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Table of contents :
Table Of Contents
Illustrations And Tables
Section I. Platform
1. TV IV’s New Audience
2. Netflix, Imagined Affordances, And The Illusion Of Control
3. The Emergence Of Netflix And The New Digital Economic Geography Of Hollywood
4. Lovemarked Distribution And Consumers’ Behavior
Section II. Content
5. Netflix and TV-as-Film
6. At the Fringes of TV:
7. Programming Gendered Content
9. From ViKi to Netflix
Section III. Viewer Practices
10. Transforming Media Production In An Era Of
11. Binge-Watching the Algorithmic Catalog
12. The Netflix Experience
13. Do Spoilers Matter?
14. “Are You Still Watching?”
mented and much debated in the popular press and in academic circles as an industry disrupter, while also blamed for ending TV’s “Golden Age.” For academic researchers, Netflix exists at the nexus of multiple fields: internet research, information studies, media studies, and television and has an impact on the creation of culture and how individuals relate to the media they consume. Netflix at the Nexus examines Netflix’s broad impact on technology and television from multiple perspectives, including the interface, the content, and user experiences. Chapters by leading international scholars in television and internet studies provide a transnational perspective on Netflix’s changing role in the media landscape. As a whole, this collection provides a comprehensive consideration of the impact of streaming television.
NETFLIX AT THE NEXUS
Netflix’s meteoric rise as an online content provider has been well docu-
Content, Practice, and Production in the Age of Streaming Television
Theo Plothe is Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at Savannah State University. He received a PhD in comin G|A|M|E and Kinephanos Journal. Amber M. Buck is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alabama. She received a PhD in English and writing studies from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and her work has been published in Research in the Teaching of English and Computers and Composition.
Edited by Plothe & Buck
munication from American University, and his work has been published
Cover design by Ming Lee
Edited by Theo Plothe & Amber M. Buck
Netflix at the Nexus
This book is part of the Peter Lang Media and Communication list. Every volume is peer reviewed and meets the highest quality standards for content and production.
New York Bern Berlin Brussels Vienna Oxford Warsaw
Netflix at the Nexus Content, Practice, and Production in the Age of Streaming Television Edited by Theo Plothe & Amber M. Buck
New York Bern Berlin Brussels Vienna Oxford Warsaw
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Buck, Amber M., editor. | Plothe, Theo, editor. Title: Netflix at the nexus: content, practice, and production in the age of streaming television / edited by Theo Plothe and Amber M. Buck. Description: New York: Peter Lang, 2019. Includes bibliographical references. Identifiers: LCCN 2019007087 | ISBN 978-1-4331-6186-5 (hardback: alk. paper) ISBN 978-1-4331-6187-2 (ebook pdf) | ISBN 978-1-4331-6188-9 (epub) ISBN 978-1-4331-6189-6 (mobi) Subjects: LCSH: Netflix (Firm) | Streaming video—Social aspects. Streaming technology (Telecommunications)—Social aspects. Classification: LCC HD9697.V544 N4866 2019 | DDC 384.55/54—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019007087 DOI 10.3726/b14725
Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the “Deutsche Nationalbibliografie”; detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de/.
© 2019 Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York 29 Broadway, 18th floor, New York, NY 10006 www.peterlang.com All rights reserved. Reprint or reproduction, even partially, in all forms such as microfilm, xerography, microfiche, microcard, and offset strictly prohibited.
To the memory of our iguana Dorian, the best Netflix-watching buddy you could ever hope to have.
