Breaking Bad on Netflix proves it’s hard to destroy the schedules unless you own the schedules

The on-demand service says it's "sticking two fingers up at the schedulers" but in the case of one US drama that's not quite true, says Tim Glanfield

Traditional models of entertainment are built on “managed dissatisfaction”, but Netflix is going to free us all from this, according to Reed Hastings, CEO of the streaming service-cum-TV production house.

Advertisement

“The point of managed dissatisfaction is waiting,” the outspoken exec told GQ shortly before Netflix revived Arrested Development for 14 episodes released on one glorious Sunday in May. “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…”

And with Netflix, this is all dead, right?

The streaming service is famous for its huge archive of on-demand TV series and films – no waiting for the next episode… no fuss. Indeed, with its own original productions like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Arrested Development season 4, to name but a few, the mantra behind the releases has been “we’re killing managed dissatisfaction – we’re redefining the way people watch TV, we’re sticking two fingers up at the schedulers”. 

Celebrity advocates have been quick to jump onboard, and get on message. Kevin Spacey, who starred in House of Cards for Netflix, described the service as “the ultimate expression of individual control, proof of what people’s attention span really is.” Ricky Gervais, who has sold the rights to comedy Derek for worldwide distribution through Netflix has been similarly in praise of the new TV model.

It’s fairly clear, right? If there’s one thing Netflix don’t like, it’s traditional schedules.

So why then has Netflix decided that managed dissatisfaction is OK when it comes to Breaking Bad in the UK? The streaming giant has announced what many of us in the industry already knew – that they will screen the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad in the UK episodically, immediately after they’ve been screened in the US. This is rather than dropping the full series as one as they have with previous series.

The answer is plainly clear – because they don’t control the schedules of the show, so they have no choice. 

In the US, AMC holds the broadcast rights to Breaking Bad (because they make it), therefore Netflix essentially hold the DVD-style rights to the programme. In the UK, for some crazy reason, no broadcaster (besides an historic half-hearted attempt by Channel 5) has ever shown an interest in Breaking Bad – therefore Netflix can take this final series on and treat it the same way as Channel 4 or Sky Atlantic would if they were to have stumped up for the rights. 

It’s a no brainer really, and a very welcome decision as far as TV fans in the UK are concerned. Breaking Bad is one of the most brilliant TV dramas of all time, and it has built its following in the UK through the internet, social media and chatroooms – not, dare I say it, through “traditional” broadcast TV or support from major mainstream TV publications. If Netflix weren’t to screen it episodically in the UK, the temptation for a huge chunk of the show’s young, hip and web-savvy audience would be to take the law into their own hands and “acquire” the show by “any means necessary” – just like so many have with Game of Thrones, Girls and numerous other cult US hits. 

The only way Netflix can counter this obvious problem, and keep control of the property they’ve made one of the cornerstones of their business in the UK, is to play the traditional TV game. Just as Sky Atlantic shows Game of Thrones the night after it airs on HBO in the US in order to keep its audience from delving into the grey Internet for “previews”, Netflix must play the “managed dissatisfaction” game, or instead find themselves playing catch-up in eight weeks time when everyone who’s really interested already knows what happened to Walter White before they even consider spending £6 on a Netflix subscription. 

What Netflix has chosen to do in the UK is both good for fans, and pragmatic business. However, it does seem to undermine one of the key messages on which they have built their very successful streaming service, and now production company. 

Yes, they will destroy the schedules that keep us waiting… except when they won’t.

It’s clear that the future of TV is not quite as clean cut as Reed Hastings (or his very vocal detractors think). Netflix will keep trying to make as many things available all at once as they can. But on the flip side, they can only fully control what they produce – and until they make all TV (or prove their model is the most lucrative to existing TV makers), there will always be situations like this. They will never be able to guarantee the end of “managed dissatisfaction” – indeed, they will become part of it.

Advertisement

This schedule versus on-demand war is going to be a long drawn out one, and as this latest battle highlights – it may not simply be a matter of black and white… perhaps we’re all going to end up in the grey area in between.