Getting One’s “Fix” Through Netflix: Some Thoughts on Binge-Watching

Anyone who has a Netflix subscription, or anyone who simply has watched any of its growing number of original television series, knows that this streaming service is not like “traditional TV” in a number of ways. As Mareike Jenner states in her article “Is This TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and Binge-Watching,” the online platform, “often hyped as a ‘new HBO’…actually offers a different kind of TV revolution than previously associated with the premium cable channel: Netflix is simply not TV” (2016, 261). Like HBO, which promoted itself as “not being [ordinary] TV” but rather a premium producer of quality programs, Netflix differentiates its original programming from network and cable channel offerings by giving “creative and budgetary freedom to television auteurs like Mitch Hurwitz and Jenji Kohan” (Ibid., 263), who are allowed “to develop riskier and more demanding shows” (Sim 2016, 188).

Netflix Hurwitz

Moreover, from the audience’s point of view, the experience of watching a program on Netflix differs considerably from that associated with broadcast TV spectatorship, because it is not littered with linear television’s commercial interruptions and is not structured around week-long waiting periods for episodic and serial installments. It thus encourages a particular type of viewing — namely binge-watching — which both results from and produces a particularly devoted form of fandom.

For years, dating back to its debut in October of 2000 (when it aired on the now-dissolved WB), I have been a fan — and, yes, that word most definitely is a shortened form of “fanatic” — of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls. I’ll spare you the details of why it has remained in my “Top 10” list of favorite TV programs since that time – feel free to buy/read my edited volume Screwball Television: Critical Perspectives on Gilmore Girls (recently updated in a second-edition reprint) if you would like to learn more about its cultural significance, its worthiness as an entry into the medium’s canon of all-time greats.

Netflix Gilmore Girls

So it was with great expectation, and some degree of trepidation, that I looked forward to Netflix’s release of a four-episode online miniseries entitled Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, which was made available for viewing beginning in the fall of 2016. November 25, to be exact, the fourth Thursday of that month — an appropriate date in terms of giving thanks for all that is good in the televisual universe. That was roughly nine years after the final episode of Gilmore Girls aired on the CW, and some fans — myself included — worried that time would not be kind to the titular mother-daughter duo, Lorelai and Rory.

Although the DVD-by-mail and video-on-demand (VOD) giant, which currently has approximately 120 million worldwide subscribers, had already resuscitated several cancelled network and cable shows, including Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-2006), The Killing (AMC, 2011-2013), and Longmire (A&E, 2012-2014), its relaunch of Gilmore Girls was a media event of a different sort. Netflix’s release was particularly well-timed, as it had started streaming all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls in October 2014, rekindling the show’s cult fandom and recruiting a new legion of viewers who had missed the series during its original broadcast.

This is something that I and my coauthor Hye Seung Chung discuss in our chapter “Post-Network Television and Netlfix’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life,” which was included as a Coda at the end of Screwball Television’s recent reprint. In particular, we looked at a number of fan tweets in reaction to Netflix’s September 11, 2014 announcement of the entire show’s streaming release (which debuted the following month). One fan tweeted, “Gilmore Girls on @Netflix??? Time to start using those vacation and personal/sick days! #gilmoregirls.” Another’s tweet read, “Oh man, Netflix is going to have the entire run of Gilmore Girls? This isn’t going to be good for my productivity. Or my hygiene. Or my life.” Yet another fan tweeted, “I’m just preparing myself to fail out of college in October due to the fact that Netflix is getting Gilmore Girls. My life is made.” Another Twitter user expressed a similar sentiment, stating, “i mean i might as well just quit my job now bc come oct 1 i won’t want to do anything except watch gilmore girls on @netflix.” Likewise another Tweeter, who wrote, “Gilmore Girls is coming to Netflix. Please don’t speak to me after October 1st, I’m v busy (indefinitely)” (NOTE: Kristin Harris compiled a list of “the best Twitter reactions to Gilmore Girls coming to Netflix” at BuzzFeed, which can be found here)

Netflix Gilmore Girls twitter

These short bursts of fannish discourse attest to the cult show’s compatibility with the binge-watching mode, which Netflix’s business model has helped to normalize. Defined as a sustained engagement with a televisual text over several episodes viewed one-after-the-other (back-to-back), binge-watching has been likened to a form of spectatorial “addiction” that, if one is to take the above tweets seriously (and thus think of Netflix as a way to get one’s “netfix”), apparently comes at the expense of professional productivity and one’s social life.

