies and TV shows on streaming video. The most obvious is complete astonishment at whoever thought that a category called “Best PMS Drama” would actually be considered funny. Or you know, not offensive. Compare that to the more masculine “Best Bromance” category, and it’s hard not to miss the fact that gender stereotypes about media viewing are permeating into the realm of streaming video. As many of my Twitter friends have observed, Netflix has just made everyone’s next unit on gender studies that much easier to teach. The PMS category is so silly that it’s not difficult to imagine Reed Hastings throwing together a hastily produced apology video, much like his poolside mea culpa after the Qwikster announcement.

Even so, some of the choices of categories–and the films included in them–demand further analysis, in part to see what Netflix is implying about how we use these VOD services, how they fit into gender dynamics, how they fit into family life, and how they fill time during our daily schedules. I’ll admit that I’m perplexed by the inclusion of Friday Night Lights and First Wives Club as nominees in the PMS category, in particular. Friday Night Lights doesn’t seem, to my mind, to be specifically coded as female, and First Wives Club seems like a film that wouldn’t attract a lot of attention given that it was a moderate hit something like 20 years ago. Meanwhile, many of the “Bromance” films don’t seem to fit that category (which I normally associate with movies like Point Break or pretty much anything by Judd Apatow) at all.

But what seems most notable about many of the categories is that they seem to engage with the time frames that shape how and when we watch. Most obviously categories like “TV Marathon” (Notably the Netflix-produced House of Cards is included here) reflect our habits of binge watching, while Best Commute Shrtner (and yes, they omitted the “o”) depicts the idea of using VOD to fill empty time during subway or bus commutes–and also, notably, includes shows that seem geared primarily to male audiences. But even a category like “Best Hangover Cure” (which scandalously failed to include The Big Lebowski) implies lazy weekend viewing. Less directly related to the idea of time is the category Best Tantrum Tamer, which focuses on TV shows and movies that help entertain impatient or bored children, underscoring Netflix’s status as the latest in a long line of electronic babysitters.

The Flixies crossed my radar just a few hours after I discovered a couple of Netflix television advertisements that have apparently begun playing in the last few days (which also seem to have their own gender issues). the first, “Miss Know It All” features an oblivious woman who goes around spoiling television series before her friends and acquaintances before they have a chance to watch. “Spoilers” have become easy villains  in the era of complex TV narratives, but this ad, which urges us to “watch responsibly” makes out the practices of binge watching to be a social norm. Similarly “Preparation” depicts a bromantic trip to the local  bulk food store to stock up on supplies so that the guys can watch six consecutive seasons of a favorite show. In both cases, Netflix is promoted as enabling our most obsessive traits as media consumers.

So while it would be easy to focus solely on the silly genre categories, I also wonder what else Netflix is telling us about the way we use streaming video. Given Netflix’s extensive and well-documented use of “big data,” it seems unlikely that these categories were chosen completely on a whim. Instead, many of these categories (and the films contained within them) are likely being drawn from existing practices, even while they help to reinforce actions such as binge viewing, spoiler antipathy, and distracting bored children. After engaging viewers by producing and promoting its original programming, Netflix now seems determined to participate more deeply in the process or redefining spectatorship in the era of streaming video.

2 Comments »

  1. Chuck Said,

    March 4, 2013 @ 7:35 am

    I noticed this morning after writing this article late last night that these awards have been on the radar of others for 4-5 days, but oddly, almost none of the articles I took any notice of the gendered aspects of some of these “awards.” Most articles, like this one, simply highlighted the idea that these awards reflected “the ways you really watch.”

  2. The Chutry Experiment » “Families are Complicated: Netflix Kids, Personalization, and Digital Delivery” Said,

    March 10, 2013 @ 10:27 am

    [...] I’ve left out some of the links to articles cited in the paper, but they are available in my previous blog post where I discuss the Netflix Flixies and some of the “big data” issues associated with [...]

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