Friday, March 01, 2013

Some thoughts about the future of TV based on this whole Netflix "House of Cards" model

(Yeah, this really would have been better had I gotten to it a month ago. I know.)
Does the Netflix model of distribution exemplified by how they released all episodes of the first season of House of Cards on the same day subvert the weekly paradigm that television has had since its inception (and radio and other media before that)? Absolutely. Is that intentional? One must presume so. But is that necessarily bad?

Well, it's conceivably bad for networks who have a 24-hour schedule to fill and primetime hours that get quasi-monitored by Nielsen and advertisers to convince to spend large sums of money in order to bankroll the whole venture, but one assumes that if the future of distribution and delivery ends up in a complete on-demand world that those networks will adapt appropriately.

Let's focus on the viewer side.

Speaking for myself, I already operate in that sort of system already, thanks to DVR technology. My wife and I follow many shows but with our schedules we watch very few of them on the nights the episodes actually air. Thus, our DVR queue is often on the verge of filling up, and it's often on the weekends that we binge watch a bunch of what was recorded (the "first tier" shows that we want to watch the most). Below that there's a "second tier" of shows that accumulate multiple episodes that we eventually get around to viewing in mini-marathons. We do not experience those as something that airs and then we have to wait seven days to see how the plot proceeds; we merely play the next one in the queue (or actually if we press the right button it continues on to the next on its own).

Does it sometimes happen that a second-tier show lingers too long and we decide after some period of time that it has gone unwatched that we clearly aren't interested enough to bother? Sure. But if we do start watching that are we likely to keep watching, mostly because we have the ready availability of the next one? I imagine that's probably the case. If something is actively bad we will bail out, but if it's merely in that middle realm but with some aspect that seemed like it was appealing we'd probably give it a pass.

That, I presume, is what Netflix hopes would be the case by making all of a show open up front with no artificial waiting. It doesn't give one a week to think about whether it's worth sticking with the show.

Obviously, if we get to the end of a run of recorded episodes and they didn't leave us sufficiently satisfied it's likely we won't bother with more whenever those may be available, but we try to be discriminating enough initially so there's not a high likelihood of such a dud getting to that point.

So, could we adapt to a world where the content provider simply uploads the season on such-and-such a date and we get around to viewing it at our leisure? Absolutely.

However, the hurdle I imagine that the provider would have to overcome in that scenario: Keeping us aware that it came out. Right now we are well trained to know when new shows start, and we can set the DVR to automatically record something based on the title alone, where it can identify a show appears somewhere in the listing of all the available channels. I presume there'd be analogous functionality in this new all-at-once world, but I have to admit that right now were it not for all the media coverage of House of Cards I wouldn't know it came out. Frankly, even though we've had Netflix streaming for quite some time I rarely watch it and in large part that's because it's not as easy to see all that's available as scrolling through the guide or the list of recorded content already on the DVR. Also, none of the latter requires waiting for the content to download.

That is really what "conventional" TV has going for it: ease of access and immediacy.

Now, will this kill the communal aspect of talking about certain episodes, because it won't be (to the extent it still is) that everyone could have seen only up a given point? Sure, but I remain confident the internet will adapt accordingly. Somehow people watched TV for decades without people "live-tweeting" or without critics doing weekly recaps/analysis, but when those became prevalent those became part of the experience (for some); as the paradigm of delivery shifts that avenue for commentary clearly will be able to change as well—and to do so faster than overall industry will.

The other aspect of the viewer experience of this on-demand model that would be a hurdle if it became the way all content was available would be if all content-providers had this subscription-only means of access. I'm not saying that's what is going to happen; it's merely a look at this part of how Netflix currently operates. If for example one had to subscribe individually to CBS, Fox, NBC, ABC, etc., would one reconsider whether a given network was worth it?

Likely that won't happen. The merging of TV and the web (which is basically what Netflix is now—a network that "broadcasts" only over the internet) almost certainly will continue until there is a single pipeline of both into one's home or device. Along with that the cable and satellite distributors that provide the former (and sometimes the latter) will develop some means of contracting with the networks to allow for a single portal. There's only one thing we can say with any certainty: The public will always expect convenience in getting their desired entertainment. That's how Netflix came to become a dominant player—giving a more convenient way of getting movies and now these shows. It may or may not be them, but someone will figure out a means of providing that convenience (and to make a profit in the process). There'll be a period of attempts and failures (remember the Betamax), but history shows the industry will settle on an arrangement that works (until that is replaced by the next major technological advancement, and we go through this again).

Obviously there'll still be a need for live broadcasting for news and sporting events and the like; not everything is best served by a view-when-you-want paradigm. So it's not like there'll a time when there's no schedule at all. It will be a matter of finding a middle ground between how it has been and what Netflix has tried.

Perhaps the greatest benefit for the viewer of releasing a full season up front: One need not worry about a network show getting cancelled part way through. The downside: Networks may be more reluctant to green light the production of something that won't get enough subscribers to pay for the all-up-front costs incurred to produce all 13 (or however many) episodes before the first even "airs." But hey, you know you'll get to the end.

The last thing that comes to mind (in this hodge-podge of notions): A subscription-based TV eliminates commercials (as we know them), and I suspect that, much as on the one hand we find them annoying I think there's another hand where we will somewhat miss them. They break up the narrative and identify good pausing points to go to the bathroom. Without them we'll have to decide when to relieve our bladders on our own.

That may be the biggest challenge we face when it comes to adapting to such a world.

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