In case you didn’t realize, over the past month, Netflix released its newest seasons of critically acclaimed shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, etc…. But the amount of press dedicated to these shows has been dwindling, and “water-cooler” conversations are pretty much nonexistent. I mean what happened? Has Netflix, once the newcomer to the world of ‘Peak TV’, fallen to its mighty wrath as well?
The once mighty House of Cards, the show that created an entire new genre of television viewing and firmly cemented ‘bingeing’ in pop culture lexicon, arrived three weeks ago to only be met with stifled joy and little conversation about the plot itself. While there were plenty of ‘hot takes’ about how the political climate of America kind of ruined House of Cards chances of impacting audiences without that cloud, there wasn’t much discussion of the show itself. A more obvious example is how Orange is the New Black came out last Friday and literally nothing has been said about it.
Maybe it’s simply because these shows stopped being good. House of Cards spent so much time last season building up the presidential election and kind of forgot to make Frank do anything about it. OitNB changed its formula up, showing a story that happened over a couple of days, which made every episode run together and kept anything from standing out. Netflix also just showed its willingness to cancel prominent shows with things like Sense8 and The Get Down being dropped from its line-up, s despite above-average marketing, so maybe its time for Netflix to clean house and only keep the shows that live up to that caliber of excellence (or the ones they can depend on Disney/Marvel to finance).
I think the answer, however, lies not on the narrative faults of these shows, but the actual presentation of them. I think the idea that made Netflix shows so unique and binge-able has run its course.
To illustrate my point, I’m going to use four shows, starting with Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad became a sleeper hit on AMC, ultimately proving itself to be one of the greatest television shows ever made. But the important thing to remember that while it was always a critical hit, it took a little bit of time for it to become a cultural touchstone for TV viewers, and partially succeeded because the past seasons of the show were available in Netflix. So when you finally wanted to get your friend to shut up about how amazing it was, you could spend a week watching the rest of the show, than come back on Monday and argue over whether ‘The Fly’ was the best or worst episode the show ever made.
And that’s what Netflix proved so adept at being: a catch-up tool. The idea of trying a mixture of DVD box sets, AMC logins, and illegal streaming services to watch the show was daunting but Netflix, like iTunes, made every episode of the past seasons available in one spot. But now that you were there, why not also check out things like Arrested Development, The West Wing, How I Met Your Mother, or Mad Men? The show took time to become a cultural touchstone, which isn’t allowed to happen when Netflix shoves the entire season in your face on a Tuesday and just hopes you end up watching all of it.
To see how well a release schedule matters in the current age of television, which is at peak saturation, lets look at one of the view shows that still maintains a moniker of “appointment television”, Game of Thrones. When it was first released, GoT became insanely popular right off the bat, while also prompting thousands of calls to find out who had an HBO GO account. It’s standard to watch an episode with a group of friends every week, but what that does is allow for conversations to grow naturally over its 2 1/2 month run-time. You watch the episode, talk with your work buddies for the five weekdays about what happened, then invite them over Sunday night to see if your favorite character survives another week. Partially because George R.R. Martin won’t release the next book until the Sun has reabsorbed the Earth, there are hundreds of fan theories out there about what characters will end up, what major events are being hinted at, and end up fleshing out things that the show only briefly touches on.
But now, that extends the interest in the show. When House of Cards releases all of its episodes on a single day, you can watch everything in one day, watch two a day after work, watch none until the weekend and catch up on half the season, or decide you could be outside playing golf instead. There’s no consistency in viewing habits, and thus, no community. When everyone’s on the same page, it easier to talk about spoilers or shocking scenes, and consume content associated with that. So now, instead of House of Cards being the show to talk about for a couple of weeks, Game of Thrones is able to get hundreds of thousands of viewers to watch a Facebook video of an ice block melting, just because inside that block is the premiere date of the nest season.
So if Netflix can’t ensure the longevity of its stalwarts anymore, what can they really do? Well I think the length of the seasons matters a great amount too. Take the last great success story out of Netflix, Stranger Things. The best thing about the show, to me, was that it was only 8 episodes long (you know, aside from the fact the casting was great and the story was mysteriously engrossing). The creators knew they didn’t need anymore than that to tell us the story of a town beset by an evil monster from another dimension as a classic 80’s movie. The show proved to be a sleeper hit, that while may not have been quickly viewed in the first days of its release, used good word of mouth to create that longevity that network shows enjoy.
That 8 episode season, though, made it incredibly enticing to view. One of the things that makes or breaks catching up on a TV show is how behind you are. Taking a few weekends to watch Season One of Daredevil before the next season comes out doesn’t seem to hard, but trying to watch 100 hours of Sam and Dean on Supernatural is downright Quixotic. With only eight episodes, wanting to jump into to that show becomes appealing to someone who may not have wanted to see that in the first place. House of Cards, up to about 60 hours of story, is a hard show to get into now, so you’re only going to be losing viewers with every passing season, not gaining new ones. While Stranger Things may fall into that one day, to reach the level of narrative House of Cards is at would take another 7 seasons.
And finally, we look to another streaming network to dispel the notion that Netflix should only be releasing full seasons at a time. The Handmaid’s Tale has been acting like a normal television show throughout its first season, releasing one episode a week and letting the internet as a whole talk about it piecemeal. Now, while our political environment may once again be playing a factor here, the amount of internet chatter about this show is surprising given the install base of Hulu versus the juggernaut that is Netflix. Once again, we are seeing the power of longevity, and how letting a entertainment site release a story about your show every week is going to entice more people to watch it than a YouTube trailer released two weeks before you dump all your episodes out.
Is Netflix really in trouble? No, probably not, but they won’t be able to claim some sort of superiority in programming if they don’t change their habits. Cancelling unpopular shows is easy, but finding shows that remain part of the zeitgeist throughout their run is more important. By looking at the examples of other success stories, and once again changing what it means to be a television show, Netflix can reinvigorate itself and maybe win some more Emmys too.