To Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, waiting for a new episode of your favorite television show is a total drag. Such waiting, he believes, is an "artificial concept" created by traditional networks to force anticipation for a series and foster excitement around a particular time slot. "You're supposed to wait for your show that comes on Wednesday at 8 p.m., wait for the new season, see all the ads everywhere for the new season, talk to your friends at the office about how excited you are," Hastings said in a recent interview with GQ. "The point of managed dissatisfaction is waiting."
Now Hastings is trying to kill any viewer dissatisfaction, managed or otherwise. Tomorrow, Netflix will premiere the Kevin Spacey and David Fincher-helmed series House of Cards. But rather than have to wait a whole week for a new episode, as you might on traditional television, subscribers will be able to watch the entire first season of House of Cards immediately online. Were you so inclined—and not otherwise busy—you could finish off all 13 episodes in a single day.
For extreme couch potatoes, who are used to gorging on season after season of Breaking Bad or Friday Night Lights, the all-you-can-eat benefits of Netflix's streaming catalog are half the justification for owning a subscription. But to some, Netflix's encouragement of binge viewing is increasingly at odds with its goals to win at original programming. It could turn a show like House of Cards, which Netflix is reportedly spending $100 million to license over two seasons, into one weekend (or sick day) of viewing—a virtual flash in the pan for Netflix's voracious subscribers. And while Hastings believes that allowing binge viewing will rid any "managed dissatisfaction," he may be overlooking the benefits of snowballing buzz, press coverage, and viewer excitement—that is, the satisfaction customers may enjoy from actually having to wait to consume content rather than gobbling it up all at once.
To me, there are myriad benefits of consuming serialized television content over time. Hastings might believe waiting only creates dissatisfaction, but—not to sound too much like a Sunday-school teacher—I believe waiting can open up other avenues of fulfillment. Yes, it's annoying having to wait for new seasons of Game of Thrones or Mad Men. But when they premiere, isn't there something enjoyable about the campfire moments the shows create? That is, heading over your friend's place on Sunday evening to watch the new Girls premiere; following live tweets while viewing a new episode; reading day-after blogs about the show; and chatting about it with coworkers later at work. There's satisfaction in that shared experience; on Netflix, you lose out on the potential for watercooler moments.
Over the next several years, Netflix plans to spend roughly $300 million to license original shows such as Lilyhammer and Arrested Development. It's part of gigantic bet by the streaming company to compete against networks like HBO with original content. As Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos recently put it, "The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us."
But part of the reason for HBO's success hasn't been managed dissatisfaction but managed satisfaction. For Game of Thrones, I constantly see people reading George R. R. Martin's books in between seasons; catching up on old episodes in anticipation of a premiere; following news of the show on NYMag.com or other blogs. So by the time the third season rolls around, I'll bet I'm not the only one expecting to hear of friends having a Game of Thrones dinner party. Have you ever heard of anyone having a Lilyhammer dinner party? Has a single one of your friends set up a gathering for House of Cards? I doubt it. Because there's no attempt by Netflix to create those campfire moments. There's no reason to watch the show at a particular time on a particular day.
Hastings might believe that waiting for episodes in the Internet age is an "artificial concept." He's said Netflix's "brand for TV shows is really about binge viewing….the ability to just get hooked and watch episode after episode…rather than get strung out." But stringing viewers along has its benefits. And to say the web has killed our patience to wait for serialized content to be rolled out is to say human beings no longer have an appetite for the building of excitement, anticipation, and suspense. (In my opinion, in the age of YouTube and Twitter, we have more need than ever to slow down the overwhelming onslaught of content we are smacked with every second of the day.)
There are practical reasons for Netflix to rethink its binge-viewing strategy in the web-based world, too. "It's not like another original series will be waiting for them as soon as they're done with Cards. The next series on Netflix's slate of originals, Eli Roth's Hemlock Grove, isn't due until April and the revival of Fox's Arrested Development doesn't begin until May," writes Variety's Andrew Wallenstein. "Thus, getting new subs to pay for a second consecutive month of services becomes at least a little less likely. But if the 13 episodes of Cards were parceled out in the traditional weekly, installments, you could hook a viewer to pay for at least three months instead of just one."
But if Netflix's original content isn't strong enough to keep customers coming back week after week, then perhaps the company should rethink which series it chooses to license.