table of contents
List of Illustrations and Tables Acknowledgments
Introduction: Netflix at the Nexus1 Amber M. Buck and Theo Plothe
Section I. Platform11 Chapter 1. TV IV’s New Audience: Netflix’s Business Model and Model Spectators13 Jana Zündel Chapter 2. Netflix, Imagined Affordances, and the Illusion of Control29 Annette Markham, Simona Stavrova, and Max Schlüter Chapter 3. The Emergence of Netflix and the New Digital Economic Geography of Hollywood 47 Luis F. Alvarez León Chapter 4. Lovemarked Distribution and Consumers’ Behavior: Netflix Communities Versus Piracy Users’ Conduct65 Gabriele Prosperi
netflix at the nexus
Section II. Content79 Chapter 5. Netflix and TV-as-Film: A Case Study of Stranger Things and The OA81 Ana Cabral Martins Chapter 6. At the Fringes of TV: Liminality and Privilege in Netflix’s Original Scripted Dramedy Series97 Jessica Ford Chapter 7. Programming Gendered Content: Industry, Post-feminism, and Netflix’s Serialized Exposition of Jessica Jones113 Jason A. Smith, Briana L. Pocratsky, Marissa Kiss, and Christian Rafael Suero Chapter 8. Netflix: Culturally Transformative and Equally Accessible129 Kimberly Fain Chapter 9. From ViKi to Netflix: Crossing Borders and Meshing Cultures147 Oranit Klein Shagrir Section III. Viewer Practices161 Chapter 10. Transforming Media Production in an Era of “Binge-Watching”: Netflix’s Cinematic Long-Form Serial Programming and Reception163 Sheri Chinen Biesen Chapter 11. Binge-Watching the Algorithmic Catalog: Making Sense of Netflix in the Aftermath of the Italian Launch179 Fabio Giglietto, Chiara Checcaglini, Giada Marino, and Lella Mazzoli Chapter 12. The Netflix Experience: A User-focused Approach to the Netflix Recommendation Algorithm197 Daniela Varela Martínez and Anne Kaun Chapter 13. Do Spoilers Matter?: Asynchronous Viewing Habits on Netflix and Twitter213 Theo Plothe and Amber M. Buck Chapter 14. “Are You Still Watching?”: Audiovisual Consumption on Digital Platforms and Practices Related to the Routines of Netflix Users223 Vanessa Amália D. Valiati Contributors239
illustrations and tables
Illustration Figure 2.1. Three forms of control contributing to the expected affordances of Netflix.
Tables Table 11.1. Table 11.2. Table 11.3. Table 12.1. Table 13.1. Table 13.2.
Codebook of tweets. Distribution of tweets in the dataset by codes. Codeset for the analysis of the interviews. Overview of the participants. Language of #HouseofCards tweets. Word frequency count.
185 186 188 203 217 218
An edited collection is the product of many, and we would first like to thank our authors for their tireless work writing and researching this scholarship and for entrusting us with their scholarship to include in this collection. We’re honored for the opportunity to work with all of you and to publish your stellar work. We would also like to thank the entire team at Peter Lang, and especially Kathryn Harrison and Erika Hendrix for the faith in this collection and their assistance through the publication processes. Thanks also goes to Dr. Kathryn Montgomery at American University for her mentorship and professional guidance. It took many days of 500 words each to get this book published, and she set us on the right path. Finally, we would like to recognize the Netflix binges that brought you this book. Among the series that inspired us: The West Wing, House of Cards, Jessica Jones, The British Baking Show, Frasier, Voltron: Legendary Defender, Archer, Samurai Champloo, and the 72 Most Dangerous Animals of South America.
introduction Netflix at the Nexus Amber M. Buck and Theo Plothe
When Netflix launched its DVD rental by mail business on April 14, 1998, there were few indications that the company would win an Emmy in 2013 for Television Directing, for David Fincher’s “Episode 1” of House of Cards. At the time, the home entertainment media landscape was dominated by video rental brick and mortar stores like Blockbuster and cable television. Netflix’s move first to a monthly subscription model and second to online video streaming capitalized on technological changes and infrastructure upgrades like broadband to innovate the film, television, and technology industries in ways that are still evolving. Netflix has been praised as the future of television (Auletta, 2014) and as “the most feared force in Hollywood” (Villarreal & James, 2016), while also decried as the end of “TV’s Golden Age” and blamed for ushering in an era where “TV shows may be briefer, lower-budget and filled with the kind of product-placement ads that audiences hate and advertisers pay for” (Thielman, 2016). Netflix has become the industry-leading video streaming platform in a way that makes its name synonymous with the concept. It has inspired new terms for cultural practices, from “binge-watching” and “cord cutting,” to even “Netflix and chill.” These terms reflect the ways that Netflix has changed television viewers’ practices and connections with the media they consume.
