Netflix Needs to Refill the Watercooler

The Atlantic
Netflix Needs to Refill the Watercooler
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Netflix Needs to Refill the Watercooler

It seems like a lot of people binged on the new episodes of Arrested Development, which is certainly a win for Netflix, stock be damned, and it's the second success of its young life in the original programming world. Sure, Hemlock Grove hasn't quite caught fire, but that Arrested and this past winter's House of Cards were such popular television/Internet events means that Netflix has figured something out. That doesn't mean that there's no room for improvement, though.

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While it's fun in a way to fry your brain watching episode after episode in a gluttonous feast, I'm still not quite sure why Netflix is releasing all the episodes of these shows at once. I know they want to recreate the experience of watching an entire season of a television show on DVD — something they're able to synthesize with their respectfully large and thorough library of complete television series — but this is first-run programming we're talking about. TV on DVD means the show has already aired, it's had its incremental first release and now those who missed it can consume it at their own pace. But presumably they want to do that because they've heard things about it, people they know watched the show in real time, other people reviewed or recapped it or whatever else we do with television shows these days.

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But in the case of an all-new series that comes tumbling out all at once, where's the opportunity for momentum, build-up, even word of mouth? While House of Cards was popular and engaging and many of us are eagerly awaiting its second season, think of how much more anticipation and buzz — that terrible, all-important word — the show could have generated had it kept people snared in its web for thirteen set weeks, rather than for however long it took any particular person to watch all the episodes. I'd have to imagine that viewership would grow if fans were in a three-month state of wanting more — presumably the more they talked about it, the curiouser those around them would get. But as is, it's all consumed in one large gulp. There's the one "Good show!" burp, but then it's over.

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So from a marketing standpoint it would seem to make sense to mete out the episodes in a more traditional fashion, but it's also better as a viewer. Oh, sure, it's nice to know you've got every episode available when you want it, but it's also sort of a lonely experience, isn't it? During House of Cards and now Arrested Development, I've had conversations with people along the lines of, "Which episode are you on? Oh that's a good one. Just wait until..." It usually ends with a "Don't tell me!" or a "Well, I'm curious to hear what you think about it," which almost always means the episode isn't good. So we're talking about the show but we're not on the same page. And that's significantly less fun than watching something together. Television is, in its own strange way, a communal medium, and while it was fun anticipating Arrested Development together, the minute it dropped online we all splintered off into our own little pods, Gollums furtively fondling our preciouses instead of basking in the cool blue glow together.

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The current Netflix strategy eliminates watercooler chat, it saps the experience of speculation, of theorizing, of cautious optimism or nervous despair. The all-at-once release does a number on conversation, essentially, and conversation seems to be a large part of why many people watch television these days. So Netflix should rethink this. And it wouldn't be difficult! They could release one (or two, maybe) episodes a week, at a set time. Why not Sundays at 8? That's when people like to watch TV, right? That way everyone is sitting down to watch this thing together for a few weeks, rather than all scattered and unmatched. I think it could also set a nice precedent for how the dreamed-of future of à la carte television would work. Y'know, that miraculous day when you don't have to pay for a million cable channels you don't want, you just get the show you want when its available, for a certain price. I know that sounds like future-times crazy talk, but I think that day is on its way, so Netflix has the opportunity to figure out how it could best work. I hope they seize it.

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Having learned an important binging lesson with House of Cards, I'm taking my time with Arrested Development. I'm a little more than halfway through at this point, which actually isn't really taking my time considering the show just became available on Sunday. But I'm trying. Still, I wish I didn't have to try so hard. If Netflix released these things at a saner pace it would be better, easier, more fun for us all. I'm glad they've had two big successes now, but I hope they keep tinkering with the formula. Otherwise I fear we'll all soon be isolated weirdos, watching our own little screens and never talking to anyone about it. Until we're done, of course, and it's on to the next thing.

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