“This isn’t even television”

How streaming is transforming the small screen
Mirka Loiselle/THE VARSITY
Mirka Loiselle/THE VARSITY

We all know the story: it’s late, you’re tired, you’re telling yourself that you’re only going to watch one episode, but before you know it, you’ve watched six and need to be awake in two hours — binge-watching strikes again.

Binge-watching is often considered a common activity for many students that can serve as a reward, a way to unwind, or simply a convenient way to catch up on your favourite TV shows, and that is the way Netflix wants it.

According to Benjamin Wright, a professor at the Cinema Studies Institute of U of T, “it’s the wild west right now in terms of streaming original content.” Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Video, and Hulu aren’t just changing how television is consumed, but also how it’s being made in the first place.

Netflix has its own unique way of releasing original content. Entire seasons are released all at once, a format tailored for bingeing. Yet there are potential drawbacks to this strategy: “fewer chances might be taken on something that could be seen as too edgy, because they need to invest so much up front, and it won’t be released for another year,” says Wright. For example, Netflix has aligned itself with industry heavyweights like Marvel to produce shows such as Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Daredevil, that come with an established fanbase. Streaming services have also cultivated reputations for themselves as saviors of under-appreciated shows, like the cult hit Community, which was cancelled by NBC but quickly picked up by Yahoo! Screen for a sixth season.

This being said, the possibility that a show may be ‘binged’ in a matter of days rather than viewed on a weekly basis has already begun to affect the ways shows are produced. “[This] changes the way content producers deal with that,” Wright says. “Knowing that their show might be seen as one part… some of these shows are so cinematic that they benefit from a lengthier viewing.” It’s true: there are already programs deviating from the conventional aesthetics of television. Master of None, a recent Netflix success starring Aziz Ansari, makes use of a narrower aspect ratio — more widescreen than full — to take advantage of the unique viewing experience of binge-watching. Co-creator Alan Yang has said, “we wanted it to feel less like most of the single camera comedies that are out there.”

In a recent article in Vox, film analyst Todd VanDerWerff argues that streaming services represent a shift away from the episodic nature of network TV, and a pivot towards an entirely new art form. Wright shares this view, noting how “this isn’t even television. People talk about Netflix shows as TV shows, but they don’t air on television.” Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, which streams on Amazon Video, has said that her team has begun to think of each season as a five-hour movie rather than ten individual episodes. Jaime Reynoso, the cinematographer of Bloodline — a Netflix original that could be described as film noir — noted that he “never saw [it] as a TV show.” Instead, Reynoso chose to approach the filming of Bloodline as an extended documentary shoot to capture the realism required, an example of how content creators are able to alter production styles to suit the new medium.

By contrast, shows that were produced before the streaming model became so popular might not  be as enjoyable when binge-watched.  “Older shows, like Friends, which is now on Netflix, are almost a little numbing when you start to see the patterns. When you watched it only once a week, you didn’t pick up on those things,” Wright says. In other words, it may become easier for viewers to identify cliché elements when they’re watching multiple episodes in succession.

Binge-watching is a definite productivity-killer, but perhaps also a marker of a new era in media. Only time will tell how demand for this new method of consumption will affect traditional media production. According to Wright, “there will be repercussions down the road, but we don’t know yet how this is going to affect audiences.” Now, the only thing to do is Netflix and wait.

Quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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