By releasing every episode of a given TV series simultaneously, the online streaming service is upending decades of received wisdom about the consumption patterns of audiences, who would otherwise be forced to endure a wait time of one week between episodes. But in adopting this new distribution model, Netflix is also fundamentally altering viewer-text relations, providing greater opportunities for story immersion while also presenting audiences with physical and psychological demands that might have lasting — perhaps deleterious — effects for years to come.

Last week, I asked my students to post blogs about the binge-watching phenomenon, and what they thought about being made to watch a half-dozen episodes of House of Cards — Netflix’s first self-commissioned original content series — over a relatively short span of time. I wanted to see how the experience of watching back-to-back-to-back episodes of that multi-chaptered political thriller might have impacted their relationship to the characters, their understanding of the narrative, and their ability to grasp the series’ underlying themes.

I also asked them to read two chapters from the book The Netflix Effect: Casey McCormick’s “‘Forward is the Battle Cry’:  Binge-Viewing Netflix’s House of Cards” and Zachary Snider’s “The Cognitive Psychological Effects of Binge-Watching.” Of these two, McCormick’s essay is the most interesting, as the author explores how House of Cards manages to foreground the spectator’s own televisual cravings or obsessions through the theme of addiction. McCormick also makes the case that there are several spectatorial “surrogates” in the first and second seasons of that program (characters such as Doug Stamper, Frank Underwood’s White House Chief of Staff, who can be seen at an AA meeting in one episode). Although Snider, in his chapter, argues that binge-watching, in much the same manner that social networking applications are known to cause feelings of “loneliness, depression, and anxiety,” can be an isolating experience leading to “social and familial ostracization,” I tend to think of the experience in more positive terms, ultimately siding with McCormick’s belief that binge-watching is actually (perhaps counterintuitively) a productive mode of viewing.

Netflix airplane TV 2

Coincidentally, as I was formulating ideas for this blog on a long flight from Denver, Colorado to Reykjavik, Iceland, I was seated between two fellow passengers who were each binge-watching the first season of the critically lauded Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale (all ten episodes of which were just a screen tap away, available for viewing on their seat-back monitors). Although the cross-Atlantic flight was not long enough for them to squeeze in every episode, they did manage to watch the first five, never once falling asleep, and taking momentary breaks only for refreshments delivered to them by friendly flight attendants. In fact, the woman to my left, in the aisle seat, was glued in place for the duration of those five episodes, making my need to take a bathroom break all the more awkward (as I did not want to interrupt her viewing). By the end of the flight, this binge-watcher was blurry eyed and physically fatigued (she hadn’t slept at all during that night), but she also seemed to be spellbound and even revitalized by what she had just seen. When I asked her if she was planning to watch the remaining five episodes of Season One, she responded enthusiastically, if somewhat begrudgingly, “Now that I’ve watched the first half, I kind of HAVE to.”

Netflix airplane TV

Oh, by the way, I ultimately ended up spreading the four simultanesouly released episodes — roughly six hours — of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life over four consecutive evenings beginning on Thursday, November 25, 2016; a relatively luxurious way to savor the return of Lorelai and Rory compared to other fans’ rush to see everything at once. Not exactly binge-watching, to be sure. But not really a “normal” way to consume TV either. Something in-between, and therefore something very “Netflix.”

“Priming” the Audience, “Profiling” the Customer: The Algorithmic Cultures of Amazon and Netflix

In my Evaluating Contemporary Television class, I recently asked my students to think about Netflix’s use of predictive algorithms and other audience measurement techniques to control consumers’ behaviors while promising greater personalization of online experiences. Like Amazon and other web-based “content providers,” Netflix has relied upon data-mining systems to claim knowledge about the tastes, preferences, and identities of its subscribers.