netflix at the nexus
While DVD box sets first made this practice a possibility, Netflix has enabled more viewers to watch more television programs on a single loop. Having access to a vast archive of syndicated and original content available on a multitude of devices—from smart TVs and game consoles to desktop computers, tablets, and mobile phones—has allowed consumers to more fully sever their ties to a broadcast TV model, including appointment television, and cable providers themselves. Through its original content, Netflix is also innovating the form of television itself. Rather than episodic storytelling told week-by-week, Netflix’s distribution model allows for long-form programming, with one narrative told across eight- or thirteen-hour episodes assumed to be watched in rather quick succession. This structure eliminates the need for title sequences, recaps, and other repetition devices to remind viewers of previous episodes and events. No longer tied to advertisers or to a television broadcasting schedule, narratives can also break from the tyranny of the 21-minute or 42-minute episodes with built-in commercial breaks. Bianchini and Jacob de Souza (2017) discussed this flexibility in their analysis of Arrested Development’s fourth season, which was produced exclusively for Netflix and experimented with many of these narrative structures. While Arrested Development was an early example of the possibilities in moving beyond broadcast and cable television, the implications of this change are only just beginning to be felt.
Researching Netflix For scholars, Netflix also sits at the nexus of multiple areas of work: television studies, internet research, and information studies. Academic research on Netflix has focused primarily on algorithmic culture and Netflix’s recommendation engine (Gomez-Uribe & Hunt, 2016; Hallinan & Striphas, 2016), as well as binge watching practices (Jenner, 2016; Pittman & Sheehan, 2015). Other work has emphasized the connections between Netflix and net neutrality policy (Davies, 2016), as well as the company’s place in the home entertainment industry (McDonald, 2016). Continuing to explore the impact of Netflix and its implications for culture, economics, and technology is important to develop frameworks through which to better understand its importance on technology and culture. A more recent development is Netflix expansion into international markets. In early 2016, Netflix expanded to 130 new countries at once, making it a global media company, yet one with localized content for each market
(Barrett, 2017). The company aggressively blocks VPN traffic in order to ensure that Netflix users only see content licensed for that particular region (Greenberg, 2016). The streaming service, then, provides a different experience for individuals in different countries. When the fifth season of House of Cards premiered worldwide on May 31, 2017, Middle Eastern subscribers found the new season missing from their streaming devices. Due to negotiations regarding licensing agreements, Season 5 was not available in the Middle East until July 2 (Newbould, 2017). Netflix is currently available in 190 different countries across the globe, and the service occupies a different place among each country’s media landscape that also deserves further investigation.
Netflix as a Liminal Space Netflix, as a platform, a company, and a distribution model exists in a liminal space, at the nexus of television and film, internet archive and home entertainment service, and content distributor and movie studio. Netflix is ultimately a product of convergence, a case study in the ways that digital media not only combine multiple analog media into one digital form, but also combine multiple industries into one company. Henry Jenkins (2006) described two types of media convergence: (1) technological, where different forms of content are presented through one medium and device; and (2) cultural, where fans follow content and stories across platforms and participate more directly in creating those narratives (pp. 10–12). Netflix certainly reflects the results of technological convergence, where previous analog film and broadcast television content are combined digital video and accessed in digital streaming form through a variety of devices. Through their concept of “remediation,” Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (1999) described the way that new technologies are first understood and conceptualized through older technologies; for example, automobiles as horseless carriages and word processors as glorified typewriters. While new technologies first approximate and innovate features of older technologies, they soon begin to move beyond the frameworks of those older technologies, innovate new features, and become less connected to the older media form. Netflix in the current moment is still recognizable as all of these entities mentioned above: film studio, television producer, home entertainment distributor, internet archive, and provider of web video, films, and television programs. Yet through both the company’s innovations and the continued blurring of content, these different categories may soon cease to have any
netflix at the nexus
meaning. The digital medium and this process of remediation have exploded constraints for both form and content; stories on Netflix may last 12 minutes or eight hours, and some content produced by Netflix might be nominated for Emmys or for Academy Awards. Netflix may be accelerating a situation in which former genres, categories, and constraints may no longer be appropriate. This collection examines this liminal quality of Netflix as a platform and entertainment company and broadens the current discussion to consider Netflix’s continued impact on technology, television, film, and the internet. The chapters we have collected here present critical and empirical studies from international scholars with diverse perspectives. We’ve divided the book into three sections: investigations of the Netflix platform, its content, and finally, studies of Netflix user practices and experiences.
