Why the streaming service should retire its "all at once" release system.
If we were to choose a mantra to describe Netflix as a concept and as an approach to business, I would nominate "All at once."
"All at once" can be synonymous with "instantly," like the streaming service itself. In the long, long ago of 2011, Netflix decided to separate its streaming and DVD-by-mail services "all at once," much to the ire of its customers. And, since venturing into the realm of original content creation, the mantra of "all at once" has carried through: Its shows are written all at once, shot all at once and released, yes -- "All at once."
This differs, of course, from traditional narrative television shows, which are typically still being written as they're being shot, still being shot as they're being aired, and are only aired at the rate of one episode a week.
Netflix's unconventional release approach has in large part been championed by its viewers, seen as a democratization of the viewing experience. Rather than be told when and how an episode can be seen by the tyrannical suits of a network or cable channel, a full season dump of episodes means viewers can watch when they please and at the rate they choose. "Binge-watching" is a symptom of many changes in the cultural landscape -- DVRs, The Internet, unemployment* -- but no single content provider has helped make it a cultural norm as much as Netflix.
But Netflix's "all at once" release system isn't as democratic as it's queued up to be -- and is actually antithetical to the ravenous culture of content consumption Netflix has helped create. The streaming service and its viewers would be better off if the experiment came to an end.
In you're anything like me, you spend too much time on the internet. In doing so, you've probably noticed something I've noticed: the lead-up to and denouement from new episodes of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead border on insane. A new episode is good for at least two days of social media saturation (the day of and the day after) -- sometimes longer for a premiere or finale. Internet God help you if you're out of town or have to work or are one of the three or four people without a friend's HBO Go password: Spoilers are coming. (More on the "s" word in a minute.)
By my count, Game of Thrones engages us in this dance of anticipation and discussion ten times a season. The Walking Dead, now 16 times. Week after week of swirling fervor and relief as millions of viewers experience the show (more or less) together.
But what about Netflix's biggest shows? House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black? There is no weekly tidal wave of anticipation, because there is only one release date per season. By releasing full seasons at once, Netflix is foregoing a huge amount of cultural capitol. By its own hand, they're robbing themselves of nine or 15 or more spikes in social media airtime.
Google trending data comes without handy hard numbers, but these graphs illustrate the differences I'm describing:
Perhaps a comparison to the two most popular shows on cable is unfair. It's well known that Netflix keeps its "ratings" a secret, and it behooves them to do so. They're the ones making their shows and spending the money, so only they need to know who's watching (until the DGA, PGA and SAG sue for the information for the sake of fair contract negotiations, that is). One suspects that if a show wasn't a success by whatever in-house metrics Netflix uses to determine such a thing, that show would be cancelled like a show on any other network. But what I'm talking about isn't about ratings or raw numbers (for all their secrecy, I think we would have heard about it if HoC or OItNB outperformed GoT or TWD). I'm talking about the way television is consumed; which is to say, beyond the direct transmission from screens to eyeballs, and into the cultural ether itself.
Alright, so who cares about what Netflix is giving up? Who cares about their "cultural impact?" The reason we like the "binge-watch" approach in the first place is that it's pro-viewer. It's the democratization of television!
It certainly would appear that way. But the "full season" release method is bad for viewers, too.