Netflix Nielsen logo

Prior to the post-network era, television audiences were “measured” (in terms of their viewing tendencies, demographics, etc.) in a variety of ways, initially through a system devised by A.C. Nielsen and subsequently developed by the Nielsen Media Research group. Through Nielsen ratings, the industry was able to gather information about viewing patterns by way of audience surveys and, later, set meters which could be connected to TVs in randomly selected homes. Doing so allowed the networks and/or sponsors to set advertising rates and programming schedules and to determine the actual content of the shows. However, as Sarah Arnold points out in her chapter “Netflix and the Myth of Choice/Participation/Autonomy,” traditional audience measurement techniques neglected to account for the specificities of viewers’ behaviors (e.g., “the pleasures, motivations, and meanings” that Nielsen families might glean from the TV-viewing experience).

Because my students were asked to read Arnold’s chapter, I asked them how the hidden “datafication” of Netflix’s viewers differs from those earlier methods. I wanted to see if they believed that, by taking actions on behalf of the user, Netflix’s algorithmic predictions reduce human agency in any way. Here are some of their responses:

Logan T.: “Netflix’s algorithm has reduced human agency. The algorithm has, in a sense, given the viewer a small portion of what they can discover from browsing and pushes them in a direction more limited or censored, in a way.”

Alison B.: “Every single move you make is being watched and is being used to affect your experience, and that does not sound like free agency to me.”

Olivia J.: “Arnold argues that as individuality and personalization goes up, agency goes down. This is due to Netflix seeing subscribers as sets of data and not as people who are capable of action and speaking in a way which others can hear or understand. In this case, the user is forced to take on the identity Netflix crafted for it through data, rather than their real identity. However, I would argue against this. In my mind, Netflix is a service through which I can enjoy media and learn more from that media. I do not believe Netflix is impeding on my agency as a human at all, if anything, the access to vast amounts of media content through Netflix increases my agency. Just because Netflix absorbs my information to give recommendations to me does not mean, in my opinion, it is somehow stripping away my personality and governs my behavior and thoughts.”

Sarah K.: “As we’ve moved through the early part of the 21st century, our society has become addicted to instant gratification, which Netflix has tapped into.  I would posit that in order for Americans to live fulfilled lives and stay productive we are soon approaching a point where we will have to choose between the instant gratification of thought-free choices, like Netflix, and the removal of those temptations.”

Another reading concerning algorithmic culture is Neta Alexander’s “Catered to Your Future Self: Netflix’s ‘Predictive Personalization’ and the Mathematization of Taste” (which, like Arnold’s, is a chapter in The Netflix Effect). In this essay, Alexander considers the negative consequences of customers staying in their “comfort zones,” where only “the same formulistic products” manage to penetrate each person’s “filter bubble.” Despite the fact that Netflix provides customers with a vast array of choices, the “endlessness” of those choices is illusory; for, in fact, niche products and cinematic/televisual curiosities only rarely land into the website’s digitized stream.

Netflix comfort zone

On a related note, I asked my students how they felt about companies using their purchasing history and/or viewing habits to gain a better understanding of their “profile” (rather than their “personhood”). Here is how a few of them weighed in on that question:

Alison B.: “I personally find the idea of companies watching my purchases to get my ‘profile’ to be quite disturbing and not at all accurate. Most of the time when I purchase something, it doesn’t reflect the whole me, or what I like at all. Sometimes I purchase or watch things for other people or for classes and that can affect what my profile looks like based off of those things.”

Olivia J.: “I am for the most part fine with companies using my purchasing history and viewing habits to gain a better understanding of my ‘profile’. I find it a little odd whenever I search for a product online and find ads in the margins of future websites that I visit, but it does not bother me to the extent that I will change my media use habits. The same can be said for Netflix. I will not change how I use Netflix, what I watch, or how I search because that same information goes into my ‘profile’.”

Lesley M.: “I like that companies attempt to cater to my ‘profile’ and if I don’t like what they are suggesting, I am still able to access something else. Having a catered experience based on my profile actually enhances my online experiences, and I don’t think that is a bad thing.”

