Why Binge-Watching Is Netflix’s Creative Killer App—But One With Downsides

The Hollywood Reporter has a long interview with Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer for Netflix, and Cindy Holland, who is the company’s vice president for original programming. And one of the things that it makes clear is that, in addition to the company’s willingness to spend a lot of money—as Sarandos puts it, “I felt like what [a network like] Starz was doing earlier on [during the Party Down era] was just kind of putting their toe in the water and doing a lot of “see what sticks” and not spending too much money. For us, I wanted to know that if it didn’t work, it was because it was a bad idea.”—the real killer app for Netflix, as it’s pitching to creators and to audiences, is what you can do with narrative storytelling when viewers are watching a show like a novel, at a pace that they want, in a break with traditional week-by-week episode programming.

Holland argued that releasing all of the episodes of a show at once frees Netflix’s programming both from the traditional structure of a television episode that’s designed to get audiences to return the next week—and from some of the way the conversation around television functions, something that writers have mourned, but that it’s unclear yet if fans miss. “Part of the conversation early on is thinking about it as a 13-hour movie,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “We don’t need recaps. We don’t need cliff-hangers at the end. You can write differently knowing that in all likelihood the next episode is going to be viewed right away.” When I spoke to Kevin Spacey about why he and David Fincher decided that Netflix was the right home for House of Cards, he cited that structural freedom—particularly from the constraints of shooting a more conventional pilot—as one of the reasons they chose Netflix as a partner.

Sarandos gave a specific example in genre fiction, particularly the show that Netflix is developing with the Wachowskis. “Sense8,” he said, “is a genre that we were looking for, adult contemporary sci-fi, and done in a way that’s very difficult to do for television, both because of budget constraints and because sci-fi storytelling tends to be very complex. Because of our ‘watch them all at once’ mentality, we were able to allow them to create a dense and complicated world.” I imagine that’s a lesson Netflix has learned from the example of Game of Thrones, which relies on an immensely complex web of characters, plot lines, and concepts that aren’t always revisited from week to week, leaving viewers reliant on their friends or online concordances to keep everything straight. Binge-watching lets viewers be reminded of characters and genre concepts regularly, rather than trying to hold onto them over an entire week until the next installment.

I’m happy to hear Sarandos talking about the creatively liberating aspects of his business model, as well as to say things like: “I want it to be the exact number of episodes you need to tell the story perfectly. It’s very difficult to sustain a show beyond three years. Characters start to fall apart, and your writers turn over. Some of the other conventions that I’m happy to dismiss: How long does the episode have to be? And how many episodes does the season have to be?” But I do think the company has to be wary of some of the creative downsides of binge-watching for its writers as well.

One of the things that makes television unique, and that poses a useful challenge to writers is precisely that the medium, as conventionally aired, requires that the staff of a show create content that can hold up under a week’s consideration, and that convinces viewers to come back. Shows that are designed for binge-watching may fall under the latter constraint, because unless you’re a television critic or someone with a very inactive social life, there are a limited number of people who can watch thirteen episodes of a drama in one sitting.

But they’re off the hook from the former in ways that I think can be significant. One of the comments I heard frequently from friends who were binge-watching House of Cards is that the rate at which they consumed the episodes made it easier to gloss over problems they had with individual hours of the show. If events like Zoe Barnes’ (Kate Mara) decision to sleep with Rep. Frank Underwood (Spacey), even though sex seemed totally unnecessary to their professional transactions, Frank’s murder of a colleague who was running for governor, or the revelation that, as a college undergraduate, Frank had a sexual and emotional relationship with another man were left hanging from week to week, they’d at minimum demand more context even if they didn’t rise to the level of posing grave plausibility problems to the show. But in a binge-watch, it’s easy to rush past these events and their implications when there’s another episode, and as a result, more plot around the corner. Binge-watching can be the enemy of coherence, plausibility, and even of contemplation, if characters are always supposed to be on to the next thing, rather than grappling with the implications of what they’ve experienced, and what we’ve seen.

I can understand why Netflix would want to liberate itself from the creative constraints that have most deformed broadcast television. But in the process, I hope the company doesn’t forget that constraints can prompt writers and actors to rise to the challenge in ways that are creatively rewarding.