Here, below the fold, is the rough transcript of my talk from this year’s SCMS conference. 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 interfaces. There were a number of very helpful questions that came up during discussion, including observations about how German streaming video providers address kids. By coincidence, another panelist mentioned the Brazilian streaming video service Netmovies, which prominently features not only a kids section but also prominently displays characters associated primarily with American films targeted to younger viewers. Finally, I did want to confirm that President Obama has signed the bill that amended the Video Privacy Protection Act to allow users to share automatically the movies they watch on streaming services such as Netflix, which means that a Netflix Facebook app is likely to happen in the near future.
This paper serves as a slight corrective to many of the journalistic accounts that have sought to describe the transition in home entertainment from DVDs to subscription video services such as Netflix and Hulu (which I will typically refer to as VOD services). Most of these articles focus on the ability of VOD services to offer the deep catalogs celebrated by Chris Anderson in his widely cited discussion of the “long tail.” Others emphasize the ability of Netflix and Hulu to reward engaged viewing practices such as binge viewing, as we saw with Netflix’s splashy launch of the Kevin Spacey-David Fincher series, House of Cards. However, the promotion of these practices may, in fact, lead us to miss out on more routine forms of engagement with streaming video and may be the product of a relatively rare form of VOD consumption, one that is available to (often young and relatively affluent) media scholars and critics. In particular, these accounts often overlook how families with children have adopted to streaming video and, more crucially, how concepts of family have begun playing a vital role in framing VOD as a form of media consumption. In this sense, I argue that despite Netflix’s appeal to the discourses of engaged spectatorship, VOD spectatorship is inseparable from past modes and models of family entertainment, even while seeking to define TV and film viewing in new ways, a process that is driven by Netflix’s efforts to render its viewers more “readable,” or to use Ted Sarandos’s phrase, more easily addressable.
These concepts of “family entertainment” have been crucial to how media technologies are conceptualized. Lynn Spigel, in particular, has described how television’s introduction into the home was shaped by assumptions about gender and social class, thus ensuring, quite literally, that families would “make room” for television. In turn, more recent research by Ann Gray and others has begun taking into account how the reception of VCRs and the internet has been shaped by gender and social class, while Barbara Klinger has traced the gendered discourses of home theater systems, as well as their appeal to discourses that brought together concepts such as technology and taste, technophile and cinephile. But more recent attempts to sell VOD (Netflix’s advertising campaigns, for example) have centered on forms of engagement such as binge viewing that may be significantly different than how these tools are actually used. However, in addition to looking at how these tools have been promoted, this paper seeks to trace out industry strategies, especially as they play out with regards to children’s content and interfaces.
Although they often receive little attention, video-on-demand services have secured streaming rights to a wide range of streaming content. In this sense, streaming video has been reconceived as a version of the electronic babysitter that had, in the past, been fulfilled by television and later, VCRs and DVD players (or DVRs, as Jason Mittell noted in his observant “TiVoing Childhood” essay). Following these earlier media technologies, streaming sites and digital downloads provide busy parents with on-demand access to a wide range of content that can keep their children entertained—and in some cases educated—for hours on end. The role of children’s and teenage audiences has been crucial to the major studios for some time. As industry observer Edward Jay Epstein noted, children and teens could be expected to “use television sets for hours on end, either to watch programs on cable channels and networks or to play movie videos, music videos and games.” These videos, as Epstein points out, can then be used to market and promote toys, clothing, and other forms of merchandise related to the film, expanding the profitability of an entertainment franchise.
