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The Power of Audience in the New Netflix Model of Storytelling

A common theme on this blog will be game-changers. This post will focus on a storytelling game-changer: the online streaming TV and movie service known as Netflix.

First, the quick stats:

According to its company website, Netflix launched in 1999 and by 2005, its membership had climbed to 4.2 million. In 2007, it introduced streaming, which allowed us to watch content on our computers. Netflix’s arguably most famous move was its decision to begin commissioning original series: the first was political drama “House of Cards” in 2013. The entire first season of 13 episodes premiered on February 1, 2013.

Suddenly, much to the delight of drama series fans everywhere: a new TV production model was born.

Netflix heralded in a new way to watch content that defied every TV convention that existed before:

  • “appointment viewing” style programming

  • episodes broken up into 5-7 story ‘segments’ to accommodate for the most possible advertising airtime in a one-hour or half-hour prime time slot

  • the summer seasons (and certain other periods) involved re-runs and shows of lesser quality, as major shows took their hiatuses

And my own personal pet peeve:

  • the storyline recap preceding each episode, which often spoiled the surprise for dedicated viewers

And now we have….

  • “binge TV viewing” style programming with entire seasons of episodes available in one shot

  • commercial-free series

  • our own libraries of shows to choose “on demand”. A wonderland for couch potatoes (does anyone use that term anymore?)

  • no recaps or ‘previously ons’ or manufactured cliffhangers…. just solid storylines building to a final episode…. And hopefully subsequent seasons!

As for the storytelling? It was good enough to receive numerous Emmy nominations- not too shabby for the first original online-only web TV series to do so (Stelter, B. “Netflix does well in 2013 Prime Time Emmy nominations.” Artsbeat. New York Times).

But what does this mean for the storytellers: the series creators, showrunners, and writers? They can now plan their story/season arcs without wondering if the show will be cancelled based on low ratings (not always directly related to the quality of the storytelling) before they have a chance to wrap up storylines. As a creator, this can be one of the most frustrating experiences- not knowing if a show will be renewed and being pressured to create storylines that reflect that uncertainty. With Netflix-exclusive series, we now have more complex and robust stories. Writing departments can sketch out entire seasons, develop their characters, and play out their storylines by carefully and strategically weaving them over a defined number of episodes. Creators no longer have to worry about ratings or whether a scene or content conflicts with advertisers (Auletta, K. “Outside the Box: Netflix and the future of television.” Annals of Communication. The New Yorker).

For a showrunner (the creative mastermind behind the series), it’s the holy grail of TV-making. As the C.E.O. of Sony Entertainment, Michael Lynton, explains: “There’s a reason why people now talk about this as the golden age of scripted drama. You can write a character that grows over the course of thirteen hours of television. That’s more attractive than a two-hour movie” (Auletta 2014). And as audiences, we grow to know these characters intimately and invest in their journeys…. on average, 2.5 episodes-worth in one binge sitting (Auletta 2014).

As a viewer, if I never watch another ‘previously on’ recap, it will be too soon. On conventional television, the ‘previously on’ would almost always spoil the surprise about a character who was about to re-appear on the current episode and pick up on a storyline thread that may have been absent from the last few episodes- a kind of foreshadowing that is highly disruptive to a committed fan. This storyline reminder was also a blatant reminder to the audience that series writers were forever under pressure to ensure that new viewers could get up to speed… at the expense of the loyal viewer.

Sure spoilers, fan culture, and having a week or so to ruminate on an episode are perhaps being sacrificed as we become one with the cult of Netflix. But I believe that it’s a small price to pay for incredibly rich and well-executed storytelling.

Netflix has brought us 3 more seasons of “House of Cards” and the wildly successful “Orange is the New Black” with more series promised in the future. And now, a new by-product of the Netflix revolution: the opportunity for new fans to “discover” a series, which subsequently may lead to new episodes, in the case of the WB’s “Gilmore Girls.”

This ‘dramedy’ series is set in a fictional small town in the US and centres around a single mom and her uniquely close relationship with her daughter. The show was full of charm and won audiences over for 7 seasons on the WB; the final seventh season aired on the CW after the WB went defunct. As a sidebar, the creator, who worked on the first 6 seasons left the show in the 7th season and was unable to wrap up her ‘baby’ in the way she had always imagined- a terrible agony for any creator who has watched his/her characters grow over 6 years.

Then Neflix started streaming all 7 seasons. All of a sudden, entirely new audiences were being introduced to the series that had won so many, like me, over (Fallon, K. “Netflix Revives ‘Gilmore Girls’! We Are Thrilled, and Terrified.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast).

I was a big “Gilmore Girls” fan. I define ‘big’ as someone who watched the show as it broadcast, tuned in to re-runs, and owned the DVD box sets. That the series has discovered an entirely new audience via Netflix is a testament to good storytelling… and good storytelling never feels dated.

Now fans (both new and old) will get a chance to see how the creator wanted it all to end… and enjoy the guilty pleasure of seeing some of our favourite TV characters again after so long. Currently, reports tell us that Sherman-Palladino will produce 4 one-hour long episodes to give the series one last hurrah.

And though Netflix shows do not depend on ratings, this reflects a new evolution in the commissioning of TV series. The AUDIENCE made the new mini-season of “Gilmore Girls” happen. This isn’t crowd-sourcing or crowd-funding, this is data-mining to create more stories that the audience seeks!

As a media producer, I can only be thankful that more competition means more opportunities for great stories. At the risk of oversimplifying, this is capitalism at its finest. Competition, in all of its forms, keeps us healthy, hungry, and on our game…. and offers much to keep our discerning, consumer-driven storytelling palates satisfied.

Are you still watching? It’s the cheeky question Netflix textually asks, acknowledging our new viewing habits.

And why wouldn’t we keep watching when the storytelling is just so darn stellar?

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