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