Platform Contributions in the first section considers Netflix as a technology and a platform. José Van Dijck and Thomas Poell define platforms as “online sites that facilitate and organize data streams, economic interactions, and social exchanges between users” (p. 2). These chapters consider how Netflix acts as a platform and how its distribution model and interface design position its users. Jana Zündel examines the Netflix audience to consider how the site attracts and appeals to viewers. Its content, both syndicated and original and from both film and television, is from a wide array of sources and perspectives and appeals to a wide range of tastes that gives the site a heterogeneous audience. While Netflix operates on a subscription model, it avoids the narrowcasting concerns of niche, premium cable channels. Zündel argues that through the diversity of Netflix catalog and original content, Netflix considers its audience “a mass of different individuals” instead of one group with distinct tastes. Annette Markham, Simona Stavrova, and Max Schlüter use different conceptual definitions of control to examine how Netflix allows and constrains users’ control through interface elements. These authors argue for an idea of control as a “sensemaking device” to analyze interactions in heavilymediated environments. Luis F. Alvarez León takes a critical geography perspective in considering the ways that Netflix rearticulates economic geographies of the entertainment and technology industries. León argues that Netflix has globalized the American film and television industry in a new way, as well as exposed American
audiences to more international content. These new technological systems reshape the spatial configuration of markets and create new distribution systems, geographically speaking. In Chapter Four, Gabriele Prosperi turns to the Italian market to explore the ways that Netflix disrupted an entire sector of file-sharing platforms that operated in a gray area between piracy and legitimate video streaming and file sharing services. Prosperi notes that indexing sites for illegal download services use visual design and branding as a “lovemark” (Jenkins, 2006) in order to look legitimate and appealing. Netflix has used the same tactics for branding and identification, showing how viewers can conceive of a distribution system as a brand with a certain ethos. Prosperi compares the aspects of both distribution systems and their reliance on archives and indexicality to explain the prominence of both formal and informal distribution systems in the Italian context.
Content In the second section, we turn to an examination Netflix content, both in the types of stories told in Netflix original programs, as well as the nature of that content’s serialized narrative. These scholars consider the types of stories that Netflix privileges, as well as how its streaming model changes serialized programming. Ana Cabral Martins examines Stranger Things and The OA, both Netflix originals, to explore the impact of longform storytelling to the television landscape. Serialized television blends boundaries with film, as these stories are often called “long movies.” Martins also notes that Netflix itself organizes content in terms of seasons rather than episodes. As an entire season is usually released at one time, and the result is an 8-hour or 13-hour long narrative. Martins explores the way that both Stranger Things and The OA bridges the gap between film and television in terms of narrative content and length. Jessica Ford examines representation in Netflix original content to consider the way this programming centralizes liminal stories from marginalized groups, including women, people of color, and differently-able bodied people. Netflix’s position on the fringe of the U.S. television industry, Ford argues, allows it to function outside of more restrictive distribution systems with fewer requirements for ratings. In her essay, Ford examines how this concept of liminality is enacted in several popular Netflix television series: Orange Is the New Black, Master of None, Lady Dynamite, Dear White People, and GLOW. Ford
netflix at the nexus
labels these programs dramedies and argues that they exist in a liminal space themselves, containing aspects of both comedy and drama, yet unable to be categorized as either/or. Jason A. Smith, Briana L. Pocratsky, Marissa Kiss, and Christian Suero focus their analysis on one particular Netflix program, Jessica Jones (2015), and explore the gender representation in the portrayal of its titular character. Jones may be considered a post-feminist hero in the first season of her show, and her portrayal differs from and expands on other strong female characters in television. Her inclusion in the Marvel miniseries The Defenders (2017), also produced by Netflix, diminishes her role to that of a minor character with less agency in the narrative. The authors argue that the case of Jessica Jones points to the complex balancing act that Netflix engages in with their original programming: providing “culturally-relevant” and “boundary-crossing” television, while maintaining commercial viability. Kimberly Fain examines Netflix’s role in producing culturally relevant and liminal narratives with a focus specifically on representations of African Americans. Fain places Netflix’s content within the context of the fraught history of representations of African Americans in media, including offensive caricatures of blackface minstrelsy. Fain notes that Netflix’s explicitly stated commitment to diversity, as well as its more hands-off approach in terms of content development, have fostered a space where African American writers and directors can tell stories centered in the Black experience. In her analysis, Fain points to Beasts of No Nation, 13th, and Luke Cage as successful examples of programming that bring culturally diverse stories to a wide national and international audience. Oranit Klein Shagrir examines another boundary-crossing program, Dramaworld (2016), a dramedy set in Los Angeles and Seoul that tells the story of an American student “transported” into her favorite Korean drama. Dramaworld is available on both ViKi (a San Francisco-based streaming service for primarily pan-Asian content) as well as Netflix. Dramaworld, Shagrir argues, represents the boundary-crossing aspects of contemporary streaming television, as it crosses cultures, languages, and platforms. ViKi has a community-based participatory element, and users produce fansubs, subtitles in different languages thereby increasing Dramaworld’s cultural reach. The main character herself, Shagrir argues, represents a prosumer in becoming a participant in the drama. Dramaworld represents an anomaly for Netflix in that the episodes are only 10–15 minutes long, blurring the boundary between a conventional and a web-based series.