As for my own personal feelings on this matter, I remain somewhat ambivalent. Truth be told, I frequently look at Amazon’s personalized “recommendations,” and sometimes shake my head in disbelief at how frighteningly accurate the algorithms of that corporate-cultural behemoth are in pinpointing my tastes and predilections. Currently, these half-dozen items (three Blu-ray collector’s editions and three graphic novels/comic books) sit atop the list of things that Amazon believes that I should buy:

Netflix - My Amazon recommendations 1Netflix - My Amazon recommendations 2

Yes, these six items do reflect some of my viewing/reading predilections, but they were all put on that list because of other (similar) items that I had “wish-listed” or added to my cart, making the algorithmic logic of the website fairly transparent, or easy to decipher.

More importantly, I would like to believe that these things do not give a complete picture of who I am as a fully rounded human being. Horror (especially of the campy and gory variety) has certainly been on my mind lately (hence Return of the Living Dead part II), as has the collaborative work of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg (which makes the Criterion box-set a natural fit with my self-proclaimed identity as fan of the classical Hollywood studio system). But I also love silent slapstick, Peruvian pipe music, prison literature, contemporary Romanian cinema, histories of soccer clubs, the films of Yasujiro Ozu, the adolescent novels of Rebecca Stead, and so much more. Those and other omnivorous interests are not reflected in Amazon’s recommendations, which hold up a mirror that is accurate in its specificity, yes, but distorting in its incompleteness.

Is the Concept of “Flow” (in Television Studies) Still Relevant?

This weekend, as I was rereading chapters from The Netflix Effect, which I assigned for my online Evaluating Contemporary Television class this summer, I was reminded of a term that has been central to the systematic unpacking of the medium for years, but which might be less important than it once was in this new, “post-network” era of subscription-based video-on-demand (VOD) services like Netflix. That term, “flow,” was introduced decades ago by the British cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams.

Netflix Television Williams

One of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, Raymond Williams is perhaps best remembered today for his contributions to the then-nascent field of Cultural Studies, which was essentially launched with the publication of his 1958 book Culture and Society (published one year after another foundational text had been completed, Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy). As a professor at two universities for most of his career (Cambridge first and then Stanford, where he wrote Television: Technology and Cultural Form [1974]), Williams — a dedicated, lifelong socialist — sought to inspire his students to become critically conscious both inside and outside the classroom, and quickly earned a reputation for supporting dissent. Although Williams’s work on the television medium contains little of his Marxist ideology, it represents his commitment to shedding light on previously undervalued cultural content.

Netflix Raymond Williams

Today credited for introducing the concept of televisual flow, Williams argues that the medium of television offers audiences a unique cultural and technological experience, one that unites otherwise disparate or discrete phenomena by presenting them as a continuous stream of images and sounds. Watching television thus becomes an activity that involves submission to a series of linked messages, with commercial “breaks” entailing not only a subtle spectatorial shift in perception but also a dramatically altered understanding of reception in general.

I’ve long pondered the social implications of televisual flow, and whether this programming mode influences the way that we perceive the world in general and/or relate to others in our daily lives. However, now that I’m teaching an entire course on Netflix, which allows one to “binge” on original series several episodes at a time (free from the “burden” of having to watch commercials), I’m wondering whether this concept is still relevant. Has Williams’ idea of “flow” lost any of its persuasive force as a result of technological developments that have created different TV-viewer relationships in the years since its incorporation into the critical literature? I’m not sure I have an answer, but was recently struck by Casey McCormick’s argument, in her chapter “‘Forward Is the Battle Cry’: Binge-Viewing Netflix’s House of Cards” (included in The Netflix Effect), that the online streaming service creates “new kinds of flows, in which viewers gain autonomy over the content of the sequence—but not necessarily over the addictive pull of that content.” Quoting Raymond Williams, McCormick states, “If televisual flow ‘establishes a sense of the world’, then binging orders our world in ways that are different from previous media moments. In on-demand and binge cultures, streaming platforms provide interfaces that encourage the user to design her own flow.”

