Netflix and Rethinking Ritualized Consumption of Audiovisual Content

Curator's Note

This promotional clip for IFC’s Portlandia testifies to the acknowledgment of binge-watching as a widespread practice, as its comical value resides in both the characters’ extreme behavior and rightly projected spectators’ identification. Binge-watching is far from new, but it is knowing increased legitimization through discussion in academic contexts and integration to entertainment economic-models. Indeed, "networks are adapting to the generational shift from on-a-schedule to on-demand viewing”, and weekly-scheduled shows such as The Following have been promoted through invitations to DVR rather than tune-in. Furthermore, in recent cross-platform reports, Nielsen recognized the importance of time-shifted viewing and its effect on ratings.

Netflix seems to be the nodal point of many developments in entertainment consumption, through its unlimited viewing potential and algorithmic tailoring of cinematic and televisual media suggestions. The implications Netflix’s new strategies and the “binge-watching”’s outspread are not only commercial, but also social and narrative. The drive to watch several episodes in one sitting is changing expectations (and increasing annoyance with repetitions), show structures and creative control. Reed Hastings,CEO of Netflix, explains that “the point of managed dissatisfaction is waiting”, and that “the traditional entertainment ecosysten is built on [this] totally artificial concept”. Netflix is sanctioning viewership habits by inviting to view the next episode before the end credits are through, and by releasing all it’s Original Series episodes at once.

This gives viewers the impression of increased control as it breaks, or shifts even deeper, the ritualized setting of consuming audiovisual content by enabling to decide when, where, how and how much to watch as never before. Internet streaming has enabled true immediacy in consuming films and television shows, constraining binge-viewing in its most recent forms to the sole immaterial pleasure of experience by rendering void fetishised ownership of the format (DVDs, recordings…).

What does this increased sense of control and increased virtuality mean for viewership? How will the shift of content domestication from ritualized weekly viewings to “marathoning” affect viewers’ lives and understanding of the world and themselves?

Comments

Aaron Dickinson Sachs's picture

Good clip and post

Thank you for this post and the clip, very appropriate for the theme week. As my own post yesterday indicates, I think that there is an argument to be made, using folks like McLuhan and Innis, that the shift from ritualized weekly viewing to on-demand binge watching is resulting in an erosion of our sense of community in favor of increased individualism. If we dig into this clip a bit more, we see a couple that seems to come unpinned from their position in a larger social fabric. Rather than go to a birthday party for a friend, they watch episodes and text. They lose jobs, have their power turned off, and for all intents and purposes seem to all but drop off the grid. And while the couple in this clip are watching the episodes together, offer a possible counter to my assertion that it hurts interpersonal relationships, the clip I curated yesterday offers an alternate example of what might happen for a couple when one person skips ahead and watches episodes outside of the relationship. When given the opportunity to control when and even where we watch a program, it seems we tend to exercise that control with increasingly little regard for others.

Of course, it’s also possible to argue that having more programs at our fingertips opens more opportunities for social interaction around TV than simply co-viewership. It’s much easier to have that water cooler discussion about the first season of Orange is the New Black than it was to talk about the most recent episode of Ally McBeal as it came out. But even there, I think the ritualized, time sensitive viewing required by more traditional structures of TV makes water cooler conversation easier too. The hubbub over the most recent season of Downton Abbey being a good case in point.

Not to be too self-promotional, but I’d encourage you to check out my post from Monday to see if perhaps McLuhan and Innis offer you a convincing answer to your questions. I think they might.

Thank you.

Rachel Silverman's picture

Netflix's impact on watching, sharing and understanding

I love this debate about how the viewing is changing our relationships to each other and to television in general.

Aaron, I loved the creativity of your piece and the discussion between the two men, however, since the conversation is happening here, I am going to go with it. I have two follow up questions for both or either of you:

1. Did Netflix, and the viewing potentials it offers, change the ability to watch ahead (regardless of your promise to your partner to watch together) much more than the DVR did? Or even for that matter, back when I used to record TV shows on VHS and watch them before my sister had a chance? (And maybe even accidentally record over them before she saw the show - imagine the interpersonal issues there when the most recent episodes of 90210 and Party of Five were gone?!?!) Obviously the technology makes watching ahead easier, but does it make the behavior much different? I guess this question has much to do with why this theme week is so important.

2. My second question is about content - when people discuss one episode of Ally McBeal the following morning, they are discussing 50 minutes of TV programming. When folks discuss 13 episodes of OITNB after a binge-watching marathon, can the discussion be the same? Isn’t it necessarily a different conversation by way of increased character development but potentially decreased plot retention? And how do these differences matter?

Rachel Silverman's picture

Netflix's impact on watching, sharing and understanding

I love this debate about how the viewing is changing our relationships to each other and to television in general.

