How Netflix has changed not just the way we watch TV, but the TV we watch too

Netflix's House of Cards was a game-changer.
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In this final in this four-part series on the impact of streaming on Australia's screen culture, Stephanie Popovski looks at Netflix and the impact of binge-watching.

In the almost nine years since House of Cards premiered on Netflix, the concept of the streaming service original series has completely shifted the way television is produced, and the way we consume it.

On-demand technology has brought many great things with it, and many great shows too, but there’s no denying that many of these shows feel like they’re missing something, and most of them seem to disappear from pop culture mere weeks after their release.

Same-day season releases have become a staple feature of Netflix and many other streaming video-on-demand (SVOD) services.

I have never been one for binge-watching, and I used to think my disenchantment with many Netflix original series was just a matter of preference. Over time, though, patterns began to emerge, and more and more people seemed to share my opinions – even some of the most avid binge-watchers I knew.

The truth is, Netflix’s business model dictates the ways its original shows are written, and it’s a business model that hinges on two things: attracting binge-watchers, and having as large a library as possible.

Narrative pacing can be tricky to get right, and there are many shows aired weekly on broadcast television – referred to as “linear television”, due to its set scheduling and flow – that struggle with it. For the most part, however, the restrictions of the medium help to keep this in check.

Each episode must be able to hold its own as the audience watches them individually, and they are limited to their timeslots. An hour-long timeslot for a drama series allows for a 45-minute episode, with ad breaks dividing the narrative into an act structure of sorts.

As a paid subscription service, Netflix does not feature any advertising, which means that the average drama series will have approximately hour-long episodes, with no predetermined division in the plotline. Without this specific structure for writers to take into account, episodes are far more likely to drag, lasting longer than truly necessary, or putting all their narrative weight into one section of the episode.

The six Marvel shows released as Netflix originals received much criticism for this. Even the critically acclaimed first two seasons of Daredevil and first season of Jessica Jones suffer from superfluous scenes that would have been cut for time in a series for linear television. The lack of a restrictive timeslot can be a wonderful thing that allows for creative decisions befitting a story, but for the most part, Netflix seems determined to use it to fill up the entirety of a hypothetical timeslot.

How Netflix has changed not just the way we watch TV, but the TV we watch too
Marvel’s Daredevil.

A 2019 survey of IndieWire critics asking the question “are shorter runtimes better in the era of Peak TV?” suggests that while longer runtimes can be well done, they usually serve to meet genre expectations and to fulfil the desire for “more” of a good series. But as some of the surveyed critics pointed out, many of these series are good precisely because they know how to keep their episodes tight.

Although they all had different personal viewing preferences, the critics nearly unanimously said the shows they found most creative and engaging used a shorter episode format. The freedom from time slot restrictions should have been used to create a runtime that suited the story, instead of sticking to the idea that comedies are a half-hour and dramas are an hour, they said, and the extra commercial time was just the bloat of unnecessary scenes.

Netflix’s famous release style is also partially to blame for its pacing issues. When releasing an entire season on the same day, it is assumed that most of the audience will binge-watch as soon as they can. As a result, the season’s narrative is considered as longform from the get go of pre-production.

For binge-watchers, the episodes blur together into one singular text, with reduced ability to recall which specific episode a detail may have occurred in. It doesn’t matter if one or two episodes feel a bit slow when they’re only a 10th of a story and don’t have to work as mini-stories of their own.

How Netflix has changed not just the way we watch TV, but the TV we watch too
Jessica Jones.

The binge-watching assumption also gives streaming original shows far more leeway with its pacing when it comes to getting viewers invested. For a series released weekly, not only does each episode have to be worthwhile, but the pilot in particular has to capture attention. If an enticing story is not set up, if the characters aren’t engaging enough, then the likelihood of audiences tuning in again plummets.

Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos has said that, for Netflix originals, he considers the first season to be the pilot, not the first episode. Research conducted by Netflix backs this up, too, showing that the “just one more” mentality means that those using an SVOD to watch a series will typically take three or four episodes to decide whether they’ll commit rather than judging from the first episode alone. Sure, this reduces the need for repeated exposition, but when less effort is required to keep viewers engaged, it results in less engaging content.

But it’s not just the desire to attract the binge-watching audience that causes Netflix originals to suffer narratively. Many Netflix originals get cancelled prematurely, seemingly regardless of popularity or how complete the narrative is.

In fact, there’s a specific pattern when it comes to Netflix’s cancellations; shows very rarely go past three seasons. The prevalence of shows being cancelled after season three is in part due to the contract renegotiations that would be required for a fourth season, as more often than not, the series would require substantial budget increases.

