Netflix is a lot of things: a meme, a synonym for procrastination, a respite from your roommate’s love of German hardcore rap.
But Netflix is actually leading a quiet revolution, literally right before our eyes.
In the dark days before online TV, viewers had to get to a television set at the right time each week to keep up with the adventures of their favourite characters, or else hire the series out physically.
But with the recent advent of subscription streaming services like Netflix, Stan and Hulu, thousands of hours of film and TV is available on demand – and just a couple of clicks away.
The data shows that we’ve taken to this newfound convenience quite enthusiastically. Netflix users watch over 125 million hours of content each day (that’s 14 millenniums in back-to-back time) says the company, in over 190 countries.
With the chance to watch whole series’ at once, we can properly immerse ourselves in those fictional worlds. We can more closely trace the evolution of Walter White’s meth-terrorism (he’s the one who knocks) without the hindrance of advertisements, or our real life, in between episodes.
So is bingeing actually not so bad? Some, like Grant McCracken, cultural anthropologist who studied watching habits for the company a few years back, disagreed with the word’s negative connotations in an interview with CNN.
"Binge watching is not reckless or indulgent," said McCracken. "It's a smart and an even contemplative way to watch certain kinds of TV. Good TV especially."
Indeed, bingeing as a personal choice how to watch is a view Netflix takes quite seriously.
In June the company completed a serious study of the modern phenomenon and found specific patterns of viewing.
Shows in the thriller, horror and sci-fi genres (Dexter, The Walking Dead) tended to be watched all at once. On the other end of the scale were alternative comedies, political and historical dramas (BoJack Horseman, House of Cards, Narcos), which viewers preferred to ‘savour’, i.e. watch in smaller sittings over a longer period of time.
With all this choice of what to watch, when, and how to watch it, it makes sense that online streaming is seriously changing the consumption of television. And with a change in demand comes a change in supply.
One of the most vital, yet most subtle differences between a real television set and online TV is this: user data.
Netflix might not be able to archive your eye colour or analyse your search history (God help the poor Google employee tasked with that), but it does have basic demographic information and your precise viewing history.
The erroneous viewing numbers previously provided by set-top boxes has been superseded by masses of highly-accurate data about each user. And it’s all in the hands of one company – who don’t often share what they know.
Instead, they prefer to use the data to figure out preferences and predict responses – a move that has had serious ramifications behind the scenes, on the business model for TV production.
In 2011, Netflix ventured USD$100 million into directly licensing political drama House of Cards (about 32 lightyears ahead of StuPol in entertainment value) in a first that surprised many. Before this, it had only licensed content that already existed – and had already proved popular on cable networks.
The show proved a hit for critics and audiences alike, and five years on its quite easy to say their risk is paying off big time. A steady stream of successful original content like Orange is the New Black, Making a Murderer and the arrival of Stranger Things is pushing Netflix ahead of the competition and onto the screens of 83 million users worldwide. And, it has managed all this without the revenue from advertising that is the lifeblood of traditional television networks.
So, is the company’s newfound success heralding in a new era of TV? One where streaming services, rather than networks, create content – sans advertising?
Will TV replace our dreams, to be fed to us through a Netflix brain chip and thought-controlled play/pause functions in the future?
I don’t know, but I’ll definitely be watching.
by Olivia Stanley