An Argument Against Netflix’s Strategy To Release All Of Its TV Episodes At Once

Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, is out making the press rounds this week, and much of what he’s doing is defending his decision to release all the episodes of his original programming simultaneously. It’s an exciting idea, and one that may very well work.

But I also find it annoying, and the things I find annoying about it may be cause for concern, if others share my same annoyances. Take, for instance, the fact that 13 one-hour episodes of the David Fincher directed, Kevin Spacey series House of Cards are being released on Friday.

Look, I am incredibly excited for this show, and I’m really anxious to see it. But, it’s Super Bowl weekend. I have to watch a couple of movies for my job, I gotta spend time at the Apple store getting gadgets fixed, I gotta take the kids various places, and run a bunch of tedious errands that’s part of being a goddamn adult. When am I going to find time to watch 13 hours of House of Cards this weekend, and if I can’t, am I going to feel left behind so many other people have already seen it, and if I feel that way, am I still going to be excited about it come next week when The Walking Dead returns, or when there’s another episode of Justified and The Americans to watch?

Look: There are three kinds of television viewers. There are those who watch television the same day (or at least the week) that something comes out, and those are generally the people I run across on the Internet. They want to be first. They want to be “tastemakers” (I hate that word). Then there are those who don’t give a rat’s ass, as long as there are good shows to watch. They will binge watch when they get a few hours. Mostly, they keep up with television on Netflix, and watch everything a year after it aired on television. Those are the people I know in real life. Then there is the third group, the people who don’t watch television at all, and those people I just can’t abide by.

It seems to me that it’s that first group of people — the tastemakers — that make or break a show. We discover it, we tell our friends, and a year later, they’re all watching it on Netflix. But what if those people are discouraged by the 13 hour runtime? Most of the readers here fall into this first category: You guys wouldn’t be reading a television site if you didn’t watch a lot of television. How many of you plan to watch House of Cards on Super Bowl weekend? How many episodes do you plan to watch? Are you going to be annoyed if the guy in the cubicle next to you is telling you that he saw the whole damn series and wants to tell you all about it?

Reed Hastings argues that this is what television viewers really want. He compares a television series to a novel: We wouldn’t want to read a chapter and wait a week before we could read the next, would we? Well, look what’s happened to the publishing industry. Is that really something that Hastings wants to emulate?

I liken it more to the opening weekend of a movie. A movie gets nearly 50 percent of its audience on opening weekend, and come the Monday after, most of us have moved on to the next thing. If we don’t get to House of Cards by Monday, are we going to move on to the next thing? It takes a lot of promotion to launch a television show, but once that promotion has died down, will Netflix be able to grab new viewers? If no one is talking about House of Cards on Tuesday, will there be word-of-mouth to promote it?

That’s the other thing: Television viewing in this day and age is a communal experience. Something like 50 percent of people are multi-screeners, meaning they have their television blaring on one screen, and their laptops or IPads on another screen. They tweet about what they’re watching. They post to Facebook. They show up the next day on sites like Warming Glow and The AV Club to talk about it. The Netflix strategy takes that away from us. Unless we can all collectively agree to watch 13 hours of House of Cards at the same time, we’re going to lose the communal experience that makes shows like Justified, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad so much fun to watch.

My final point is this: I get anxious if I fall behind on a television show, and I don’t think I’m unique in this respect, even among people who don’t write about television for a living. On Sunday nights, I will often stay up to 2 or 3 a.m. to catch all the shows I’m meant to watch. Meanwhile, TV Guide had an article out yesterday that said that just 11 years ago, there were 35 scripted programs on television. Now there are 143, and it’s growing. That’s a lot of television, and I can only watch so much in a given week. How am I going to squeeze in 13 hours of House of Cards, to boot? I need a certain amount of societal pressure, or at least backlog on my DVR staring at me, to push me gorging on a television show. A couple of weeks ago, I was out and missing the American Horror Story finale. Everyone talked it the next day, and because that conversation has passed me by, I haven’t bothered to get around to it two weeks later.

I would love nothing more than to spend my entire Saturday watching the show, but that’s just not practical for most of us. And if there’s not a huge first wave of people to stoke the fires for a show like House of Cards, to create thousands of little conversation all over the Internet, will it — and it’s $100 million budget — burn away? Or will we all come to it gradually, and at our own pace?

I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out over the next few weeks.