Can Netflix change the way we watch TV forever?

Kevin Spacey says the streaming service’s challenge to traditional broadcasting is “the ultimate expression of individual control” – but is it what we really want, asks Tim Glanfield

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Can Netflix change the way we watch TV forever?
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Tim Glanfield

Tomorrow, the first series of David Fincher’s House of Cards will begin (and for some people end) on Netflix. No matter where you are in the world, all 13 episodes of the $100m Kevin Spacey-fronted drama will become available at once – meaning, if you so choose, you can splurge the entire series in one sitting. 

The remake of the 1990 BBC political drama is a first foray into television for Fincher, best known for cinema hits including The Social Network and Fight Club, and Netflix reportedly battled tooth and nail with HBO to acquire this series – but why did they want it so much?

Simple: they need big names to make a big splash. Why? Because in the words of their CEO Reed Hastings (pictured above), the traditional models of entertainment are built on “managed dissatisfaction”… and Netflix are going to free us from that.

"The point of managed dissatisfaction is waiting. You're supposed to wait for your show that comes on Wednesday at 8pm, wait for the new season, see all the ads everywhere for the new season, talk to your friends at the office about how excited you are," he told GQ.  But with Netflix, waiting is now dead.

Kevin Spacey, who also produced House of Cards, echoes this view, saying "What a company like Netflix is doing is the ultimate expression of individual control, proof of what people's attention span really is."

Ricky Gervais has also praised Netflix – who will show his comedy Derek exclusively worldwide immediately after the Channel 4 run – saying “this deal gave me the freedom and the huge potential viewers of the Internet but the production values of film and TV”. The Office creator has even hinted that he might take the project lock-stock to Netflix for series 2 if he can’t broker the right deal with Channel 4. 

And the future is bright for Netflix subscribers, with a raft of new series (dropping all at once on one day) in the pipeline, the pinnacle of which will be the long-awaited season four of Arrested Development, expected in early May. 

But while the artists and actors praise Netflix for their bold challenge to destroying “entertainment dissatisfaction”, the jury remains out as to whether this revolution in television is what people really want. 

On paper, as a fan of a show, nothing seems more exciting than having the entire season of, say, Arrested Development at your fingertips. But, once you’ve gorged on it as quickly as possible… it’s gone. You’re left with a televisual hangover – and what’s more, you can’t tell anyone about it. 

Why? Well, you have no idea if your friends have seen the same episodes as you. Just because you stayed up all night to watch all 14 episodes of Bluth-action, doesn’t mean your friends did. And if you didn’t, within hours of the full season drop, the Internet becomes a no-go zone for fear of spoilers. 

The reality is, the “totally artificial concept” that Netflix describe – the promotion, the waiting, the show being spread out over six weeks – (or six months in the case of some US series) is in some ways part of the charm. The shared experience of watching the show at the same time as everyone else, and the shared frustration of knowing you have to wait another seven days to see how a cliff-hanger resolves itself, is in many ways a good thing – as is having an idea of whether your peers have seen it or not. 

Of course, it’s not by any means perfect – and undeniably, the way we’re watching TV is continuing to change. More people use catch-up TV, more people use PVRs like Sky+, so the idea of “event TV” is changing. But is Netflix’s complete revolution a step too far, and just too soon? Are we really ready to say goodbye to everything we know (and in many cases love) about traditional-model broadcast TV?

I for one will be eagerly watching as much Arrested Development as possible as soon as I can on Netflix… but I know when I’ve finished all 14 new episodes (probably within 24 hours) I’ll feel a little bit sad. 

Perhaps I should have saved some for next week, I’ll think. Oh well, maybe they'll make another series in, what?, another seven years…

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