Viewer Practices Netflix and other streaming services have transformed the television industry, but they have also shifted viewer practices. There has been less scholarship, however, on Netflix subscriber practices. Netflix viewer statistics and ratings are closely guarded by the company itself; they do not have ratings in the traditional sense or report to Nielsen. The chapters contained in this section take an international approach to Netflix users and investigate practices through a wide range of methodologies. Sheri Chinen Biesen explores binge-watching and cord-cutting practices in a critical essay about their impact on the television industry. Biesen notes that if a household reports Netflix as their favorite network, for example, that family is not selected to rate television shows. Many of Netflix viewers’ practices, then, are underexamined for that reason. Netflix also stands alone for the absence of advertisers, which other streaming services use. Ultimately, this shift in viewer practices, in terms of both binge watching and cord cutting, have yet to be fully dealt with and understood. Fabio Giglietto, Chiara Checcaglini, Giada Marino, and Lella Mazzoli explore the Italian launch of Netflix streaming service in Italy in October of 2015, and they examine users’ reactions to that launch through both interviews and discussion on Twitter. Their research suggests that Italian subscribers expanded their television viewing with the introduction of Netflix, including new genres and documentaries. They also incorporated Netflix into their already established television viewing habits, which continue to evolve in regard to evolving streaming television options. Daniela Varela and Anne Kaun examine algorithmic culture and how individual Netflix users interact with and consider Netflix’s algorithmic suggestions. The authors conducted walkthroughs and in-depth interviews with users in Singapore. Through their findings, Varela and Kaun argue for a conceptualization of users as co-producers of data and knowledge through their viewing and ranking practices. They view users not as passive data providers, but instead as active participants and “co-creators of cultural products.” Theo Plothe and Amber Buck connect Netflix viewing practices with Twitter, and they examine the practice of using second screen applications like Twitter when watching streaming television. Because viewing patterns are timeshifted, viewers are not watching the programs together, and two viewers watching the same program are probably watching different episodes. Through an analysis of tweets about the fourth season of House of Cards, the
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authors demonstrate the sophisticated ways that users adapt the use of Twitter as a second-screen and avoid spoilers in their tweets. To conclude this collection, Vanessa Valiati uses a practice theory approach to explore users’ Netflix routines and how the service fits within their daily viewing practices. Through interviews of 12 individuals in Southern Brazil, Valenti monitored their use of Netflix within their daily lives, including individuals’ relationships with material aspects of the service, affective dynamics and engagement, and spatio-temporal relationships. Her research found that the participants integrated their Netflix viewing into their daily routines, whether it was watching an episode over breakfast, while cooking dinner, or before going to bed. Valenti argues that Netflix plays a large role in daily audiovisual consumption. As the contributions of this collection demonstrate, Netflix will continue to be an object of scholarly examination as it continues to evolve and change the international media landscape. We aim with this collection to extend the scholarly conversation around Netflix and its worldwide impact on the internet and television itself.