For years, whenever I taught Evaluating Contemporary Television, I would begin the semester with Williams’s concept as the ontological foundation of the medium, and would even ask my students to “document” televisual flow by way of spreadsheets. On those spreadsheets, students would take notes while watching one continuous (unbroken) hour of broadcast programming (any network or cable channel, as long as commercial advertisements were part of their viewing experience). When watching that sustained block of programming, they were to note elements of the shows as well as the commercials being viewed, identifying the beginning and ending time of the discrete units (such as program credits, separators, promotional spots, network and station IDs, and PSAs). The purpose of that assignment was to have them reflect on the nature of televisual flow as it relates to their own temporal experience as a viewer confronted with a series of miscellaneous, yet linked, textual forms whose sequencing is one of the defining features of contemporary broadcasting.

Here is an example of what one student submitted:

Netflix flow example 1Netflix flow example 2Netflix flow example 3

What this and other students indicated, during our classroom discussions of flow, was that the various “interruptions” that structure televisual textuality (the commercial advertisements that appear with regularity) sometimes come as “natural breaks” in the programming (and sometimes even thematically reflect the content of the shows that they surround), but are also disruptive, “breaking the spell” of the medium and triggering desires that might lead to non-TV-based types of activity (such as shopping or eating). They also noticed heretofore “invisible” (or overlooked) patterns in the way that specific techniques were being used (e.g. promotional spots, cliffhangers timed before commercial breaks, product placements, squeezed credits, video “bugs,” etc.) to reduce that potential disruptiveness. Again, I wonder how much, if at all, any of this is applicable to the experience of consuming Netflix shows.

Here is a list of terms that I asked my students to think about when writing details on their spreadsheets:

Netflix flow terms 1Netflix flow terms 2Netflix flow terms 3

I’m sure my student this semester, working exclusively on Netflix, are breathing a sigh of relief knowing that they do NOT have to undertake such an assignment, and that I won’t be testing them on terms like “integral ad” and “host-selling.” And yet, I worry that they are “missing out” on how television was consumed by viewers for decades, when people frequently complained about how difficult it was to “sit through” commercials (regardless of their creativity/originality). Somewhat surprisingly, several of my students in the past, when asked to think about the interrelationship between the content of television series and the ads that surround them, found the latter to be just as interesting/stimulating, ideologically if not always aesthetically, as the former.

In his chapter “Television, Interrupted: Pollution or Aesthetic,” which is included in the collection Television as Digital Mediamedia historian Jason Jacobs reminds us that non-textual factors play a role in carving up the space and time of television spectatorship, particularly when ‘the social world intrudes’ upon either the transmission or reception of a given program. This might take the form of an electrical outage caused by a lightning strike, although Jacobs’s more mundane examples include the ringing of a telephone and the taking of toilet breaks, which viewers do more frequently at home that they do as cinema patrons watching a film in a public venue where the aforementioned dialectic of rupture and flow is not as prominent a phenomenological feature. But he expands beyond the quotidian environment of traditional, domestically situated television consumption to consider such nontraditional delivery systems as in-flight entertainment on airplanes, where millions of passengers encounter the medium in a differently interrupted form (i.e., TV shows, some perhaps edited for content, that pause unexpectedly so that various PA announcements can be made). At first glance, watching a television program via the arm-chair/seat-back interface provided on many airplanes seems akin to accessing digital television via screen menus at home. But the constraints rather than affordances of that elevated yet boxed-in setting harken back to the relatively limited array of options available to audiences decades ago, prior to the introduction of DVRs and other paradoxically interruptive means of mitigating TV’s interruptions

 

Disruptor? Gamechanger? Some Initial Questions about the “Netflix Effect”

The textbook that I’ve assigned for my online Evaluating Contemporary Television course, The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century, features fifteen chapters written by media experts, historians, and cultural practitioners. The first two chapters that I’ve asked my students to read are: Cameron Lindsey’s “Questioning Netflix’s Revolutionary Impact: Changes in the Business and Consumption of Television” and Gerald Sim’s “Individual Disruptors and Economic Gamechangers: Netflix, New Media, and Neoliberalism.”

