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Why Is TV So Popular on Netflix?

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | January 29, 2014 | Comments ()


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Netflix is huge. Saying this is both obvious and a little dumb: their fourth-quarter earnings were $1.18 billion, and they added 2.33 million domestic subscribers in that quarter, bringing their total U.S. subscriber base to 33.42 million. What’s more, some of their original content — House of Cards, new episodes of Arrested Development, and Hemlock Grove — earned Emmy nominations in 2013 for that fall’s ceremony, a first for an online-only network, and they made history again when they won three of the awards (including a directing nod for David Fincher for the pilot episode of House of Cards). In other words, it’s not like nobody’s heard of them. Netflix is one of the biggest networks going these days.

What’s weird, though, is to think of it as a network at all, or specifically as something so focused on television. When Netflix launched in the late 1990s, renting discs by mail, it made its mark as a movie delivery service. Even the growth (and eventual plateau) of TV seasons on DVD didn’t do much to change the company’s basic image as a next-gen Blockbuster. But it’s known today as much for its catalog of recent-ish TV series as anything else. I just popped over to the Watch Instantly homepage and scrolled down to the “Popular on Netflix” section. Here’s what that section had to offer, presumably reflecting a mix of what’s hot and what the site would like to promote:

TV (28 titles)
An Idiot Abroad, Top of the Lake, Parks and Recreation, Archer, Futurama, Breaking Bad, 30 Rock, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Orange Is the New Black (Netflix original), Louie, Portlandia, The Office (U.S.), The Fall, Mad Men, Damages, Inside Chipotle, Doctor Who, New Girl, How I Met Your Mother, Freaks and Geeks, Twin Peaks, Dexter, Family Guy, Peep Show, Scrubs, Maron, The West Wing, The X-Files

Movies (12 titles)
Mitt (Netflix original), Stuck in Love, Amelie, Frances Ha, Fargo, The Avengers, Lost in Translation, Drinking Buddies, The Hunger Games, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Blackfish, Safety Not Guaranteed

More than half of the “Popular on Netflix” section is made up of television series. That tracks with what CEO Reed Hastings and CFO David Wells said in their recent letter to investors, when they touted their service as “consumer-in-control Internet television.” But what is it that makes Netflix such a popular delivery device for TV? Why do people love using Netflix for television series?

Part of it is the binging. Netflix makes it easier than anyone ever thought it would be to gorge themselves upon TV shows, watching hour after hour without having to stop. Everything from news articles to click bait is all about binge-watching, and Netflix also has a feature called Post-Play that will automatically queue up and start the next episode of a TV show when you’re finished watching the previous one. (They actually just introduced a setting that will let you turn this off, if you don’t want to give into the binge.) The allure of this is hard to ignore. We never dreamed of this with VCRs, or even DVRs: every episode spread before you, waiting, rolling over you as you lie motionless. Never saw 30 Rock? Feel like revisiting some or all of the 200-plus episodes of The X-Files? Two clicks and you’re there.

But ease of use only gets you so far. Streaming television is also appealing because short bites can make for less of a time investment than a movie. Settling in for a feature means budgeting between 90 and 120 minutes in most cases, but a TV episode will only set you back about 22 or 44 minutes, give or take a couple minutes based on the age of the show. It doesn’t matter that binge-watching a show can ultimately eat up more time than watching a movie, either. Each individual episode has its own buy-in, so you never feel like you’re giving one big chunk of time, just a bunch of smaller ones. Also, watching a movie means going along for the whole ride, but watching a TV show means you can quit after half an hour to do something else. It feels less risky, and therefore easier, to watch some TV than to pick a movie. This goes double when you’re watching a series you’ve seen before. I’ve stared down the barrel of movies I’ve been meaning to see for ages, only to chicken out and play a beloved TV episode before calling it a night.

