If you haven’t given Aziz Ansari’s Master of None a try on Netflix, you should. You should also read Vivian’s review of it a couple of days ago, because it too is good. With righteous truth, the indomitable Ms. Kane makes special note of the show’s experimental format that simply wouldn’t have been possible on television or film. Let’s talk a bit about that.
Movie theaters are dying, with something approaching static revenue only happening because of inflation. Network television is dying, with the threshold for a successful showing being ranking literally 75 percent lower than they were fifteen years ago. Basic cable is a wasteland of reality television that should be nuked from orbit.
The only ones holding on in some way are those prestige stations that are trying to do something different and feel out the new rules. HBO used to be a niche thing that was closeted with people who had too much money to spend on entertainment and so they wanted to be able to watch movies without going to Blockbuster. Now they’ve got series blowing everything the networks have got out of the water in ratings and DVD sales.
There were initial warnings when Netflix hit the tipping point, when analysts insisted that the company was never going to be able to stay in the streaming business because they depended on their competitors for content. Unless — and here was usually a derisive laugh — they start making their own content.
And now they’re winning with exactly that strategy. Not because they’re putting out content, not even because they’re putting out good content, but because they’re putting out content that can’t be replicated by traditional platforms.
Netflix has phenomenally low transaction costs, which mean that they can take chances in the long tail of entertainment, on the things that are not even remotely sure bets, without major risk. They don’t have to push this thing out to five thousand theaters. A failed movie costs massive amounts of money. Television too, though in a slightly different sense. Traditional television has limited hours of time. If you stick it in there, it has to recoup a certain cost in order to offset the fixed costs of television.
A pure streaming show costs nothing though if no one watches it. There’s no lost opportunity cost. They upload the files to their server. Done. It’s taking up few pennies of hard drive space, but if no one clicks on it, it effectively uses no resources and has no ongoing cost after the sunk cost of production.
But there’s an additional impact: if the medium is the message then changing the medium changes the message. Commercials drive a lot of the structure of traditional television: hook, credits, first act, second act, third act. Forty-two minutes on the nose. There is a rhythm to everything built on that model, no matter how creative it is. The structure determines that rhythm. Try watching some of HBO’s stuff syndicated onto cable. The commercials make the entire thing awkward, introducing breaks and an alien rhythm. That’s part of why movies have always felt distinct from television shows: it’s not just the length, it’s the rhythm. But even film has long ago settled into something similar with the constraints of 90 to 120 minutes and all that goes with it. How constrained would the printed word feel if every single novel was the same number of words, give or take 15%?
All this changes when you’re no longer creating content in that structure. Episodes of television on Netflix have moved away from that standard rhythm. It had become so quotidian that we didn’t even know it was there anymore, except in that feeling we had that movies flowed differently. Now that distinction doesn’t matter.
It’s similar to the rise of the novel as an art form, something made possible by the rise of cheap mass printing. A new art form emerges from new delivery capabilities. When paper and print is expensive with a small market, five hundred pages of text is an impossible thing. It will never be created because it can never be sold, and so we lost a thousand years of Dickens and Vonnegut until the medium for their message arrived.
With Netflix there is a similar phenomenon. There’s no limitation or standards of time. Make a ten minute show. Make a sixteen hour one split into arbitrary chunks between 70 and 90 minutes. HBO has long had the smug tagline “It’s not TV, it’s HBO”. Netflix is finally making that statement a truth with meaning.