Netflix launched a new, self-produced, series, House of Cards. There are many things unique about it. First, it is exclusive to Netflix. Second, Netflix released the whole series in one block last week. It is the second bit that I believe may turn out to be a real issue. From the NYT:
Netflix’s release strategy went against the grain of “social TV,” the catchall term for viewers who virtually watch TV together by chatting along in real time on Twitter, Facebook and other Web sites. Jenni Konner, one of the showrunners for HBO’s “Girls,” made the point this way on Twitter on Sunday night: “I don’t know how to talk to people who aren’t at least halfway through ‘House of Cards.’ ” On Tuesday she still had one episode left.
Dave Winer, the Internet pioneer who helped give birth to blogging in the late 1990s, restarted his Netflix subscription so he could watch the series, and immediately noticed the drawback to the all-at-once approach.
“I don’t want spoilers, and I don’t want to be a spoiler,” he wrote in a blog post on Sunday. “We need to invent new communication systems, where only people who have made it through Episode X can discuss with others who have made it exactly that far.”
This is actually the extreme manifestation of a problem that has been growing for decades. As I outlined in a paper presented last month at a BBC Workshop on the economics of broadcasting, there has always been a social component in the demand for television. It was strengthened because television was, in many ways, a non-storable good. But with time shifting and now on-demand, it can be stored. That is something many people want but the cost of that is that people watch television shows at different times. That means that it is harder to talk about those shows with your friends — which was a ‘water cooler’ benefit of watching television and coordinating viewing habits.
House of Cards abandons that mechanism. It is not an issue of finding an our of your time to watch the show and keep up-to-date. It is finding a day of time. The chances that can be done are low and that means that House of Cards becomes a taboo topic. I watched the first episode and want to watch more so I’m not talking about this with anyone. Now some information may help communicate progress but compared to how that was done previously any imaginable solution is hard and complex. Put simply, this type of programming will never really attract socially-driven demand.
Now the NYT piece suggests that House of Cards has to go back to the drip feed. That may help but it ignores the fact that the drip feed hasn’t been working for this type of programming for some time. It is time-shifting that has enabled a series where you must watch each episode to become viable. That is fundamentally in conflict with social coordination though. Yes, word-of-mouth can spread the word but there is that ‘shared consumption’ aspect that is hard to recover. I suspect Arrested Development may fit Netflix’s new model better than a drama series. For House of Cards, the sad issue is not that it is likely to generate enough demand on Netflix but that it may not generate enough demand anywhere.