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.