How we watch television changed on 1 February 2013. When Netflix released its first self-produced drama, House of Cards, for a moment the rest of the TV world wondered what these trendy young web-jockeys were playing at. You could stream it all in one go! The textbook approach of implanting each new episode in viewers’ weekly routines had been casually junked. But soon enough, the merits of letting us create our own TV schedules became clear, and the binge-watch was born.
At first, although the way we devoured series like House of Cards was innovative (it’s not any more: season five just launched), the shows themselves weren’t. Cards was just a great import that would still have worked on the BBC or Sky. Netflix’s next hit, Orange Is the New Black (also back for a fifth season this Friday), might have fitted on C4.
Streaming got exciting when we started seeing programmes that could only realistically exist online. Last year Amazon unleashed The Grand Tour, a bigger train set for Jeremy Clarkson and co that made you wonder how they’d stayed within the BBC’s taste and budget restraints for as long as they (more or less) did. Amazon got its money’s worth because it filled a niche and snared a new army of subscribers. Similarly, when Netflix offered period drama fans the royal family bio The Crown, it lured them with a painstaking, visibly expensive epic that would have been a colossal gamble for a regular channel.
Two new, highly contrasting shows are now pushing streaming services further into offering a new kind of telly, not just more telly. Amazon’s velvet fantasy American Gods updates every Monday, but it’s such a vivid mood piece you need the flexibility of being able to drink it down when the peculiar fancy takes you. After five instalments we’ve barely touched on the central premise of ancient gods battling new ones; episodes often change tack halfway, sometimes hopping back several hundred years. Last week it was a cartoon for the first five minutes, then Gillian Anderson turned up dressed as David Bowie for reasons unclear. Amazon’s not fussed.
Meanwhile, on Netflix, The Keepers is the latest true-crime documentary to take advantage of streaming telly’s theoretically endless running times. It examines the murder of a nun in Baltimore in 1969, finding that behind this mystery is a horrifying tale of child abuse and institutional cover-ups. It spans decades and lasts for seven admirably thorough hours – it needs that long to do everyone justice, and because it’s so impossibly detailed, the quest for truth becomes addictive.
So where does this leave those dinosaurs who still quaintly insist on broadcasting at a specific time, rather than piling TV shows onto the internet’s infinite buffet? They’re not helpless: the BBC’s in on the mega-documentary act with OJ: Made in America, a profound treatise on racism that has aired on BBC4 but makes far more sense on iPlayer, where it premiered earlier this year.
The Beeb’s streaming platform is also the answer if you’re thinking, “Pah! In my day, Kenneth Clark was allowed to go on about architecture and philosophy for 13 episodes. Remember that?” Yes we do, because Civilisation is available in full among iPlayer’s stash of archive gems. But iPlayer is still mostly for catch-up, and other mainstream broadcasters still use online entirely for showing you the same programmes in a different way.
Increasingly, that means they’re only showing you half the picture.