References Auletta, K. (2014, February 3). Outside the box: Netflix and the future of television. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/02/03/outside-thebox-2 Barrett, B. (2017, January 6). Netflix just launched in 130 new countries. Like, this morning. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2016/01/netflix-just-launched-in-130-newcountries-like-this-morning/ Bianchini, M., & Jacob de Souza, M. C. (2017). Netflix and innovation in Arrested Development’s Narrative Construction. In C. Barker & M. Wiatrowski (Eds.), The age of Netflix: Critical essays on streaming media (pp. 98–119). Jefferson, NC: McFarland. Bolter, J. D., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press. Davies, L. (2016). Netflix and the coalition for an open internet. In K. McDonald & D. Smith-Rowsey (Eds.), The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st century (pp. 15–32). New York, NY: Bloomsbury. Gomez-Uribe, C. A., & Hunt, N. (2016). The Netflix recommender system: Algorithms, business value, and innovation. ACM Transactions on Management Information Systems (TMIS), 6(4), 13. Greenberg, J. (2016, January 16). Netflix’s VPN ban isn’t good for anyone—especially Netflix. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2016/01/netflixs-vpn-ban-isnt-good-foranyone-especially-netflix/
Hallinan, B., & Striphas, T. (2016). Recommended for you: The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture. New Media & Society, 18(1), 117–137. Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York, NY: New York University Press. Jenner, M. (2016). Is this TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and binge-watching. New media & society, 18(2), 257–273. McDonald, K. (2016). From online video store to global internet TV network: Netflix and the future of home entertainment. In K. McDonald & D. Smith-Rowsey (Eds.), The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st century (pp. 203–218). New York, NY: Bloomsbury. Newbould, C. (2017, June 27). House of Cards S5 finally has UAE Netflix release date. The National. Retrieved from https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/house-of-cards-s5-finallyhas-uae-netflix-release-date-1.92197 Pittman, M., & Sheehan, K. (2015). Sprinting a media marathon: Uses and gratifications of binge-watching television through Netflix. First Monday, 20(10). Retrieved from http:// www.ojphi.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6138 Thielman, S. (2016, October 16). Netflix and ill: Is the golden age of TV coming to an end? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/oct/16/is-goldenage-tv-over-netflix-shows-cable-television Van Dijck, J., & Poell, T. (2016). Understanding the promises and premises of online health platforms. Big Data & Society, 3(1). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951716654173 Villarreal, Y., & James, M. (2016, January 18). Netflix: The most feared force in Hollywood? The LA Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-ct-netflixhollywood-20160118-story.html#
·1· tv iv ’ s new audience Netflix’s Business Model and Model Spectators Jana Zündel
Introduction: In Praise of Binge-Watching Coinciding with the launch of the second season of its original series Stranger Things on October 27, 2017, Netflix published the following entry on T witter: “Ready. Set. Binge! #StrangerThings 2.” To promote the “up-to-dateness” of Netflix’s “programming,” an embedded GIF showed a five-second countdown, in essence asking users to watch the show’s newest installments in a single sitting. This entry is but one example of Netflix’s strategy for promoting binge-watching of series available on its platform. By suggesting the hashtag #letsbinge, Netflix introduced a means for users to share their favorite shows and recommend binge-watching. Binge-watching, by definition, means the consumption of one media format several hours in a row (a.k.a. media bingeing, Devasagayam, 2014). Since Netflix first launched internationally, this mode of reception has mainly been associated with both streaming media and television series. The “personalized delivery of content independent from a schedule” (Lotz, 2017) through online distribution opened up new possibilities of watching serial formats that were not initially intended during their original broadcast. A large part of Netflix’s programming consists of fictional series that are explicitly recommended to be binged. This includes both so-called “Netflix Originals” as well as syndicated
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programs which used to be broadcast periodically and interrupted by advertising breaks. With their originals, however, Netflix has brought something new to the table. Of course, binge-watching is not so much an invention of the World Wide Web as it is a strategy TV channels have employed for quite some time. Channels regularly offered fans so-called “throwback marathons,” essentially condensed re-runs meant to promote a new upcoming season of a given program. Additionally, bingeing had already played a large part in the newfound textual and cultural appreciation of TV series caused by the release of entire seasons on DVD (Hills, 2007). Therefore, Netflix’s true “innovation” was the introduction of serial content to the television market that is “bingeready” from the very moment of its initial release. Now being the first link in the chain of distribution (Jenner, 2016), Netflix promotes binge-watching as the intended way to consume its in-house productions. The “en-bloc” publication of straight-to-web series alongside the possibility to access these series at any given time enables an experience of seriality that differs greatly from the usual TV broadcasting schedule. Formerly a generic term referring to all kinds of excessive consumption, “bingeing” is now being used as a “buzzword” in order to strengthen the position of original streaming content on the contemporary television market. This nexus of serial content, streaming technology, and excessive modes of reception seems to give the users instructions on how to purchase and consume TV series. This chapter will therefore discuss the following questions: What kind of target audience does Netflix’s focus on binge-watching imply? What economic and cultural understanding of “television series” drives its programming? How does this relate to the overall transformation of television along with the new term of “TV IV”?
