Netflix bets on all-at-once programming, new features

When the latest season of Community ended in May, I was sort of hoping NBC would cancel my favourite show. With creator and showrunner Dan Harmon fired at the end of the third season, the comedy floundered in its fourth go-around, proving to be a pale imitation of its former greatness.

I didn’t necessarily want to see it put out of its misery – I was actually hoping beyond hope that it could find a second life on Netflix, with Harmon brought back to his rightful spot. After all, the video streaming service did recently attract much attention – and presumably success – for resurrecting Arrested Development, another cult comedy, years after it was cancelled by a mainstream network.

In the end, Community was renewed for a fifth season and Harmon was hired back, so all is well in the world. Still, I was a little crestfallen after sitting down last week with some Netflix executives and learning that my imagined scheme may not have been an option.

“We’re not in the revive-old-TV-shows business,” said Joris Evers, director of communications. “Arrested Development was a rare duck because it actually grew its audience after it went off the air. Traditionally, when you see a show go off the air its audience has shrunk.”

Original programming

Netflix is extremely picky with how it chooses its exclusive series, an area of growing importance for the Los Gatos, Calif.-based company. Programming decisions are based on the slew of “big data” it has on customer demographics and viewing habits.

Netflix, which officially has 36 million streaming customers worldwide and an estimated two million in Canada, can log the gender, age, location and other preferences every time any viewer watches something. Programmers can also see how many times an exclusive series such as Arrested Development or the Kevin Spacey drama House of Cards has been watched, whether viewers made it through to the end or quit halfway through, and whether there was any uptick in subscriptions as a result.

There’s also the social impact of a series, where mentions on Twitter and Facebook count. All of these are metrics that traditional television is only just now starting to consider, but which are part of Netflix’s core business.

Take another recent exclusive series, the horror thriller Hemlock Grove, for example. The company considers it a success, despite its savaging by critics.

“It’s one of those things where critics were saying one thing, but the popular audience was another. If you look at Twitter, it was crazy,” said Chris Jaffe, director of product innovation.

“The Internet and data allow us to thin slice it even more. A show like this doesn’t have to be watched by 90 million people. If shows find audiences, we can see that and make relative judgments there. It doesn’t have to be as cold and calculating as a formula.”

Much has also been made about the sort of binge-watching that Netflix is helping to popularize, where viewers take in a bunch of episodes at once, even watching whole seasons in one sitting. One of the criticisms that surfaced after Hemlock Grove debuted is that by creating and releasing every episode of a series all at once, Netflix doesn’t allow for adjustments based on viewer reactions. Traditional TV shows, by airing once a week, have the benefit of adjusting on the fly to what is essentially an ongoing focus group.

Jaffe admits that’s true, but the counter to it is that Netflix’s all-at-once approach does give creators certainty in designing their story arcs. Week-to-week flexibility isn’t always a good thing, as was the case with Lost, which seemed to be written as if it could be killed by its network at any time.

A series such as House of Cards, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have to unfold in a traditional format. Smarter creators are starting to deconstruct the medium, with more experiments likely.

“If you think about it, it doesn’t necessarily have to be 13 one-hour episodes, it can be a 13-hour movie that just has little breaks in between to go get a drink,” Jaffe said. “It’s something we really want to encourage.”

New features coming to Canada

On the viewers’ side, Netflix is rolling out a number of new features in Canada over the next few months. The first is separate profiles, which subscribers will see when they sign in. Rather than seeing recommendations for your wife, for example, you’ll now have your own personalized suggestions, with up to five per household. Canadians will also have access to “lists,” or the ability to queue shows and movies up for later viewing, a function that’s popular in the United States.

A third feature currently being tested is multi-device connectivity, where a phone or tablet can be used as a remote control for Netflix on the TV. Shows and movies could be paused or viewers could search and browse on their mobile device while watching content.

The company has also partnered with YouTube on the “Dial” protocol, which would be a function built in to new TVs that allows them to “listen” for a Netflix signal from a mobile device, then automatically stream. That would eliminate the need to install and launch apps on the television or connected device, such as a game console.

The long game

Long-term, Netflix envisions itself as a delivery service for 4K content, or ultra high-definition shows and movies. 4K televisions are starting to come down in price, but there’s no actual physical medium for the content, such as discs, a void the company could fill.

The problem there will be Internet speeds and data caps. Netflix already streams super HD, which eats up six megabits per second of a typical user’s connection, as well as 3D in the United States, which needs a beefy 12 Mbps. Evers estimates 4K will require 15 Mbps, meaning it’s likely still a few years away – but it’ll arrive faster than anyone expects.

In the meantime, for those who hope to see their favourite cancelled shows resurrected by Netflix, it’s only likely to happen if the ratings for those series ironically climb for past seasons airing via the streaming service.

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