Epstein later expanded this argument, detailing Hollywood’s “Midas formula,” a set of characteristics that were likely to guarantee financial success, a process that Epstein traces originally back to Disney’s success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In particular, Epstein noted that successful films were often adapted from familiar children’s stories, serials, or comic books and typically featured youthful protagonists, fairy tale plots, and characters that could easily be licensed for toys and video games. More crucially, Epstein emphasized the fact that younger audiences were often quite happy to engage in repeat viewings of their favorite TV shows and movies, revisiting familiar characters and plots. Similarly, as Jeff Ulin emphasized, the sell through market for videos and DVDs benefitted enormously from the “goldmine” of children’s entertainment. As Ulin bluntly argued before the rise of digital delivery, “it does not take brain surgery to recognize as a parent that buying a cassette for $20 that your kids will watch seemingly a hundred times is a good investment.” In fact, as Ulin goes on to point out, VHS and DVD allowed studios, especially Disney, to invest in cheap sequel properties associated with popular media franchises that could be marketed directly to parents and families with small children. These spin-offs, which Ulin called “video sequels,” built off of popular animated films including Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Hercules, and The Little Mermaid. These repeat viewings, whether watching the same film repeatedly or revisiting familiar characters, play a crucial role in film and television consumption. Further, as Barbara Klinger argues, this emphasis on repetition can be tied to a need for familiarity, one that can provide viewers, especially younger audiences with a greater sense of “comfort and mastery.” Although Klinger was primarily discussing the college-age students who were the subjects of her research, a similar desire for mastery no doubt holds for young children, as well.
This recognition of the crucial role of children’s content led several video-on-demand services to focus on obtaining rights to children’s content. In fact, Amazon invested heavily in children’s media, acquiring rights to several seasons of the PBS show, Sesame Street, as well as a number of children’s films, including Babe and Jetsons: The Movie. Similarly, Netflix also secured rights to content popular with teenagers and older children, including several ABC Family shows such as Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game, as well as the popular network series, Glee, as well as purchasing rights to shows such as Yo Gabba Gabba, SpongeBob SquarePants, and iCarly before eventually obtaining streaming rights to Disney’s animated and live-action films beginning in 2016. In addition, in November 2012, Hulu began promoting their Hulu Kids interface to Hulu Plus subscribers, promising access to a range of advertising-free children’s content, including several PBS and Nickelodeon series. This focus therefore appears to be a crucial strategy for VOD services, one that is often neglected in industry analyses. In fact, the popularity of Netflix with families even led to some speculation that the service was “stealing” viewers away from the children’s cable channel, Nickelodeon. These questions about repeatability and cannibalization shape industrial concerns about the delivery of children’s content in a variety of ways.
Interface (“Families are Complicated”):
In addition to this focus on children’s content, VOD services, including Netflix and Hulu, have also sought to create interfaces that appear to be more family-friendly. In his discussion of interfaces, Daniel Chamberlin reminds us that VOD interfaces serve to provide “a sense of control over the vast media landscape,” even while they mediate our relationship to that content. Thus, although we typically assess interfaces based primarily on their appearance and on their ease of navigation, Chamberlin reminds us that interfaces also contribute to what he calls an “aesthetic of metadata,” in which VOD services are able to provide the users of an account with detailed information about the programs in their menus. This information might include details such as genre, popularity, stars, and, in some cases, family-friendliness.
The most familiar example of this effort, with regards to children’s content, is the Netflix Kids interface. In addition, Netflix worked to create interfaces that would allow children to navigate the site and find their favorite shows more easily. In addition to a simpler navigation system in their “Just for Kids” section, the site also offered a bar across the top of the page featuring a row of clickable characters from popular children’s shows. When a child would click that character she would be directed to a list of the episodes of that show available on streaming video. Netflix’s “Just for Kids” interface illustrated that younger audiences could be addressed not merely through content but also through the ways in which platforms and devices were structured. In fact, Microsoft attributed much of its success as a streaming video platform to what Aresh Amel called the “Kinect effect,” the motion controller that made the system more “family friendly,” and in some cases, such as Kinect Sesame Street TV incorporated interactive elements, in which popular Muppets, including Cookie Monster and Elmo, seem to respond positively when children perform specific tasks. We’ve all seen children—some as young as four or five—using these interfaces with relative ease to find what they want to watch. Such user-friendly interactive features helped to naturalize the Xbox as a means of watching video content rather than just playing games. But they also help to reinforce the idea of VOD platforms as a safe and family-friendly way to “babysit” children using media content, much of which is free of advertising.