Some particularly popular originals have managed to get that fabled fourth season, such as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Atypical, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, but were cancelled after that. The reason? Netflix does not see value in a series running longer than 30 episodes. As most of their original shows have 10-episode seasons, this works out to a neat three seasons.

Shows with more than three seasons, according to Netflix’s data, are less likely to attract new viewers, who may find the length intimidating – and of course, not bingeable enough – and are likely to opt for a shorter series. And if time and budget is being dedicated to long-running shows, then there’s less room to create new shows. Ultimately, Netflix’s priority lies in having as large a library as possible of bingeable shows, rather than allowing these shows to grow into their full potential.

Despite placing their efforts into having many short original shows to attract subscribers and binge-watchers, a 2018 infographic released by Netflix reveals that six out of the “top 10 first binge shows” are long-running shows, originally broadcast weekly on linear television.

The remaining four are: Fuller House, a reboot of the classic series Full House which draws in audiences based on that nostalgia factor and managed to last for five seasons; flagship Netflix originals House of Cards (six seasons); Orange is the New Black (seven seasons); and the highly recognised Netflix series Stranger Things, whose fourth season will be released in 2022.

Based on this, something becomes clear. Two major draws for viewers, even binge-watchers, are length and popularity.

How Netflix has changed not just the way we watch TV, but the TV we watch too
Source: Netflix

The number of episodes that these shows have did not deter viewers at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The longer a beloved series is, the more time its fans get to spend in its world, engaging with its characters, and from the business perspective, it also means they consume more content, boosting ratings.

It makes sense, of course, that the more popular a series is, the more likely it is to draw an ever-increasing number of viewers, even if it’s just to be in on the joke when people reference iconic scenes.

The question then, is, how does a series gain and maintain popularity in the first place? Fuller House came with a built-in audience. House of Cards and Orange is the New Black both debuted in Netflix’s early days as an SVOD. Not only did this give them a certain novelty factor, but it also gave them room to breathe, as they didn’t have to compete with volumes of other streaming originals. The fact that it was a new medium may have also worked in their favour in the writer’s room, as there was no pre-existing data saying that viewers would watch even if the first quarter of the series dragged.

Premiering in 2016, Stranger Things came at the perfect time. Netflix was a recognisable brand name available in many countries by that point, but its original library was not yet quite so overwhelming, meaning the shows that were released had a far higher chance of gaining a large audience.

Add to that the level of advertising that was done for Stranger Things and more as Netflix tried to establish itself in the countries which had just received it, and its viewership becomes inevitable. Stranger Things was able to garner a longevity to the discussion surrounding it, and the hype that the season two release generated cemented the show’s place firmly in pop culture.

So why is it that now, in 2021, the idea of a Netflix original becoming permanent pop culture feels like an anomaly?

Many recent Netflix originals have had what it takes to gain a place amongst the pop culture greats. Many, indeed, seemed like they would do just that. Based on the levels of online conversation that surrounded shows like The Umbrella Academy or The Witcher after their releases, it’d be reasonable to assume that the conversation would continue. Both being genre works and highly acclaimed adaptations of popular franchises, all signs would point to these shows developing strong and dedicated fanbases year-round.

But aside from a meme format or two, the world moved on. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody could stop talking about the docuseries Tiger King, but the jokes quickly became old news. The recent hit series Squid Game seems like it has what it takes to make it, but it’s too early to know if it’ll follow in the lasting footsteps of Stranger Things, or get pushed aside when the world finds a new series.

Stranger Things | Netflix Official Site
Stranger Things season 3.

The short shelf life of these shows can be partially attributed to the constantly expanding library. In a way that feels a bit like fast fashion, a cycle of ditching a series for the next big thing that constantly increases in speed, but for this cycle to work, everyone has to watch the whole show as quickly as possible. The act of binge-watching, essentially, is the key to why Netflix original shows are treated as dispensable.

When binge-watching first became a trend, it was something that existed more among existing fans of a show. This was because of the technology available – the only way to binge-watch was with a DVD boxset of the series, and that required buying the boxset.

Of course, borrowing from a friend or renting the DVDs was also possible, but the majority of binge-watchers were rewatching. They were already intimately familiar with the show, and were watching attentively, delving even deeper into a world they already knew and loved.

SVOD technology completely changed binge-watching by first making it accessible, and then making it mainstream. When streaming, audiences can easily access an entire series any time they want, and if they enjoy it, it’s incredibly easy to watch just one more episode. Netflix’s user interface is designed to encourage this, with its autoplay feature giving audiences a few seconds after an episode ends – or while the credits are rolling – to press the back button before the next episode automatically begins, making it easy to keep watching.

