Wow. “Orange Is The New Black” is already up to Season 3. I say “wow” because I’ve been meaning to start watching ever since it became a Netflix sensation and already I’m three seasons behind. I’ve procrastinated from one week to the next because, well, it’s on Netflix, and I can watch it ANY time, so what’s the urgency? And now I wonder if I’ll ever catch up.
Which is precisely my problem with the way Netflix rolls out its programming. By dumping all the episodes on the public at once instead of doling them out weekly, as had been the custom with serialized programming since the dawn of the radio age, Netflix creates a huge one-day buzz for its new releases and gives impatient binge-watchers what they’ve always craved. But I hate it. For a charming but inconsequential show like “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” it doesn’t really matter if you watch one episode per week, one per day or all ten at once. But an important show is a different thing and a massive content dump undermines its very seriousness.
I’m hardly the first person to complain about the Netflix model, but to create a broader context let’s examine the problem from the perspective of two socio-cultural trends.
1. Social isolation. Sociologists have long been concerned about the fraying ties of community and civic-mindedness. In his book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam decried the decline of bowling leagues, Kiwanis clubs and other small support groups that used to provide a sense of community and friendship. And recent research has found that feelings of social isolation can lead to medical problems.
Television itself has long been blamed for these trends. Why join a bowling league when you can stay home and watch bowling on TV? But at least when there were fewer television sets and less programming, families would watch TV together and viewers could discuss it the next day around the water cooler. With 30 or 40 million people watching the same show at once, TV was a bonding experience for the whole country.
Now with an overabundance of TV sets and narrowly targeted programming, most people watch television by themselves, with the spouse watching on the basement set and the kids watching in their own rooms (frequently on their computers.)
But if your actual family has ceased to be your TV family, at least digital and social media can step in to fill the void. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and the explosion of recappers and podcasts, a fan can share his reaction in real time and engage in a real dialogue with like-minded fans. And in many cases a virtual community has become almost as good as a real community.
The Netflix model undoes all that. You can’t really tweet about or comment on “Orange Is The New Black” because you have no idea how far along anyone else is, and any substantive tweet carries a danger of spoilers. Recappers and podscasters can’t even begin to catch up with bingers, either. And forget about water cooler conversation.
2. Delayed Gratification. Psychiatrists have studied the importance of delayed gratification for years. People who can put off an immediate reward now for a greater reward later are happier, healthier and more successful in life. Regrettably, as a matter of theology and business practice, Netflix abjures delayed gratification. Their explicit programming model is that waiting is for losers. This is the last message we need in a culture of fast food and instant satisfaction.
Part of all pleasure is the anticipation of the ultimate reward. Brain studies have shown that the expectation of pleasure stimulates the creation of dopamine, the very chemical that induces pleasure in the frontal cortex. Why was the podcast “Serial” such a huge hit? Because as the details of its murder investigation slowly became apparent, listeners were driven to a near-frenzy of expectation, with a resulting dopamine rush week after week. Can anyone even begin to argue that “Serial” would have been a sensation if it were made available for “binge listening”?
The same is true of great TV shows. I, for one, could barely contain myself during the six days between “Mad Men” broadcasts this spring, but those were days of delicious agony, speculation, and contemplation of the previous week’s episode. With a show like “Mad Men,” you actually needed a week to figure out what had just happened and cogitate on what it all meant. But with binge-watching the meaning of each individual show starts to blur with all the rest.
It would be too grandiose to say that Netflix is contributing to our national problems with social isolation and delayed gratification, but if the Netflix model were adopted by the TV industry as a whole, that would be the practical effect. Disturbingly, it looks like Amazon Prime programming such as “Transparent” is being released all at once. For now, at least, Netflix and Amazon are outliers and the business model of television still favors weekly releases. Hold fast, HBO and Showtime! Don’t change, ABC and NBC! Please continue to delay our gratification.