Netflix Netflix Effect

Additionally, I’ve encouraged my students to listen to the first episode of the Podcast Business Wars, which concerns the battle between Netflix and Blockbuster. That 30-minute podcast episode — the first of eight in the “Netflix vs. Blockbuster” series — is entitled “Sudden Death,” and introduces us to some of the main players (including John Antioco and Reed Hastings) in the much-publicized wrangling between two media companies struggling for dominance in the competitive field of online entertainment.

Netflix Business Wars

Here is a link to that episode:

https://art19.com/shows/business-wars?page=4

Together, those readings and the podcast address some of the reasons why Netflix has succeeded while many of its competitors, most notably Blockbuster, have failed.

I’ve asked my students to think about the advantages that this online streaming service has over its competitors (and vice-versa), as well as some of the problems that lay ahead.

SOME QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  • Is Netflix’s business model sustainable for the foreseeable future?
  • What kinds of suggestions does Cameron Lindsey make if the company is to fully embrace or exploit the “democratizing” and “monetizing” potential of new media?
  • Why, according to Gerald Sim, might words like “democratizing” actually obscure our understanding of the transactional relationship between Netflix and its customers/subscribers?
  • Which other expressions, appearing in many reports about Netflix’s disruption of existing production and distribution structures, does Sim single out as being problematic?
  • In what ways has the streaming service — far from bringing about the “demise” of the television industry — developed a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship with older networks and cable channels?
  • Do you believe that Netflix liberates digitally enabled audiences from older/restrictive/linear types of cultural consumption? Or do you think that such liberationist discourse is premature and short-sighted, failing to acknowledge how an abundance of “consumer niche choices” ironically contributes to the creation of neoliberal subjects for whom “democracy” is simply synonymous with the free market?

As you can see, these two chapters give us much to mull over. I look forward to reading your responses!

 

Notes on Amanda Lotz, “Understanding Television at the Beginning of the Post-Network Era”

The first reading that I asked my students to complete in my eight-week Evaluating Contemporary Television class is the opening chapter of Amanda Lotz’s book The Television Will Be Revolutionized. Having read the entire book when it was published in 2007, I was interested in seeing what she had added to that first edition in the updated 2014 edition, given the significant changes that had occurred in the television industry during that interim. In a traditional sixteen-week semester I would normally introduce my students to the early history of three-network (or four-network, if we count DuMont, which we should) broadcasting over several class meetings. However, the unique challenge of teaching a shorter, online course demands that I bypass much of that material in favor of readings that touch on contemporary developments. As such, I really like Lotz’s brief but expansive overview of the many industrial, social, and cultural changes that led to the emergence of what she and other media scholars call the “Post-Network Era” (and I was happy to see that, in the updated version of her book, she provided even more historical context for students who are new to the subject).

Netflix Lotz

Lotz is quick to point out that TV audiences of the immediate postwar era had considerably fewer viewing options than we do today. When programs like CBS’s I Love Lucy and the same network’s The Honeymooners (which both feature numerous episodes in which characters are shown watching TV) debuted in the early 1950s, viewers had “little control over the medium.” Although the first remote control (fittingly named “Lazy Bones”) was developed by the Zenith Radio Corporation one year prior to I Love Lucy’s 1951 debut, such devices would not become an indelible part of the televiewing experience until much later, during the transitional multi-channel era of the 1970s and 1980s. Besides not being able to “channel surf” in the way that future audiences would take for granted, TV viewers of the early network era were bound to both the “place” and “protocols” of small-screen spectatorship, which was largely confined to the domestic sphere and was regimented by way of “day parts” (e.g., soap operas during the afternoon hours, prime time programming during the evening hours). If you missed “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” and thus were not one of the 44 million American viewers who tuned in to that famous episode on January 19, 1953, you were just out of luck. “Time shifting,” which would eventually be made possible by storage devices like the video cassette recorder (VCR) and the digital video recorder (DVR), was certainly not an option then.

