Thursday, February 28, 2013

"The Thing They Leave Out"

There’s this famous story – to the people who know it, though considerably less so to the people who don’t – about a dog food manufacturer trying to figure out why a new dog food they’d been marketing was such a miserable failure.

“I just don’t get it.  We have a great label.  Beautiful packaging.  A tremendous ad campaign.  Why isn’t this dog food selling?”

And the answer is…

“The dogs don’t like it.”

This story came to mind when I recently read about Netflix which, for those who don’t know about it – but also those who do – is a place where, for a monthly fee, you can download (or get mailed to you) a movie or TV series, to watch whenever you want to in the comfort of our yown home. 

(That explanation may be partially wrong, because I have no hands-on knowledge of Netflix, making the information I received second-hand, and I was only listening with one ear, because, since I am never going to avail myself of Netflix, I don’t really care.  But I believe it’s something like that.) 

Someone loves Breaking Bad but they missed the first season, because it sounded depressing and they did not know it would be depressing and popular – and, apparently, well made.  So they sign up for  Netflix and they catch up on the episodes they missed, sometimes, I am told, binge-viewing multiple episodes at once.  (Not literally at once – you’d have to have a number of televisions to do that, and if they were playing simultaneously, you would be unable to hear what anyone was saying.  Sequentially is what I meant.  And without interruption.  (Though that other way may be coming.)

For me, Netflix is an advanced technology.  I know how TiVo works – no, I know how to work TiVo; I have no idea how TiVo works – or at least I knew a couple of years ago when I arranged to TiVo all the Have Gun, Will Travel episodes off the Westerns Channel, though, as mentioned elsewhere, I have never watched any of them.  I have explained why this is before, that explanation being too indefensible to repeat.  I just prefer watching things when they are actually on.  So sue me.

“Binge-viewing” of TV series has become increasingly popular.  I have nothing to say about the process, though I wonder if – and how – “binge-viewing” affects, if at all, the basic episode-watching experience. 

In the past, you had to wait a week to see the next thrill-packed adventure of a cancer-ravaged teacher who sells drugs, or months between seasons.  Now, you can self-create a personalized schedule, every viewer becoming essentially their own programmer.  No more watching shows when the network requires you to.  You can see late-night shows in the morning, and afternoon shows at night.  (Though, when you look outside, it is still going to be dark.)  

I wonder if “binge-viewing” of TV series is to “regular” TV watching as “Books-On- Tape” is to reading – a new way of assimilating material which in some manner alters one’s visceral or comprehensional relationship to the content.  Maybe if you engage in “binge-viewing”, you can tell me how it’s different. 

Not that I’d ever try it.  Because it would involve watching shows when they’re not actually on.  (I did once receive a boxed set of The West Wing and watched a few episodes one after the other, but I gave up at some point, because, it just didn’t feel, I don’t know, exciting.  Dr, M has a similar response.  I would buy her a video of her favorite movie and she’d never watch it, preferring, instead, the enjoyment derived from discovering that the movie she loves is scheduled to air that night on regular TV.)

Okay, so “binge-viewing” is happening, and there is a (relatively) simple and (relatively) inexpensive way to access the programming.  Now, aware of this trend, and wishing to boost their subscription orders via an advancing step in their evolution, Netflix, I read recently, has produced an original series of its own, available only on Netflix, and intended, with its first season’s 13-episodes complete, for the Netflix audience’s much-practiced “binge-viewing” pleasure. 

It was reported that Netflix has committed a hundred million dollars over two seasons to a political drama called House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey.  For me, however, there is an essential element missing from their strategy.

There is a difference, I shall argue, between making available a previously broadcast binge-viewable series and originating a binge-viewable series of your own.  The former series, before becoming available on Netflix, had developed a “buzz “ through, as it’s called in television, “water cooler chatter”, drawing curious latecomers to see – and catch up on – what they had missed.  Commercial networks scrupulously monitor their debuting series, ready to yank them if they fail to appeal. 

House of Cards, with an investment of a whopping hundred million dollars, is appearing on Netflix minus the inoculating “water cooler chatter” and the networks’ cut-their-losses scrupulosity.

The question is,

What if the dogs don’t like it?


Thomas said...

Though I haven't seen it, I have heard great things about House of Cards.

Personally, I binge because I have never seen anything on time. I started Mad Men after 4 seasons had already been around the block, and without an aerial at university I have no ability to follow schedules. (Actually, I have no ability to follow schedules regardless - the aforementioned reasons are just excuses.)

Also, I like owning things. Having stuff on my computer, not streaming, really appeals to me - partly due to a history of untrustworthy internet. Streaming doesn't do it for me either.

Keith said...

There was a NYTimes piece about how Netflix knew that House of Cards would be successful...because the aggregate data KNOWS that the dog will like it: NYTimes Story

Aaron Poehler said...

No offense Earl, but you and your wife are obviously pretty set in your ways. Most people under a certain age are pretty used to timeshifting via DVR and watching non-broadcast material because they've never known a world without it. For them, the entire concept of sitting down to watch something at the time it's broadcast doesn't matter one whit except in cases of sports and awards shows.

Ryan Paige said...

I do think there is a difference between a binge-viewed show and a show you've kept up with week after week.

In some ways, it's good. The clunker episodes of early 'Lost' didn't bother me because I just immediately started the next episode. I didn't have time to sit and ruminate on how disappointing the episode was.

But on the other hand, the episodes started to run together, and I didn't have time to really ruminate or spend time anticipating the next ones, so some stuff didn't really sink in as much as it might have had I had to spent a week (or longer) thinking about it and waiting for the next episode.

I also don't think I watched quite as attentively as I might have when consuming a single episode at a time.

pumpkinhead said...

Although I will watch things at other times, I agree that there is a special excitement to watching something when it's "on." You and Dr M are not alone.

Michael Charters said...

There are two kinds of binge-viewable shows, ones like CSI where every (or at least most) episodes are stand-alone stories, and the others like Breaking Bad and Homeland where each episode continues the story from the previous one. I binge-watch both kinds. The stand-alone stories can become a bit tiresome at times, but the continuing stories are just like watching a really long movie. Really long. And if it's a good series it just drags you along with it.