I think what really makes TV so popular on Netflix, though, is the way Netflix has designed itself to replicate the TV viewing experience: passive, supportive, and boasting a million channels we can flip between at our leisure. Movies still feel more like events, or at least like dedicated viewing experiences, but TV is the thing you have on in the background when you’re checking your mail or folding your laundry or when you just need something to watch while you decompress for a few minutes after work. Movies are things we watch, but TV is the thing we cruise through, surf, skate around, settle on. Movies are presented in a darkened theater where we’re discouraged from talking or distracting our neighbors; TV blasts away in a bright living room, as much a part of the environment as anything else, and it’s rarely as demanding of our focus. Netflix’s TV catalog re-creates the feeling of browsing through a cable lineup on a lazy afternoon, picking and choosing among shows as a way to fill out the hours with minute-sized blocks. TV is popular on Netflix because TV is popular, period. Netflix’s disc-by-mail service, which still exists, started as a way to disrupt the industry and give people something different. Its continued success, though, is built upon giving people exactly what they already know, just the way they’ve always known it.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Lee

    TV series on Netflix are also popular because they're commercial free. I used to watch some shows online via network servers but the volume would increase so much during commercials that I found myself frantically reaching to mute & unmute. I don't think if Netflix offered a $5 streaming service that included advertising it would be as popular.

    $9 plus wifi bill vs no cable bill motivates one to check out the older shows.

  • Sofia

    Netflix and all other streaming alternatives are ridiculously popular in Chile. Not only because of the binge-watching, but because people are so sick of television. It's so fake and lacking in substance that you slowly start to feel like they're deliberately trying to make you dumb. The news are not really news, the shows are recycled and tired, the people on camera are irrelevant and uninteresting. Don't get me started on commercials.

    Television went from being entertaining and informative to being a shameless propaganda machine of shit that won't make you happy and talking heads that fill your brain with crap. Netflix and other streaming services stick to the entertaining portion. No commercials, no anchors, no useless stuffing to make due with airtime. Just good ol' fun.

  • Sara Habein

    Re-watching X-Files has significantly made folding laundry more bearable, I know that.

  • Some_person_second_try

    WAIT WAIT WAIT

    There's a show called Inside Chipotle?

  • e jerry powell

    Okay, so binge-eating and binge-drinking have some obvious physical downside aftereffects that people know about. What are the negative impacts of binge-watching?

  • BWeaves

    I prefer to watch DVDs of TV shows. I like the extras. I like no commercials and the ability to back up and fast forward easily (shut up, I have primitive equipment). I like the ability to turn on subtitles easier than the way CC works. I like to binge watch. I like to watch old stuff. I like to watch stuff unedited (I'm looking at YOU BBCA).

    Plus TV shows were built for a TV watching experience. Movies sometimes lose something on the small screen.

  • For me it's a really simple explanation: Netflix-on-Demand's movie selection is mediocre at best, but its TV selection is outstanding.

    However, let's not blame Netflix for that. I used to subscribe to Blockbuster-by-mail, and after I'd finished watching every movie I could think of, my options were either to watch the latest dreck out on DVD, or finally watch The West Wing. Or binge-watch all 10 seasons of Seinfeld. Or rediscover The Greatest American Hero from my childhood. (Not as good as I remember, but still fun.) TV became the only reason I kept Blockbuster, and it's the main reason I still do Netflix.

  • Check. The movies I REALLY want to see? Not on Netflix streaming.

  • I think the big thing Netflix brings to television watching is removing the wait time between episodes when you are starting. It is a hell of a lot harder to stick with a less than stellar show when it is just starting if you have to wait a week for new episodes. When you can watch 2 or 3 in a row you gain much faster understanding of the characters, who they are, what they are trying to do, and the relationship of everyone involved. You can see if the show is improving as the actors get used to the roles and the writers start to find a groove. Instead of devoting 4 weeks to a show to see if it works out the kinks, you can figure out in the course of a couple hours unbroken with commercials if it's going to be worth your time. That is a huge boost to struggling shows or those that just have a steep viewer buy in at the front like American Horror Story or Game of Thrones. (GoT, ironically not available on streaming Netflix.)

  • Matt

    While I agree with pretty much everything you say in this piece, the sentiment that television shows are to be viewed with less focus and more as "white noise" rubs me the wrong way. I'm a curmudgeon before my time (I'm only 30), but I think this idea is exactly what is wrong with the current and ever-evolving trend of media consumption. No one has the ability to focus on anything for more than a couple of minutes anymore and that's really a shame. Even something as "light" as an episode of Scrubs is meant to be viewed as a whole narrative (albeit a short one).