Netflix Tivo

What I most appreciate about Lotz’s approach is her commitment to exploring the experiential aspects of industrial changes; the way that audience’s behaviors and viewing practices shifted alongside the introduction of new technologies, including analog and digital cable systems. Subscription-based cable services, included HBO (which was launched in 1972), would introduce an alternative to the advertiser-driven content of the network era. But the multi-channel era was perhaps most significant in terms of giving audiences a greater number of choices and expanded control over how, where, and when they consumed TV series that were not necessarily bound to generic conventions or beholden to the dictum of “least objectionable programming.” As Lotz notes, such expansion was not limited to cable television, but was happening in the broadcast realm as well beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, when Fox (1986), the WB (1995), and UPN (1995) joined the “Big Three” networks of CBS, NBC, and ABC.

Today, of course, we live in a mediascape littered with options (too many choices, some luddites might argue) — a world in which “content” (the term too frequently used to denote cultural productions, such TV shows) has exploded across several different providers and platforms, all only a click away. But increased viewing options in the post-network era have contributed to some significant social changes as well, enabling viewers to “isolate themselves in enclaves of specific interests.” Do a Google Image search of “watching TV in the 1950s” and you will see one example after another of family members — all middle-cass Caucasian suburbanites, it should be pointed out — basking in a cathode-ray glow that evokes earlier photos of Depression-era Americans listening as one to the radio broadcasts of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats.” Seeing such images, we are reminded that television was experienced as a group activity that brought together family members around a seductive yet inoffensive narrative world that was also “inhabited” by millions of other Americans watching simultaneously from the safety and security of their own homes.

Netflix 1950s

In place of such nostalgically imbued constructions of the domestic unit, audience fragmentation and the winnowing of television as a mass medium into smaller and smaller units of consumption have become the norm in the post-network era. Indeed, broadcasting has given way to “narrowcasting,” a term that indicates the perhaps-problematic fracturing of the public sphere into “interest groups.” Lotz dwells momentarily on this aspect, gesturing toward the way that the atomizing of the televiewing audience into smaller groupings perhaps explains, if only partially, why social and political polarization have become such an endemic part of contemporary America (one need only consider the diametrically opposed viewpoints put forth by this nation’s leading TV news providers, Fox News and MSNBC, to grasp her argument). One of the questions that I posed to my students in their first online reading response (extracts of which are included below) revolves around such cultural fissures. What, I asked them, are the larger implications of this social fragmentation and polarization? I also asked them if they missed (or felt any nostalgia for) the earlier history of television, when a relatively small number of shows was lapped up by a broad viewership due to a relative lack of options/alternatives.

Here are some of their responses:

OLIVIA J.: “I like being able to sit down with friends or family at a specific time to watch something special, but I do not think I feel any nostalgia for that being the norm, because I am so used to being able to view content when and how I want.”

NICK C.: “Comparing my grandparents TV watching experience with my own is interesting because I have access to so much more content than them. When my 95-year old grandpa first watched TV, he only had the three main networks at his disposal. I, however, bypass network TV completely and rely on Netflix and Hulu. And if I can’t find something out of the huge array of options these sites have to offer, I turn to more obscure (and much sketchier) streaming websites or torrenting which is frowned upon by your internet provider though not illegal.”

MICHAEL M.: “It’s difficult to think about going back in time and watching TV on a small screen from across the room, getting up to switch from one of the three channels to another, but at the time, that was still remarkably advanced.”

Near the end of her opening chapter, Lotz proposes the term “phenomenal television” in reference to programs that somehow break through the “cluttered media space” of post-network television to attain cultural significance. Because she does not list any examples by title, I asked my students to think of any recent TV shows that have managed to “capture the zeitgeist” or speak to contemporary social and political concerns. A few of them listed the following:

JAMIE P.: “One iconic show that speaks to contemporary social and political concerns is House of Cards. With access to information at an all-time high, the affairs of politicians have been coming to light in increasingly drastic ways. This plays into the political fervor most Americans demonstrate when policies are instituted based off aberrations uncovered through fictional media. While this show is not likely to continue, or at least not with the current staff, it is not because of an inability of the program to garner interest, but rather sociopolitical ramifications from actors on set.”