Netflix’s Business Model as a Global Content Provider and Producer Having greatly expanded their portfolio in recent years, Netflix stands out among the wide array of streaming providers. One might argue that the sheer quantity of available content is, in fact, downright confusing, with a double-supply structure of films and TV shows as well as licensed and original programming—for a monthly fee of $13 (standard subscription, approx. 11€ in Europe). In contrast to Amazon Prime, which divides its offerings into free content included with the monthly subscription, and other content
tv iv’s new audience
requiring additional payment, Netflix’s content is universally available. Once subscribed, users can choose from a broad “menu” that assembles masses of serial content, both in-house productions and syndicated programs from other TV channels. By hoarding large quantities of series from different origins (networks, basic cable, premium cable), Netflix has shown ambition to become a content provider to the masses. With a diversified portfolio and the advantage of non-linear programming, Netflix is able to cater to a great variety of individual tastes and preferences. However, despite obtaining licenses for a large number of syndicated TV shows in an attempt to attract viewers ready to rewatch their favorite shows, Netflix simultaneously emphasizes exclusivity in order to ensure permanent subscription (Lotz, 2016). Netflix thereby gathers a faithful “original audience” willing to stick to the platform specifically for the original content. According to Lindsey (2016, 181) this strategy will ensure the service’s survival and possible growth in the ever-expanding and rapidly changing television market. It is no coincidence, then, that Netflix’s straight-to-web series have reached a great number of viewers during the last few years. In this regard, Netflix is able to compete with any other TV channel as a producer of serial content, especially with subscription channels such as HBO or Showtime. HBO, in particular, is renowned for a number of original series which are routinely marketed as “quality TV.” By strategically emphasizing production value and a notion of prestige, the channel labels its programs as “worth paying for.” Premium cable channels portray their content as a superior product, reaffirming the subscriber’s “good taste.” The same line of argument has also been adopted by Netflix. Free from ratings pressure and censorship (both of which encourage network shows to use “economic storytelling” while steering clear of subjects that might cause controversy), Netflix can explore the possibilities of serial narration while simultaneously aiming “to naturalize viewing practices such as binge-watching” (Tryon, 2015, 104) as the trending mode of reception—or more precisely: as a quality-of-life-upgrade elevating its original content above that of subscription channels which remain shackled to a periodic broadcasting schedule. Additionally, Netflix is pursuing the goal of outpacing HBO. As of 2017, Netflix has assembled more current original series than HBO or any other U.S. channel, using non-linearity to full advantage. This business model more closely resembles that of an ever-expanding, wide-ranging video library (Lotz, 2016, 2017) than that of a focused and exclusive content producer like HBO. Despite modeling its subscription service after premium TV channels, Netflix
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has abandoned the “niche TV” approach and the concept of “quality TV for quality audiences” (Feuer, 2010). Instead, the steady stream of new and diversified original content (including prestigious projects and low-budget productions) as well as the relatively low subscription price both point towards a more heterogeneous audience. Netflix’s expanding portfolio, non-linear distribution, and personalized content make it the international go-to-address for serial television, first and foremost outside the U.S.’s compartmentalized television system (in which Netflix is but one of many competitors concerning serial content), but most notably in Germany and overall Europe. Netflix is not without its limitations, however. Its global business has not yet surpassed the constraints of conventional TV production and distribution. Netflix’s path to internationalization remains slow and arduous, as not all content available to users in the U.S., is also available elsewhere (and vice-versa), mostly due to geo-blocking and constricted syndication. Despite striking deals with various channels like The CW or AMC, and thus gaining the right to publish the newest episodes of their shows immediately following the original airing (i.e., Riverdale or Better Call Saul), a considerable amount of serial content remains inaccessible to Netflix audiences. HBO and other premium channels intentionally hold back on international distribution via streaming platforms, unwilling to syndicate their programs free of individual charge.1 Also, Amazon remains an ever-present competitor, seeking out distribution rights for network, cable and subscription shows itself. Despite the unspoken promise of “something for everybody,” Netflix will not be able to offer everything to everybody anytime soon, as economic barriers and international restrictions still apply, crucially limiting the availability of TV shows. This in part explains Netflix’s ambition to steadily increase their production of original content. It was the in-house productions, after all, which initially set Netflix apart from other similar streaming services, and which continue to keep users invested despite occasional supply gaps. Judging by the current turnout of new original shows (with more than 20 launched in 2017 alone), Netflix is more likely to focus on producing content rather than merely distributing it. Meanwhile, recent cancellations of high-budget originals such as The Get Down and Sense8 indicate that Netflix will not be able to maintain its current production rate indefinitely. Citing insufficient viewership as the reason for cancellations and moreover insinuating further cancellations (Holloway, 2017), Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos appeared to contradict the previously mentioned subscription model: deciding to increase the number of cancellations in the near future indicates a fixation on ratings
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numbers inherent to network programming. Whether Netflix’s steady stream of original content will one day begin to dwindle remains to be seen. The economic features outlined here are, of course, a simplified depiction of Netflix’s multi-dimensional business model which, for example, did not explore the platform’s complex production processes. It has nevertheless become clear what sets Netflix apart from “conventional television,” both free-TV and pay-TV: the concept of pursuing a large viewership by offering an expansive and ever-growing, yet highly diversified portfolio. This approach transcends both the premium subscription model that offers limited exclusive content to “quality audiences,” and the network model seeking high ratings through shows that appeal to a heterogeneous mass audience. Netflix seems to be pursuing a mass audience with compartmentalized preferences and tastes. This may be one defining characteristic of “TV IV” (Jenner, 2016), a supposedly new era of television that will be explored in the next segment of this chapter.
