Browsing the array of TV shows and movies available at the click of a mouse (or a TV remote button), it seems impossible to remember life before streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. Initially created as an online DVD rental service, Netflix expanded in 2007 and introduced a video streaming service. From “binge-watching” to “Netflix and chill”, it’s undeniable that streaming services are changing not only the way we talk about TV but the way we watch it, too.
Streaming services have taken the TV marathon to a whole new level. For less than ten bucks a month, you can enjoy a streaming service with no commercials, critically acclaimed movies and TV series, and apps that sync your viewing activity across devices. And with a TV marathon always at our fingertips, it wasn’t long before “bingeing” started to describe a weekend consuming an entire series on Netflix rather than excessive partying.
From streaming entire series that have long finished like Friends and cult TV shows like Freaks and Geeks to releasing entire seasons of their original series, Netflix and Amazon seem content to have subscribers binge-watching.
When a show we’re watching stops playing, it’s to ask “Are you still watching this?” And whether we’re watching a show from start to finish for the first time, desperate to know how it all ends, or leaving it on in the background while we do chores, the answer is, yeah, we are.
And the more we watch, the more streaming services learn.
Netflix initially took an Amazon-like approach to predict what customers wanted to watch, using a star rating system, along with reviews. When a customer first created a Netflix account, the website would ask what movies a user had seen and ask them to give it a rating.
Giving Miss Congeniality a five-star rating meant that Netflix might suggest another movie starring Sandra Bullock or another rom-com with a “strong female lead” like Legally Blonde based on what other users were watching. After a while, Netflix would tell the user the likelihood that they’d enjoy a movie based on their previous viewing history.
And though its recently come under fire for the results of an algorithm that manipulates the images used for titles based on each user’s viewing history, their continual fine-tuning keeps customers watching. Love Reign? Statistically, Netflix knows that you’ll probably enjoy The Tudors. And as long as they can keep suggesting content you enjoy, you’ll keep your subscription.
Though Netflix doesn’t collect personal demographic information, users identifying as black have noticed (and complain) that the AI used for creating title images have featured black characters, whether that character is central to the storyline or not. Couples who compare Netflix profiles might see the same movie shown to them with different title images. The partner who watches more adventure movies might be shown a still from a battle scene, while their other half who loves romance sees a photo of the romantic leads kissing. Love it or hate it, it works.
3. Diversity and risk-taking
Show creators have also noted that these platforms have allowed them to take the kinds of creative risks, such as longer episodes and controversial topics. The success of original series like Orange is the New Black, Transparent, and 13 Reasons Why have further helped streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix compete with traditional TV, perhaps because of—rather than in spite of—the controversial issues these shows deal with.
The same algorithm that helps predict viewer tastes plays a part in the scripts that the companies accept and develop. And Netflix and Prime have proven that they’re paying attention to the political and social climate. Their original series are often lauded for featuring diverse casts or story-lines which tackle contemporary social issues head-on and being unafraid to take on shows that that traditional TV networks might be wary of.
Dear White People, a highly-praised Netflix original series, makes no excuses for the portrayal of the structural and personal racism the young, black protagonists experience at their fictionalized Ivy-league university. And the controversy around Netflix-original Insatiable, the story of a previously overweight girl who seeks revenge on those who bullied her, didn’t deter Netflix from renewing the show for a second season. Netflix’s message is pretty clear: Don’t like it? Don’t watch it. And with new, original content that seems to appear nearly every day, you’re likely to find something else that feeds your soul, anyway.
4. Traditional TV Networks are adopting Netflix’s strategies
While it doesn’t look like America is going to end its decades-long relationship with prime-time TV anytime soon, networks are getting savvier. The CW boosted their viewership by partnering with Netflix in 2011 now releases episodes of shows like Jane the Virgin and Riverdale as they air on TV.
HBO launched HBONow in 2014, a streaming service for $14.99 per month giving fans access to HBO blockbusters like The Sopranos and, Game of Thrones. And when FOX made the decision to cancel Brooklyn 99 after five seasons, fans of the show took to social media. Within 24 hours, Brooklyn 99 had found a new home at CBS, though it’s rumored that negotiations initially included TBS, Hulu, and—you guessed it—Netflix.
5. Portability and format
Perhaps one of the most interesting developments has been to see how show creators have adapted their storytelling to fit into streaming services. Without the need for commercial breaks or a time-based slot, show creators not only have more freedom: they face new challenges. However annoying commercials might be, they’re often helpful to break up the action of an episode. And without commercial breaks, a thirty-minute show now requires an additional eight minutes of material. Matt Groening manages these obstacles well in his new show, which is only available on Netflix; Disenchantment sets a great example for show creators looking to move from TV networks to streaming services.
Disenchantment is serialized and, as a result, very different from the stand-alone episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama. Disenchantment fits well into the Netflix scene along with shows like Bojack Horseman, an acerbic, satirical cartoon about a Hollywood TV-star fallen from grace. Disenchantment is arguably less laugh-out-loud funny than Groening’s previous work and moves at a somewhat slower pace. It balances the gags with the beating heart of the show—its troubled protagonist’s search for acceptance and belonging—and showcases Groening’s abilities as a storyteller. The result?
So, now that Netflix has started to shape and dominate our TV watching, what could possibly come next? In November, Netflix started trialing cheaper, mobile-only plans for users who predominately use their mobile devices to stream movies and TV. Could smartphone-optimized, vertical videos be in our future? We’ll just have to wait and find out.