    Maybe if you've already seen something once or twice and want to put it on as background comfort, I think I can understand that. But putting on something you've never watched before while simultaneously checking your email or texting doesn't count as actually watching it, in my opinion. Television shows - as much as films or any other artistic medium - demand attention to appreciate them. Imagine how much of the "magic" you'd miss in an episode of Breaking Bad if you're multitasking at the same time. It's just a frustrating trend that will continue to frustrate me...

  • I agree. I don't use TV as white noise. I'm either engaged and watching or I'm doing something else and the TV is off. I don't channel surf and watch TV because I have nothing else to do. I watch specific shows (usually off the DVR) and then turn it off.

  • Matt

    My point exactly. Thank you, sir.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I think part of the allure of TV on Netflix has to do with the "Golden Age" of TV. in the past 10 years there has been a boatload of great series, both in the states and overseas. If you're at all like me you missed a lot of these in their first run. Stuff like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Dexter are just there in bulk waiting to be consumed by hungry eyes. On top of that you have some European series that I never had the chance to watch before Netflix. I think we're already starting to see the backlog thinning a little bit. What comes next I haven't a clue.

  • Art3mis

    I think the most amazing thing about Netflix is that it almost single-handedly created a demand for watching TV shows outside of their first run/out-of-order reruns. There were, until recently, basically no other convenient ways to check out a TV series you missed during its original run. You could rent or buy movies for a reasonable amount, and that's a one-time cost to try out a given product. But buying a season of a (good) TV show generally sets you back $40 minimum, which is a lot for something you have no idea whether you'll like -- and if you do like it, then you're looking at equivalent costs for every subsequent season so that you can see the story and characters through to the conclusion. Renting TV shows wasn't any better, because back when movie-rental places still existed, they idiotically charged you separately for each disc of a TV show, so that you had to pay the usual movie-rental price 6 times to see a full season of a TV show.

    I signed up for Netflix back in the mail-order days because I wanted to watch The West Wing, which I had missed during its original run, and the cost of a monthly subscription (which got you 3 discs at a time) was only a few bucks more than the cost of renting a single disc from Blockbuster. Once you discover one TV show that way, you realize that there is a goldmine of amazing content out there -- shows you missed because you didn't have a cable channel, or didn't think sounded interesting, or were (pre-DVR) never home at the right time to watch. Now, of course, you can watch shows On Demand or on Hulu or Amazon or on network's websites. But Netflix is really the place that first made it possible for people to access that content, so of course people latched onto that feature instead of the movies they could get anywhere else.

    (I do think, however, that the "most popular" thing on Netflix probably includes fewer movies than TV shows primarily because there is simply more content in the TV shows. I'm guessing that feature ranks things based on hours viewed, and even watching three or four episodes of a 44-minute TV show will take more time than watching one movie. Someone who watches one season of Breaking Bad is the equivalent to three or four people watching the same movie. The TV time adds up faster, so it pushes more things up the popularity ranking.)

  • Modernlove

    I know for my husband and I, we tend to watch TV shows on Netflix we've already seen. It's exactly what Daniel said, it's background noise. My husband more than I tends to put it on when he's making dinner or working on his modeling in the basement. It's something familiar and comforting, something you don't have to think about but it's enough stimulation to keep the most routine tasks from getting boring. My recent list is about 10 TV shows and 3 movies. The TV shows were mostly binge watching (I'm working my way through Supernatural for the first time and rewatched all of Scrubs from the beginning). The TV show selection is the entire reason I keep my Netflix subscription.

  • PerpetualIntern

    I do the same thing, especially with HIMYM, the Office, New Girl, etc. We don't have cable, so when I want background noise (like when I'm knitting) I put on the tried and true series that I don't need to pay attention to.

  • dizzylucy

    Currently re-watching 30 Rock, for the same reasons.

  • Modernlove

    Same here! Started season 1 over again a few days ago. It was excellent while I was cooking last night. Husband was watching it and I could be in and out of the room and not feel like I missed anything.

  • ed newman

    I just got the image of Mr. Modernlove, strutting the catwalk in your basement Zoolander-style, with you making it rain. That's what you meant, right?

  • Modernlove

    That is exactly what I meant. It's at least much, much cooler than the reality.

  • Aaron Schulz

    Im working(technically working) from home right now and have parks and rec running in the background, its delightful white noise i can occasionally look over at to see ron poke jean ralphio with a toothpick or Jerry get shot down by Dianes daughters with a smile, and then continue on with my business.

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