As you may know Netflix’s first original series that matters (did anyone even watch Lilyhammer?) has come out and it’s kind of a big deal. But for whatever reason no one I’ve talked to in person is treating it as such. Even my professors who are paid to teach about the media industry have barely brought it up, and consequently the students don’t seem to really think about why this matters. Yes, it has been briefly mentioned that Netflix is doing original content, but that isn’t what matters here. What does is the fact that they’ve released the entire season in one big drop. This model makes sense theoretically since Netflix is popular for binge watching, but as the show’s first-run this is something both revolutionary and completely problematic. It’s a move that could change the industry as we know it.
House of Cards is only the warning flare of Netflix’s battle attack though. It’s Arrested Development that is going to be the stab in the heart to the traditional TV industry. The resurrection of the most popular cult show of the aughts is a sort of Trojan horse attack on the system. It appears at first to be a no risk move to bring back a much beloved show that the Internet will hype up endlessly, but Arrested Development‘s fourth season (sorry Jason Bateman, that’s what I’m calling it) is going to be the first show ever written specifically for this distribution model. House of Cards was pitched and written as an HBO/AMC like series. It’s content breaks no formulas or rules, but rather is a mix of different elements from already established series (even taking the fourth wall breaking moments directly from the similarly titled House of Lies). But Arrested Development is something different. Arrested Development is being written specifically for Netflix, and in particular, written for an all at once release schedule.
The structure of the new episodes will be broken down by characters, with many episodes taking place at the same time and showing the same scenes over again but from different character’s perspectives. The idea is that you can theoretically watch the season in any number of combinations to experience the story in new ways. It’s a sort of choose your own adventure storytelling structure, the likes of which we’ve never seen attempted before. Yes, a large part of the reasoning behind this has to do with the difficulties of coordinating all the original cast members to be in same room at the same time, but rather than ignore this difficulty the writers decided to take the extra step and make it the basis behind the season’s skeletal structure.
This is what is going to be groundbreaking. This is what has the potential to change the structure of television. Sure, it may turn out to be a huge disaster or maybe be an appendix on the season that has little impact. But still, it’s the first attempt on this large a scale to create content tailored specifically to this new release model. House of Cards may be the trending topic right now, but in two weeks or a month there’s a chance no one will be talking about it as it enters a year long content draught. Arrested Development hopes to curb this by enticing viewers to watch the season in various different orders. If Mitch Hurotiwz and the cast are to be taken at their word, it’ll take more than just one marathon viewing to get all that there is in the season.
And it’s multiple viewings Netflix needs to bank on in order to actually make money off these original series. They need a major surge in subscribers in order to even break even on these shows considering Netflix has given House of Cards a 100 million dollar budget for two seasons. And since the episodes are all launched on day one, theoretically someone could subscribe for one month to binge watch on the entire season and then cancel until the show returns. This is a popular strategy for subscribers of HBO who are say only interested in Game of Thrones, but because of that HBO spreads the season out over months so they can make maximum profits. With full seasons in one day Netflix is banking on people rewatching these series over again, with their streaming service being the only place you can watch it. I can’t imagine them allowing House of Cards or season four of Arrested Development to be released on DVDs and Blu-Rays. It’s Netflix or nothing.
But these are not the things people seem to be talking about in my experience. The discussion of the impact of day one release appears to be more of an after note than at the forefront of people’s minds. Instead I hear people comment on minor details such as how episodes vary in length (something HBO has done with it’s series before). Netflix’s original programming, and more importantly, the way they are distributing content, has the potential to change the industry. The first gun shot has been fired, and personally I’m excited to see how this plays out.