Aaron, I loved the creativity of your piece and the discussion between the two men, however, since the conversation is happening here, I am going to go with it. I have two follow up questions for both or either of you:

1. Did Netflix, and the viewing potentials it offers, change the ability to watch ahead (regardless of your promise to your partner to watch together) much more than the DVR did? Or even for that matter, back when I used to record TV shows on VHS and watch them before my sister had a chance? (And maybe even accidentally record over them before she saw the show - imagine the interpersonal issues there when the most recent episodes of 90210 and Party of Five were gone?!?!) Obviously the technology makes watching ahead easier, but does it make the behavior much different? I guess this question has much to do with why this theme week is so important.

2. My second question is about content - when people discuss one episode of Ally McBeal the following morning, they are discussing 50 minutes of TV programming. When folks discuss 13 episodes of OITNB after a binge-watching marathon, can the discussion be the same? Isn’t it necessarily a different conversation by way of increased character development but potentially decreased plot retention? And how do these differences matter?

Lindsay Bosch's picture

The Content Shift

A wonderful clip here, that definitely recalls my own Battlestar experience. Ariane notes that “The implications of Netflix’s new strategies and the “binge-watching”’s outspread are not only commercial, but also social and narrative.” I’m particularly interested in these narrative implications, as Rachel surfaces in her question #2 above.

Netflix’s model shifts something integral about the TV episode, as it has existed since the 1950s. The delivery dump of a single complete season at a time turns the season itself into the object. Rather than any particular episode–you are taking in, discussing and remembering the complete story arc as a whole. This has certainly led to a shift in TV content. Netflix (and network shows designed for time-shift) are delivering ongoing and complex stories. Viewer, satisfaction, or “payoff” is not delivered on an episode by episode basis.

I wonder - do we lose anything when we abandon our “Law-and-Order” murder-of-the-week, our Buffy monster-of-the-week, or our Star Trek planet-of-the-week. We’ve gained quality certainly, and also subtlety in our TV content. But I wonder if there is a certain quality of concise editing and storytelling that we are actually leaving behind.

Ariane Lebot's picture

The drive to catch up

Thank you for these comments and deepening the conversation, Netflix truly is a subject which enables debate in many different directions.

Aaron, I really liked your post and the exercise of applying theoretician’s perspectives. I agree that on-demand viewing is radically changing the way we experience consumption of programs, especially television shows (consumption here being contrasted with viewing as the ritualized weekly viewing), but I am not sure to which extent it completely destroys communal spectatorship experiences. Having been on the receiving end of the situation your clip depicts, I can testify to the frustration, and it is not hard to make the case that the virtual world offered by the Internet (that also goes for access to unlimited data) is changing the ways we relate to each other and experience entertainment as shared. There is no longer the need to watch the clock and make sure dinner is finished on time to catch an episode, or to make a specific date - a cure to boredom can be sought in a minute, without the need to plan. And while the situation depicted in the IFC teaser is extreme, I think many of us will find it rings too close to home. On the other hand, on-demand enables spontaneous viewing that can be shared together, it facilitates waiting for a friend who cannot be there when an episode airs, and it can bring people far away together - watching the same shows in long distance relationships can foster a sense of intimacy, a shared experience albeit the distance. I am not very familiar with theories of virtuality and community in the digital world, but I think this raises questions of whether community is dissolving or shifting to new forms.

That being said, it definitely changes the water-cooler (as an example) community. I personally find that the main difference with the DVR era, which necessitates more action on the part of the viewer. It brings me back to questions of culture being defined as a common set of references. Viewers are increasingly not invited to partake in the same activity every week, but to catch up, which is probably one of the main reasons of bingeing (or “marathoning”, the industry is promoting that word to replace the negative connotations associated to binge-watching). Television shows are not only a topic of conversation, they are a sign of belonging to a wider group. This certainly isn’t new, but it seems to be taking on a more extreme nature.

Rachel, I agree with your first point/question on the ability to watch ahead. There are unfortunately so many things we can say in 400 words! I would say that on-demand does change our behavior, not only the ease of technology, but partially. Binge-watching should probably be divided into two different categories: the act to decide to watch something, which is where the spectator asserts his control on what, when, where, how and how much (at least in his plans), and then the subsequent act of watching what comes next, which is where, as shown in the clip, control can become an illusion and the spectator actually loses himself. Starting to watch a serial program requires an action on part of the viewer: whether to search for the show online, or to set the recording and then watch it on the DVR. The Internet, and especially Netflix with its automatic cueing of the following episodes, eliminates or renders much more simpler - perhaps enable it to become automatic - the act of continuing to watch. In that way, I think it promotes to lose oneself in consumption. While this wording isn’t exactly positive, I don’t think binge-watching is necessarily a danger although the lines between control and excess can easily be blurred.

Finally, I find that all these questions raise an issue that we have indirectly been talking about which is that of the spoiler: getting premature information about last week’s episode is one thing, but with people consuming audiovisual products in shorter time frames, binge-watching is further promoted by the need to catch up quickly as serials are the subject of many discussions where it is increasingly assumed that everyone “is in the know”. This is certainly changing both discussions and the personal “payoff” we get from our entertainment.

These are just thoughts, feel free to disagree. I look forward to more lively discussion!

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