In 2011, streaming giant Netflix began its full-fledged assault on the TV industry by picking up original programming. Although not the first to actually hit its servers (that was Lilyhammer), House of Cards was the first coup for the company. Shortly after followed Orange is the New Black and a fourth season of Arrested Development, and then the floodgates opened. Including kids shows and continuations, Netflix has released some 37 original series, with plenty more on the way.
The fact that a tech company entered the fold of original programming was disrupting enough on its own, but Netflix went even further by deciding to release new seasons of its shows all at once. The weekly episodic structure had been a mainstay of television for decades and all of a sudden it gave way to a new form of consumption that Netflix basically single-handedly created: binge watching.
In making this decision, the company probably took a hard look at how we watched past seasons of shows available on its service. More likely than not, it revealed us to be the gluttons we are, often gobbling up three, five, 10 hours of the same show in one sitting. How better to capitalize on this behavior than provide rich new programming an entire season at a time?
James Poniewozik, chief TV critic for The New York Times, calls the dynamic between a streaming series and the viewer "'The Suck': that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours." Sprouting out of it, he says, is a whole new model for how content creators view their audiences and how audiences view their content. "The streaming services assume they own your free time, whenever it comes — travel, holidays, weekends — to fill with five- and 10-hour entertainments," he writes. "So they program shows exactly when TV networks don't ... Fridays (considered "the death slot" in network TV) and over holidays ... In other words, they schedule their shows like Hollywood movies."
In this sense, streaming TV is a lot like a book — one long story with plenty of chapters that you can consume at your own pace. It's much more of a personal experience than traditional TV, which today is fueled by the conversation surrounding a show week to week. Whereas Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead invite fans to discuss the most recent episode's events and speculate where the next episode will go, it's difficult to discuss House of Cards unless you and your friend are both done with the newest season entirely. This creates more than a small dose of anxiety in our never-get-left-behind society: if you want to be in the know, you better sacrifice sleep to get up to speed. You're an early adopter or you're no one.
Much like a book, the speed at which you consume a show says a lot about how you'll experience the story within. For example, Breaking Bad, in which an unassuming high school teacher transforms into a power hungry drug kingpin in the span of a couple of years, aired for five years on AMC. As Poniewozik points out, watched live, this transformation happens slowly and methodically. Binged over a few weeks in its entirety, as many fans late to the bandwagon did, it happens in fast-forward. This doesn't necessarily make it better or worse, just different. "The Suck" is certainly at play in the latter — it's almost impossible to stop that Walter White train when it starts rolling — but Breaking Bad wasn't created with that concept in mind. Streaming shows are and that reality affects the style of storytelling baked in.
Poniewozik points to fellow TV critic Alan Sepinwall over at Hitfix in arguing that streaming TV has yet to figure out how to make a great drama. "Your TV show doesn't have to be a novel," Sepinwall writes. House of Cards may be nice popcorn fare (or Doritos, as critic Andy Greenwald likes to say), but it's not compelling storytelling on the level of Breaking Bad or Mad Men. It's loud, it's pretty, and there's a lot of it, but its episodes don't stand on their own while simultaneously contributing to the season and the series as a whole, as the great dramas of the golden age of TV did.
So if streaming TV isn't traditional TV and it's not a novel, what is it? Well, since the people who create it haven't yet figured that out, people who don't aren't bound to have the answer. The good news is it's still very early in the format's life, and our filter for what's good and what isn't gets better by the day. With so much TV and "TV" out there these days, it has to.
Cover image: Netflix US & Canada via YouTube