Netflix Isn't Changing TV -- But it Should
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Netflix Isn't Changing TV — But it Should

By Corey Atad | Think Pieces | June 6, 2014 | Comments ()


“Netflix has changed everything.” This oft-repeated notion is generally accepted, and it’s true, too. Netflix has in many ways changed the TV landscape, skipping the step of airing episodes over several weeks, bypassing DVD, and going straight to the audience through a subscription streaming service. It’s a brilliant move, and one that forces an existential re-examination of the television medium itself. Is TV still TV if it’s not aired week to week? How is a TV series dropped all at once on Netflix any different, except in length, from a movie released on demand instead of theatrically? But all of this is relegated to Netflix having upended the standard TV distribution model. Beyond this — beyond the issue of how the art gets to the consumer — when you get right down to it, Netflix hasn’t changed TV much at all.

There’s no question the distribution model can affect the art, but that doesn’t mean it will. House of Cards, Netflix’s first major foray into original programming (after the international co-production, Lilyhammer), was positioned by the company as a revolutionary step in the evolution of television. They had names like David Fincher and Kevin Spacey to help sell the show, but the real selling point was the release strategy. Every episode of Season 1, already produced, and released all at once so audiences could watch at their own pace, fast or slow. Many people did binge through every episode as fast as possible. What could have been a series that built and sustained itself over 13 weeks of ups and downs and cultural conversation became instead a series purpose-built to create and then satisfy its own addiction. This isn’t special, though.

An argument could be made that because House of Cards was produced by Netflix with the understanding that it would all be released at once, its creative team would view the show as one 13-hour story. Only that’s clearly not the case. There is essentially nothing at all to distinguish House of Cards from a drama that would air on premium cable channel such as HBO or Showtime. It has the standard-issue 13-episode order per season; the episodes are between 50 and 60 minutes in length; there is some token nudity in a few episodes, especially early on; it has film actors in the lead roles. Even the episodes themselves, while heavily serialized, are also very much structured as single episodes, with assigned writers and directors for each. Its dark subject matter and cold visual approach are especially reminiscent of other dark dramas on cable. House of Cards is very emphatically a TV series through and through. It does nothing different and breaks no new ground.

The most popular and critically acclaimed Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black, follows exactly the same path: 13-episode seasons, 50-ish-minute episodes, and a tone that would be right at home on Showtime. And no wonder! The show was created by Jenji Kohan, whose Weeds helped define Showtime’s original programming brand. For as good as Orange is the New Black might be, it’s still just really good TV, indistinguishable in form from any other hour-long dramedy.

It figures that the most formally playful of Netflix’s original series would be the fourth season of Arrested Development. In its original three-season run on fox, the show was already highly inventive within the bounds of network television. It broke ground for what was possible in live-action episodic comedy, presaging the likes of Better Off Ted and 30 Rock. For its fourth season, Netflix essentially let creator Mitch Hurwitz have as many episodes as he felt he needed and could successfully make, and they let him make the episodes as long as he saw fit. Structurally, the season also broke from its previous incarnation, telling a complex, interconnected and non-chronological story focusing on specific characters with each episode. Of course, this was all born of necessity, with the actors too busy on separate projects to commit to the full run of a season. But just as we embrace freedom as an impetus for creativity, we can’t dismiss the value of restriction. Debates about Arrested Development Season Four’s quality aside, its formal creativity is striking in the world of Netflix original programming.

Compared against the rest of television, Arrested Development is still notable, but it’s also one amongst several series straddling the edges of what the medium can do. Hannibal, even without the shocking gore, has taken the medium to a place where tone and atmosphere matter far more than narrative. True Detective did very similar things with tone and atmosphere, plus it’s taking the new seasonal anthology approach pioneered by American Horror Story. Also taking the anthology approach is Fargo, which even more than Hannibal is also redefining the concept of adaptation in the television medium.

Even Arrested Development’s ability to make episodes of almost random lengths is something other networks have done. Specifically, FX has been extremely lenient, allowing shows like Sons of Anarchy and The Americans to go longer or shorter than the normal 45 minutes plus commercials. Then there’s FX’s Louie, perhaps the most formally inventive series on TV. Week-to-week the show is whatever its creator wants it to be, shifting from stand-up, to sitcom, to amusing short film, to deep drama. Lengths of episodes have varied. Tone has varied. Even overall structure has varied, with this season offering a sustained arc over six episodes that some have suggested would make an excellent standalone film.

In the landscape of television, the only revolutionary thing about Netflix is the distribution model. This is obvious, sure, but it’s important to note when examining the television it actually produces. As it stands, only one of its series has actually sought to push the boundaries of the medium, and not in very extreme ways. It’s one amongst many, just as the other Netflix series are. And when a series like Orange is the New Black is put up on Netflix, there is nothing to distinguish from any other show like Breaking Bad, which is also streaming on Netflix, except quality, and maybe Netflix’s desire to promote it.

And that’s too bad, because Netflix has a special position in the marketplace. While every other standard network, including HBO, needs to abide by the limitations of broadcasting — including airing episodes sequentially and fitting them into reasonable time blocks for easier scheduling — Netflix has total freedom. Furthermore, Netflix executives have no responsibility to release viewing numbers for its shows, and they don’t, meaning they have the latitude to take risks beyond spending a lot of money on getting Kevin Spacey to star. They have the unique space and ability to take serious formal risks, and they’re not. But they should. Netflix could give a group of very creative people reasonably small amounts of money to produce whatever kind of TV they want. Maybe those people will make something that completely changes and expands the scope of what TV is, that alters the definition. Maybe something highly abstract and non-narrative, like a TV Tree of Life. How wonderful would that be?

