Sure, Netflix, drop binging but also just make less


Was there anything more revelatory about the first time you used Netflix than the fact you could watch a season all at once?

Binging — once a term reserved for excess — quickly became the Netflix norm. Whether with older shows like “Friends” or then new Netflix arrivals such as “House of Cards” or “Stranger Things,” spending a rainy day working one’s way through a few (or more) episodes emerged as a part of regular life.

But now, Netflix may well be doing away with binging. Reports from newsletter Puck this week suggest that the company is considering moving away from the binge model for some of its releases and that perhaps the age of the binge may be over.

The reasons are many. Netflix is facing multiple headwinds including increased subscriber churn, dropping numbers in its key markets and, of course, markedly more competition. Once dominant, it must now try new things.

But more than anything, perhaps what might drive a shift away from binging is a consequence of the model itself: that in the 2020s, there are just too many demands on a person’s attention for binging to make sense.

In part, what felt so novel about the idea of releasing all episodes of a TV show at once was, well, its novelty. Historically, TV worth watching was handed out to us in dribs and drabs. If you wanted to watch the latest episode of “Seinfeld,” “The X-Files” or “The Simpsons,” you’d wait each week for Thursday or Sunday night.

The fact that you didn’t have to wait for a new episode of “BoJack Horseman” or “The Sandman” was what made Netflix’s then cheap price all the more compelling.

Yet, log in to Netflix today and you may well feel paralyzed by choice. With so much content available, the prospect of being able to watch six or 10 episodes of a show at once now feels less like a benefit and more like a challenge.

Perhaps this is why Netflix’s competition hasn’t followed the progenitor’s business model. Much discussed Amazon show “Rings of Power,” the “Lord of Rings”-derived prequel, is being released on a weekly basis. Disney Plus also released its important new shows like “Only Murders in the Building” or “She-Hulk” week by week. Far from embracing the binge model, Netflix’s competitors are rejecting it.

What it highlights is that it isn’t only the quality of content that matters in the streaming wars; that what makes a show stand out are the performances, narrative or visuals.

Rather, it suggests that a major consideration for any content company now is how to maintain and capture a user’s attention.

Thought of in that light, the move away from binging makes a lot more sense. Release all of a show at once and the related hype cycle so necessary to a property’s success — the social media chatter, the recaps online, the news articles and interviews — will last but for a week.

Conversely, release a show on a more staggered basis and that attention will be drawn out over a longer time, looking more like a series of peaks and valleys rather than just one large spike.

It’s a lesson that was clear with the massive success of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” In its staggered release, each episode became both social media and water-cooler fodder, and particularly shocking or discussed moments in the show pushed it repeatedly into the public consciousness.

The context for all this is what has become known as the attention economy: the term we give to the idea that attention has become a scarce commodity and that everyone involved in “content,” from Netflix to news companies, is fighting over that precious resource.

It’s why, for example, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings once said half-seriously that sleep is part of Netflix’s competition.

But the shift from binging to weekly or staggered releases also points to the fact that, as streaming has proliferated it has produced a problem of its own making: there’s just too much stuff.

The paralysis of choice when opening up Netflix or Disney Plus isn’t just a product of being able to watch episodes all at once. It’s also a function of the fact that, as these companies throw billions into content production, they are making so much material that it becomes far more challenging to wade through it all and find what one wants.

Perhaps what content companies need to also confront is not just how material is released, but also how much there is and, counterintuitively, actually produce less content to generate more attention.

It’s an idea they should at least consider. As of writing, Netflix’s stock is down 60 per cent from a $700 (U.S.) high less than a year ago. To bring that reflection of market sentiment back up, it may well be that the streaming giant must do what once seemed absurd: just make less.

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance contributing technology columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @navalang

Source link