 Netflix Walking Dead

SARAH K.: “I may be alone on this one but I do feel that The Walking Dead is a series that fits the ‘phenomenal television’ category that Lotz proposes.  I find it to be an allegory of our current American society.  Our country has come to a point where a century of reckless consumption and consumerism has resulted in record levels of preventable illness and pollution, among other things.  And instead of making the hard, but necessary changes to correct these trends, a majority of people choose to walk around with their heads in the sand, like a bunch of zombies while a few good people relentlessly struggle for change against the powerful corporations and politicians.  I…believe that this is a message that will continue and hopefully be a catalyst for change in the real world.”

DARYN B.: “One example of a show that captures the zeitgeist is Veep. An HBO show about the challenges the US Vice President faces, Veep’s wry take on the insanity of US politics perfectly captures the concerns many people have regarding the current administration. One problem with topical comedic shows like Veep is that once the topic they are lampooning has passed, the only people who will relate to the material are those who were around when it was happening. It’s unlikely to be a show that will be relevant in 20 years, long after the Trump administration has left the White House.”

 Netflix Will and Grace

BRYCE K.: “Will & Grace…When the show started in 1998 on NBC, there weren’t too many shows that involved the LGBTQ community, let alone a comedy. The show not only talked about a serious issue/topic about gay people in America, but it also bright a positive light to a serious topic while pushing the envelope. Will & Grace continues today not only because of its positivity but also due to how it adapted to today’s modern gay community.”

NICK C.: “I immediately think of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The show features an ever-changing plot formula and theme anchored by the great chemistry between the main characters and by its dark and surprising humor. It is much funnier than other shows to me because it diverges from the safe humor that most TV is made up of and explores…racy topics. One other show that meets this criteria is Rick and Morty…it tackles existentialism and ‘farther out’ scenarios.”

JAMES W.: “I would have to say that Modern Family could be one of them with its use of an untraditional family and prominent representation of a young Latina mother as well as a gay couple. This show came out in 2009 and marked a change for what an American family could look like. Instead of the nuclear family viewers were watching trials and triumphs of the extended, diverse family made up of individuals with various identities, dominant and subordinate alike.”

 Netflix Big Mouth

LESLEY M.: “The one show that comes to mind…is Netflix’s Big Mouth.  Today’s teens’ experiences of going through puberty and dealing with everyday challenges are accurately depicted in the show.  It included a lot of relevant material in relationship to the social issues average teenagers in America might face today, such as parents’ divorce and homosexuality.  I’m not sure how this show will endure in the years to come, but I think it could possibly aid in changing ideas about how certain social issues are being addressed and thought about in today’s world.”

 

 

NETFLIX STUDIES: TV in the Twenty-First Century

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Despite its ubiquity and influential power as a cultural form, television has often been overlooked and even dismissed as little more than a diversion in our everyday lives. As a result, the experience of watching TV has frequently been compared to other “leisure activities” in which participants — far from being mentally engaged — can let their minds rest (or wander) and momentarily “escape” the real world. However, it is because of its ubiquitous presence in our lives that television demands scrutiny, particularly with regard to the means by which it generates both consensus and debate about matters of great political and social importance. On this site, we will take television seriously as a popular persuasive force, one that is capable of narrative complexity and thematic profundity as well as artistic preeminence in this age of digital media, mobile viewing, online file sharing, and instant Internet access to classic programs of yesteryear.

We are in the midst of what some commentators call a new “Golden Age of Television,” initiated nearly two decades ago by HBO programs like The Sopranos and The Wire and, more recently, AMC hits like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Also referred to as “Peak TV,”  the current cultural moment is marked by an abundance of viewing options and offerings, much of which is now available through various streaming services (as opposed to traditional broadcast channels). At the heart of Peak TV is a host of critically lauded series that will receive special attention on this website, including House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Master of None, Mindhunter, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, BoJack Horseman, Dear White People, Luke CageJessica Jones, and Stranger Things. These shows share something in common: they are all examples of Netflix original programming, available for online consumption via the world’s most popular on-demand, subscription-based media provider/distributor.

This site has two main functions: [1] it gives students in my online Evaluating Contemporary Television course (SPCM 341) an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about Netflix-related topics; and [2] it serves the larger community of TV fans, scholars, and general audiences who would like to learn more about this important, increasingly powerful streaming service.

Please feel free to join in the conversation!