Netflix has come a long way from its mail-order DVD beginnings, sending little red envelopes cross-country to subscribers. Now, in addition to maintaining Red Box kiosks and DVD/Blu-ray mail services, the video rental platform services over 29 million streaming subscribers worldwide. While Netflix contributed to the downfall of physical rental stores (most notably Blockbuster, who passed on buying the company in the early 2000s), it has ignited an explosion of online media streaming and downloading services - including Amazon Prime and Hulu, among others.
As a result, subscribers now have instant (streaming) access to more TV shows and films than they could ever consume in multiple lifetimes. Increased availability, and subsequent "binge-watching" of streaming media has raised the profile of countless TV series and films that might have, in a predominantly physical-media market, gone unnoticed. There's no doubt Netflix and similar services are a win for networks, studios, and consumers - but are there hidden downsides to this convenience?
Not too long ago, the question sparked a heated debate on our Screen Rant Underground podcast, begging the question: Is Netflix binge-watching helping or hurting TV storytelling?
Netflix viewers are also able to binge-watch movies, blowing through full franchises (Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, etc.) in a day, binge-watching has become largely associated with back-to-back-to-back viewing of TV shows - a habit Netflix helps propagate by automatically loading the next episode upon completion of the previous one. For that reason, we'll focus primarily on binge-watching of TV shows - not films.
Pro: The Fix for Your List of Shame
Aside from basic convenience, a wide range of available titles is a key feature in online media streaming (and binging). Instead of committing to an entire season of television, viewers have access to an ever-expanding supply of TV shows, making it easy to sample recommendations without the cost of a DVD set purchase or playing catchup through repeat/syndication airings. The availability of so many past TV series (in addition to original programming) means that viewers aren't limited to what is currently popular, or even on the air - allowing them to dabble with lesser-known shows along with those which simply weren't a fit for network television.
"A lot of times, these executives in Hollywood hand this stuff down from on high, and that is the end of it. Only it wasn't this time, and the viewers and readers got ferocious with their attacks. I think that showed people there is a following for it and maybe changed the industry a little bit."
Netflix (in addition to Hulu, Yahoo! Screen, and others) have taken to acquiring TV series that were abruptly cut-off by traditional networks. Along with full revivals like Fuller House (and, previously, Arrested Development), Netflix elected to produce additional episodes of Longmire, The Killing, and even Star Wars: The Clone Wars - in order to provide fans with closure and new viewers with complete "binge-ready" programming.
Many Netflix subscribers had never heard of Longmire until the series was cancelled, and even fewer bothered to set DVRs for the show's weekly airing on A&E. Yet, following its network cancellation, and Netflix renewal, Longmire is enjoying a featured spotlight on the streaming service ahead of its ten episode season 4 - placing the show in front of a new batch of viewers. Those who gave the first Longmire episode a shot won't need to set their DVR or purchase DVDs (those take effort); thanks to Netflix's autoplay feature, newly-acquired fans won't need to lift a finger to watch Longmire episode 2.
Of course, rescued shows aren't the only binge-worthy programming on Netflix, given that the service has acquired entire series runs of everything from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to M*A*S*H to The West Wing to LOST to Breaking Bad. Anyone with a "TV list of shame" is sure to find plenty of shows they missed out on - shows that are, comparatively, better than many of the current offerings on paid cable - all without having to wait a week to continue watching.
Pro: A Captive Audience, A Tighter Narrative
Not only do most shows utilize a minute of precious airtime with a "Previously On" prologue, thanks to the pitfalls of weekly TV viewing, television series are often forced into constricted episodic storytelling. Since viewers watch a 23 episode season play out over the course of roughly 35 weeks (taking into account holiday breaks and avoidance of competing programming like athletic playoffs, award shows, etc.) showrunners spend precious time getting viewers up to speed on their show - especially in series that challenge the status quo with brainy ideas (Doctor Who) and layered characters (The Wire).
This backtracking is subtle, coming in lines of dialogue or quick establishing scenes to jog viewer memory, but even the most un-intrusive reminders undermine the purest forms of storytelling. In books, engaged readers, immersed in a story and characters, can simply turn to the next page when a chapter ends - removing any need for an author to refresh memory. Of course, novels can be, themselves, installments in a larger storyline (such as Harry Potter) but unlike TV, where audiences often watch five or more shows a week, very few bookworms read a chapter in one book, then proceed to read one chapter in five other books, before returning for chapter two. Certainly, some readers consume more than one book at a time, but reading novels the way that TV airs would be downright confusing. As a result, their are undeniable benefits of a captive audience - for both creators and viewers.
You can’t deny that there will be binge-viewing. You know that there are going to be some Marvel fans that when this show premieres, they are going to go on to Netflix, and they are going to sit there for 12 to 13-plus hours, and watch the entire thing all the way through. It’s going to happen. The Netflix model offers us the advantage of being able to construct the show in a manner that is very different than a weekly network TV show… With weekly TV, you sit there and go, “The audience may not want to wait two or three weeks to get this particular bit of information.” Whereas with Netflix, we might be able to hold onto a particular piece of information, because they may just watch it two hours later.
While competing television shows might be ruled by procedural case-of-the-week storytelling and cheap cliffhangers, Daredevil only has to keep viewers engaged enough to either keep watching - or come back. To that end, TV showrunners who are producing content for binge-based services like Netflix can place more trust in viewers, without having to worry that their audience will be too distracted to make connections or follow subtle character development.
Some will argue that binge-watching prevents viewers from fully-appreciating a TV show (more on that soon), because fans do not have to wait for the next episode, but there's no doubt the prospect of a dedicated and captive audience, one that watches back-to-back-to back episodes of a single show rather than visits only one time a week, is attractive to storytellers. Ironically, in giving viewers more episodes at once, creators are able to withhold a bit more - giving their shows room to unfold naturally, and with adequate setup and payoff, rather than be determined by network competition.
Still, there is a downside to binge-watching.