When most people think about how Netflix has impacted society they think back to the early days when it launched in 1998 as an online video rental platform that showed the world how obsolete Blockbuster and its similar video store rental buddies were. While this represents a pivotal moment in the history of how audiences view films, the true impact of Netflix would not take form until nearly a decade later and in a slightly different medium. The event in discussion is the creation of Netflix’s online streaming platform in 2007, which in a few short years dramatically revolutionized the television show production model of how audiences now watched television shows. As you will come to understand through this article, this current golden age of television we are experiencing can be directly attributed to Netflix’s online streaming.
To fully understand how television has changed because of Netflix’s streaming, we must first look at television shows pre-Netflix. From the sixties through the mid two thousands the most popular shows in terms of audience size, were episodic which meant their story arcs were resolved in an episode or two. Since these story arcs were so short, more often than not, a new viewer could jump right into any episode from any season without any background information on the show’s story and still enjoy it. This production style is easily found amongst sitcoms in this period such as All in the Family, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, Cheers, and Friends. The reason that production companies choose to create these light hearted short stories that were no longer than thirty minutes at a time was because during this time period if one missed an episode of a show it was very difficult to go back and catch up without either buying the whole season when it came out on VHS or hope that it was popular enough to have another time slot for it to be shown again. Because of this, characters were not expected to grow much over the course of the show’s run as each episode does not provide enough time for the writers to set up and finish an engaging story while also trying to worry about character progression.
While it would be an interesting read if Netflix single-handedly changed shows from only having short thirty minute stories to season long arcs that take years to pay off, that would not be the whole truth. The truth is, in 1999 the first part in the shift occurred when the television-recording device known as TiVo launched. For a small price, television viewers were able to hook up a recording device to their television and record episodes of their favorite shows in order to view them at a later time. At first, television production companies did not quite understand what this meant in terms of how audiences would be able to keep up with longer episode arcs as their were not a lot of multi-episode story driven shows in 1999, but a few years later in the early 2000’s, studios begun to see what TiVo meant for television as audiences clung to the multi-episode serial structure in reality shows such as American Idol, Big Brother, Survivor, and The Amazing Race started to become the most watched shows throughout the country. With the success of these serial based shows, production companies begun to step away from producing primarily episodic shows but not fully embracing it as TiVo still had its limits as it did allow new audience members to star watching a show a few seasons in since they would have had to record the episodes months or years prior.
Now lets fast-forward a few years to 2007, the year Netflix launched its streaming service. During this period most of television was dominated by reality shows because it was cheap and the contestants changed every season which meant audience members were never too far behind if they decided to start watching midway through a season. Compared to the episodic television structure of decade’s prior this was a huge step as far as story telling on television as arcs now lasted the duration of a season, however there was still a lot of room to grow. In a perfect world one could explain how and why an event occurred but most of the time the truth is it was just luck. A year or two after Netflix launched their online streaming service the cable network AMC took a gamble and launched two television shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad who’s multi-season narratives were unprecedented in the cable world. While the first few seasons of these shows were popular enough to keep the show from being cancelled early on, Netflix is the reason these shows grew to become staples in society as they went on. For instance, the first season finale of Breaking Bad had 1.5 million viewers while the final episode of the show had 10.2 million viewers. While some may accredit this drastic growth in viewers as good word of mouth, in the previous decade good word of mouth would not have helped the show this much as nine million viewers would not have stayed with the show if they were behind over thirty hours of story-telling time. In fact, as a response to how popular the show become in its later seasons, the show’s creator Vince Gilligan thanked Netflix in his award speech at the Emmy’s. In the years that followed the expansion of Netflix’s online streaming service the amount of television shows with serial structures continues to increase with The Walking Dead in 2015 being the most watched cable program with an average episode audience of 19.6 million.
While one could stop here in discussing Netflix’s influence on television, it would be egregious to glaze over how much Netflix has raised the production value of television shows. As discussed earlier, while it would be great to say this was single-handedly done by Netflix, that is not the case and we must look at the root of when this shift started which brings us to HBO’s, The Sopranos. Again at time when episodic television dominated the airwaves HBO went against the grain and created a serial based show with a very complex story and distinct visual style that was on par with Hollywood blockbusters. As a result, HBO was reportedly spending $6.5 million per episode, which at the time for a television drama was unheard of because networks did not think there would be a big enough audience to keep the show profitable. However, HBO was able to take this gamble due to the high subscription fees that one had to pay in order to view the show. Because there was nothing else like it on television, The Sopranos grew to become one of the most watched shows during its run and gave birth to the premium television show category due to other services like Showtime rushing to make comparable series.
Like with TiVo, Netflix built upon HBO’s success with high budget television series and in 2013 released their first original program House of Cards that cost $7.6 million per episode to produce. Not only did Netflix open their coin purse to make one of the highest quality television shows to date in order to compliment the new era of storytelling that was taking place but they also brought on high profile filmmakers such as David Fincher and two time Academy Award winning actor Kevin Spacey. While this enough pushes the envelope of television in order to pave the way for other networks to create television shows in a similar style, Netflix decided to try one more experiment with House of Cards by releasing the entire season on the same day. Because of the way House of Cards is distributed online and not on television, Netflix was able to attempt this experiment while traditional networks could not. As a result of this move, Netflix was able to make House of Cards a cultural event by spurring a phenomenon called “binge watching.” The term binge watching refers to watching several hours worth of one television show in one sitting. By giving audiences the opportunity to watch a show they never seen before in one sitting, they were able to stumble across this style of television viewing which resulted in audiences taking this approach to all of the other shows that Netflix has available. In effect, this method has allowed audiences to catch up even quicker with television shows, which relates back to the issue with serial television that was addressed earlier in the article.
Considering Netflix’ streaming model has only been around for less than ten years, it is quite extraordinary to understand how much it has impacted television. While Hollywood is becoming increasingly less original year-by-year, television may be the last beacon of hope for writers to tell a quality story. Luckily enough, money is being funneled into television so that these stories can be told with the proper pieces around it. The real question is, how long until the adaptations and less than original ideas start to seep into television and end the golden age?