Entertainment is fast becoming an all-you-can-eat buffet. Call it the Netflix effect.
Whatever our televisual drug of choice—Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, Homeland—we’ve all put off errands and bedtime to watch just one more, a thrilling, draining, dream-influencing immersion experience that has become the standard way to consume certain TV programs.
When Netflix released all fifteen episodes of a new season of Arrested Development in the summer of 2013, reports showed that approximately 10% of viewers made it through the entire season within twenty-four hours (Wallenstein). This was not the first time Netflix had released an entire season of an original program simultaneously and caused a nationwide video-on-demand stampede. When House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black premiered in 2013, huge percentages of Netflix subscribers watched back-to-back episodes, devouring a season of content in just days. Although these three shows belong to different genres—one a sitcom and the others adult-themed melodramas—what they share is an enormous popularity among the millennial cohort that makes up the majority of the subscriber base of Netflix. When all episodes of a season were released simultaneously, these shows inspired widespread marathon-viewing sessions for the eighteen-to-thirty-four age demographic and among the younger audiences of Netflix, many of whom binge watched and then took to social media to post their (largely positive) reviews of the first steps Netflix had taken to produce original TV content. To analyze the significance of these emergent digital media use trends, I explore in this essay some of that online discourse, unpacking two emerging patterns in young people’s on-demand media engagement with some of the most currently popular (and thus binge-worthy) Netflix shows, namely, the rising importance of social TV viewing practices and new expectations about the availability of commercial-free, high-quality, and original television content.
In the popular press, binge viewing and Netflix are becoming synonymous, especially for young viewers, including “screenagers.” Of course, not all millennials were “born digital” or have access to these services. Those who do, however, increasingly are not content to abide by traditional weekly and seasonal programming schedules: connected Gen Y (currently aged eighteen to thirty-four) and Gen Z (young people born after 2005) with access to these services are practising new television viewing styles using a variety of digital technologies, particularly subscription-based video on demand (VOD or SVOD) via Netflix. In 2013, according to research by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, 63% of households in the United States used a video streaming and delivery service such as Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon Prime (Solsman), and, as the Leichtman Research Group found, 22% of those households are streaming Netflix every single week of the year (“TV”). In English Canada, approximately 25% of residents have signed up for Netflix. In households with teens, that figure jumps to 33%, and it rises again to 37% in households with children under the age of twelve. (Oliviera). With its long-tail inventory of TV shows and movies, commercial-free viewing experience, and “post play” seamless episode delivery, Netflix is changing viewers’ expectations concerning what, how, and when they watch TV. As a result, viewers not surprisingly are watching more television, including in larger doses at a time.
This technological shift also has widespread impact on television program production decisions, distribution deals, and promotional strategies. The growing consumer preference for over-the-top (OTT) streaming services (instead of cable bundles) and video on demand (instead of appointment viewing) is having a disruptive effect on traditional television scheduling, ratings, advertising, and cable subscriptions. As a larger share of the TV audience consumes more TV shows via Netflix and other OTT services, some critics argue that such consumption practices interfere with the cultural unification effects (or “water cooler talk”) that bond people through shared, mass-mediated experiences. Especially for the Facebook generation (composed of teens and twenty-somethings, who consist of Gen Z and Gen Y, respectively), however, the Netflix effect that enables weekend-long binges on Arrested Development is not just about convenience and customization (although those are important) but also about...