While the same-day release model assumes the audience will binge-watch, it also begs to be binge-watched. If a viewer doesn’t watch a new season as soon as possible, then they will fall behind, and become subject to spoilers. When a series becomes the new big thing, the people who have seen it in its entirety cannot wait to discuss it. Anyone who doesn’t immediately watch it gets left out of the conversation.

How Netflix has changed not just the way we watch TV, but the TV we watch too
The world loved The Umbrella Academy, and then moved on.

The conversation moves fast, too. If the average Netflix original series was broadcast traditionally, it would last for 10 weeks, with each new episode providing the topic of discussion. A month after the pilot, the show would be as popular as ever, and latecomers only have a few episodes to catch up on before the next one, without being excluded for being latecomers. However, when all the episodes are released and viewed at once, the entire season gets condensed into an event, on the tip of everyone’s tongues for a couple of weeks before it loses relevancy.

It’s this pressure to consume a new season or series as quickly as possible that causes the short shelf life on a much more individual level. Binge-watching a series is a fundamentally different experience to watching it incrementally, even if those increments involve more than one episode in a sitting.

Binge-watchers aren’t just less likely to recall which episode something happened in, they have less ability to recall details of a series in general. This is because of the sheer amount of information that they are taking in at once, as opposed to processing each episode individually.

Binge-watchers also report lower enjoyment levels than those who watch a series incrementally. However, they also typically report feeling more immersed in the narrative, so long as they’re not just using it as background noise while scrolling social media.

This isn’t as contradictory as it may seem. Binge-watching can be a very immersive experience while it’s happening, and it also releases large amounts of dopamine in ways comparable to addiction. This is what drives the “just one more” impulse, as the brain’s dopamine receptors seek to continue the rush. As a result, binge-watching can feel excellent, but is replaced by a certain emptiness once the series is finished. There isn’t the same level of long-term passion or interest that would be gained from watching an episode at a time, only a temporary high and then the crash.

While these viewers have a period of engaging in discussion surrounding their latest binge and wishing there was more of it, they will soon need another show to fill the void. The more a person binge-watches, the more they need to keep doing it in order to release the same amount of dopamine into their brain. And so, the cycle continues, and the binge-watchers move on to the next big series.

What Is 'Russian Doll' Actually About? - The Atlantic
Russian Doll. 

The future of Netflix original shows doesn’t have to follow these patterns, though. More and more examples are arising of how SVODs can use the medium to create engaging, memorable television.

In my opinion – and the opinion of multiple surveyed IndieWire critics – a particularly strong contender can be found right there in Netflix’s library of original content, in the 2019 series Russian Doll. A dramedy that leans into its comedy side, especially with Natasha Lyonne in the lead roll as Nadia, its heavy themes, longform narrative, and sci-fi genre conventions would typically place it firmly in the realm of hour-long episodes, but it challenges that expectation, with its shortest episode clocking in at 24 minutes, and its longest at 30.

As a result, not a minute is wasted, and yet the narrative did not feel rushed. The characters were given the right amount of space they needed to develop. It was perfect for bingeing, with an approximate total runtime of three-and-a-half hours and a continuous storyline across the season, but each episode was still telling a distinct chapter of the story, cleverly separating the experience into chapters of a sort.

This does not mean that I think Russian Doll’s formula is how all Netflix originals should be made. Actually, it’s quite the opposite: Russian Doll is proof that going against the grain and doing what’s right for a specific narrative is more beneficial to a series’ quality than adhering to the tried and tested expectations.

How Netflix has changed not just the way we watch TV, but the TV we watch too
The Mandalorian. 

As for the pop cultural longevity issue, the chances that Netflix will change its business model to fix this any time soon are incredibly slim. Instead, we look to other SVODs. Namely, Disney+, which has taken a weekly release approach to most of its original content, but had especially notable success with the Star Wars series The Mandalorian.

Week after week, conversation around The Mandalorian continued, and it remained long after the season finished, especially thanks to the adorable character The Child (aka Grogu), affectionately dubbed Baby Yoda by fans. Each episode contains its own little adventure, but the overarching narrative threads are still carried through.

Of course, Disney+’s decision to release its shows weekly is as profit-driven as Netflix’s decision to do the opposite. Disney+ only has a week-long free trial period, after all. But the end result is still the same – a quality series that has cemented its place in pop culture, and reminded audiences of just how much fun it can be to experience a show bit by bit, and collectively with the world.

The landscape of streaming as a medium is still quite recent, and ever evolving. Netflix may have no plans to change its release approaches, but perhaps all audiences need is to be reminded of the alternatives to Netflix, in order to enjoy their original shows, and to disrupt the culture that Netflix created when it disrupted the way we watch television.