Now that Orange is the New Black Season Two has premiered on Netflix, I’ll soon be right there along with everyone else watching and enjoying it. But I’ll also be wishing it was more than just a TV show that happened to be delivered in a unique way. Hopefully Netflix does something genuinely revolutionary like that in the near future. Then they could steal HBO’s thunder and honestly claim, “It’s not TV, it’s Netflix.”

You can follow Corey Atad on Twitter, or listen to his Mad Men podcast, Not Great, Pod!

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Netflix has stuck to traditional far. They could play around with episodes of various lengths, but if you can watch them all at once, it matters as little/as much as chapters in a book do.

    I guess Netflix could give people money to produce highly creative non-narrative work. But there's a reason that Matthew Barney and his ilk play at the local museum and only rarely at even local indie movie houses: they are not money makers, and they are draws only to a small group out there.

    It *could* though, be interesting to have a piece in which the order that you watched the parts didn't impact the story, just yielded different clues as you went.

  • dreamlife613

    I think Amazon is trying what is being suggested in this article. As I understand it, Amazon Studios is open to anyone who has a series idea. You submit your scripts, get critiqued by other users, and then based on some factors, your series/movie may get a pilot order. Directors, etc. are hired, produce the pilot, and then it gets released to the general public, who vote on your pilot. Amazon then makes a decision re: series order.

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    Mind. Blown. It is not easy to pause and to note the influence that form has on content, to step back and reexamine the structures and elements of a technology that have long been a given. Really well said.

  • Guest

    This is really interesting stuff. I am feeling like there is a parallel here with the trajectory of the literacy episteme.... something about recognizing the calling attention to the form, playing with the form, and then recognizing that the

  • dizzylucy

    I wonder if they aren't creating these series in a standard TV format on the chance that some channel would purchase them to air at some point? Streaming services have been buying content for a while now, I could see them eventually wanting to sell some of their older original content back, once that content's buzz has died down and isn't attracting new subscribers.

    I just recently re-watched Arrested Development's 4th season, and though I really enjoyed it again, I had the same reaction to some episodes that I did upon first viewing - some of them felt a bit long and had stuff that could have been cut down a bit. Reminded me of when the Office had super sized episodes. I don't know if it's just me being used to a 22 minute comedy, or if the time constraints can actually help make a tighter, funnier show.

  • Kate

    In Australia House of Cards and OITNB air on Foxtel (our pay TV service) and are available on Foxtel's streaming service. They may have gotten Arrested Development too, not sure about that one. Lilyhammer airs on one of our free channels but that was a co-production so I guess that's expected.

    We don't have Netflix here, so yes there's definitely a market there for them to sell their shows to regular TV broadcasters, at least internationally. I'd imagine in the US they'll probably keep a series exclusive to them until it's finished and then try selling it.

  • This is a really good point, and I suspect you're exactly right, maybe not to sell the show to American networks, but to international markets where Netflix doesn't yet have a footprint.

  • BWeaves

    I personally like the idea of a series with an end. The Brits have been doing this for years. I want a build up and payoff. The show doesn't have to be exactly 13 episodes, or whatever a current "series" is. It should be whatever the story needs.

    "But just as we embrace freedom as an impetus for creativity, we can’t dismiss the value of restriction." I find that I am more creative as a weaver when I have restrictions. When I have wide open resources, I often go overboard and my final product suffers for it. When I have restrictions, it's fun to figure out how to use them to my advantage, and I'm always happier with my final product.

  • seannyd

    I don't know. Sometimes the demands of the episodic format demand structure. I think most people currently agree that 10-13 episodes are what typically makes a solid season. If they wanted to do less they could (a la Sherlock), but I feel like a lot has to do with the creators as well. I bet if creators went to Netflix and had specific requirements, Netflix would do it. But being outside of the box just for the sake of being outside of the box isn't necessarily the most effective method of entertainment.

    Besides, people will happily watch 10 episodes of something structured around 43 minutes but are reluctant to pop in the extended edition of Lord of the Rings. Is the time commitment any different? Nope. But the structure is.

  • emmalita

    Netflix would be a great place for a write your own adventure type tv. The 4th season of Arrested Development sort of had that feel to it. You didn't really know what was going on until you had seen a few episodes from a few different character POVs.

  • That's such a great idea. I remember Hurwitz had originally said AD S4 would support watching episodes in any order, though he backtracked on that because of how he constructed jokes with setups and payoffs through the season. Would be really cool to see somebody actually make good on the concept.

  • emmalita

    Done well, it would get more hours of content per dollar, and then encourage multiple rewatches. I don't know what the page views were for the Hot Pie adventure, or if there is a way to measure how long readers stay on a particular page. I know I spent way more time on the Hot Pie adventure than I intended. Marathoning is already within Netflix's wheelhouse. The trickier part is writing a story that's compelling enough in all it's permutations that people come back to it. Again going back to Hot Pie, that was a character and a world the reader brought to the adventure.

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