However, another aspect of the Netflix Just for Kids interface that bears consideration is the role it appears to be playing in framing the streaming video experience. In particular, “Just for Kids” is situated as one of the steps that Netflix is taking to create a more personalized mode of interacting with streaming sites. Netflix has famously promoted itself for its ability to create highly personalized recommendations based on both a user’s viewing history and on that user’s ratings of the movies and TV shows they watch. But these recommendation algorithms are often flummoxed by families who share accounts and, as a result, present the algorithm with the challenge of juggling between the tastes of several different family members. In my own household, my teenage daughters binge-watched shows like Glee and The Secret Life of the American Teenager, crowding out the categories of film and television series that I’d watched over the years. Further complicating matters is the fact that Netflix is typically viewed on a large screen TV set through a smart TV device or video game system, rather than a laptop, so it may be unclear who is watching at any given time.
For parents with young children, the Just for Kids interface would allow them to differentiate programming consumed by parents and children in the same household and to create recommendations that are at least somewhat more individualized. Netflix’s Just for Kids interface likely wouldn’t solve my family’s specific problem—the children in our household are teenagers and wouldn’t use that interface, so my wife and I will have to continue to skim past episodes of Glee to find shows that we want to watch—but it is a first step in the company’s continued efforts to personalize the viewing experience.
Of course, these forms of personalization also serve the function of providing VOD services with vast amounts of data. This has led a number of observers, including Salon’s Andrew Leonard to describe Netflix as a crucial example of what he calls “Big Data.” As Leonard explains, Netflix is able to track hundreds of millions of data “events” every day, including not just what we watch, but when and where we watch and on what devices. They are also able to determine when or if we pause, rewind, or fast-forward during specific scenes. As a result of this vast collection of data, Netflix reaches what Ted Sarandos calls an “addressable audience,” one whose tastes can presumably be calculated and then targeted through recommendations. Leonard goes on to predict a future in which interfaces could “generate intelligence from that data will know more about us than we know ourselves” and, in turn, push viewers toward data-driven choices, rather than simply following our bliss, as we might when left to search for content on our own. In turn, Leonard suggests that programming decisions, even aesthetic choices about plot, narrative, and character, could be shaped by viewer behavior. Leonard’s ominous data-dominated future overlooks—or at least underestimates—other modes of discovery, most notably the role of word-of-mouth and other forms of social sharing of taste that may not register as an “event.”
It also neglects the degree to which users might be reluctant to share their viewing practices. Although Netflix is in the process of creating an app that would allow “frictionless sharing” on Facebook—thanks in part to changes in the VPPA passed in early 2013—many streaming video users have expressed concern about having their Netflix queues available for others to see, and in fact some polls show that the majority of Netflix users would be reluctant to have their viewing habits automatically shared on Facebook. Finally, Netflix’s own attempts to define its audience—through promotions and advertisements such as their noxious Flixie awards and even their recent “Watch Responsibly” advertisements—often reflect a curious understanding of their audience. Most notably, many commentators were left to express complete astonishment that someone 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. For these reasons, we need a more careful consideration of the ways in which this “addressable audience” is understood and the role of data in creating these hyper-individualized profiles within households.
This focus on children’s content and interfaces is crucial to the future of streaming video. VOD, with its simple, graphic interfaces and its deep collection of children’s content has become the latest in a long line of electronic babysitters. But family accounts may also open up additional forms of profit. Netflix, in particular, has floated the idea of “family plans” that would allow users to watch videos on two or more devices simultaneously, at a slight additional cost per month (although they have not significantly moved in this direction since floating the idea a few months ago), but its more noteworthy efforts involve the more mundane practices of generating data not just about what we watch but also about the conditions of when, where, and how we watch. Thus, although entertainment journalists (and some academic scholars) may be seduced by splashy programming initiatives such as Netflix’s House of Cards launch, it is likely to be the more mundane practices of family viewing that come to define the “addressable spectator” in the age of streaming video.