Outlining “TV IV”: Serial Television Individualized The term “TV IV” has so far been used cautiously.2 Scholars appear undecided whether streaming providers–which now act as content producers in their own right–have truly ushered in a new era of television (Jenner, 2016). As Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have largely adopted the subscription model introduced by HBO and other premium channels, it could be argued that these services are merely extending the era of “TV III,” characterized by “first-order commodity relations” and channels’ “brand marketing” (Rogers, Epstein, & Reeves, 2002, 46f.). Also, streaming providers have not yet entirely freed themselves from scheduling, with some syndicated shows still being distributed in line with periodic broadcasting. Despite technological and industrial shifts in the way television content is produced and distributed (see Lotz, 2017), one might insist that Netflix and others have not truly revolutionized television. Indeed, traditional structures of national broadcasting persist even in the face of the current trend towards digitalization (see Jenner, 2018). Today, the international television landscape is highly diversified in terms of production, distribution, and reception, enabling regular, linear television, and “new,” non-linear television to coexist. When talking about “TV IV,” neither is internet-distributed television replacing regular TV, nor should Netflix’s impact on television as a whole be exaggerated. Netflix’s role in the global transformation of television
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does not concern the entirety of available television content. Rather, its impact can be narrowed down to one specific serial format, since the platform excludes a large portion of TV programming, most notably news, live shows, and sports (ibid.). While transforming our idea of television as an apparatus, an industry, and a medium, Netflix does so exclusively by rethinking the concept of the (fictional) television series. Throughout the following paragraphs, my brief recollection of TV I, II and III3 as well as my outlining of “TV IV” will mainly be applicable to television series. The history of television can be told, in phases, as a history of audiences. Each “phase” presupposes a different concept of viewers and audiences. TVI (1948–1975, see Roger et al., 2002, 43) was defined by the “three-network oligopoly” (ibid., 44). The networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) shared a common goal: to attract a heterogeneous mass audience with varying levels of familiarity with a particular series. Based on the assumption that a wide range of people with different backgrounds would gather in front of the small screen, TV shows had to a) ensure that their program was the “least objectionable” (ibid., 43), and b) take into account their fluctuating audiences by establishing a common understanding on the plot through simple and often redundant storytelling. Casually tuning in to a program was more the rule than the exception, and TV series were designed to remain open to regular, sporadic and totally unfamiliar viewers alike. From the seventies to the nineties, TV II then encompassed the proliferation and differentiation of TV channels. During this phase, broadcasters aimed for “quality demographics” (ibid., 44) and targeted various audience sub-groups (and advertising partners, respectively) through different serial genres, sub-genres, and hybrid genres. The profiling of television series by means of genre and demographics presumably gave rise to a new type of recipient–the fan (ibid., 44f.). As fans exhibited a greater commitment to their favorite series, networks no longer sought after a mostly casual audience, instead focusing on a core viewership. As a consequence, fictional series became even more serialized and more heavily relied on their viewers’ loyalty and willingness to regularly tune in. In some instances, this adoration for specific TV shows paved the way for “cult culture” (ibid.), prominent examples including The X Files or Twin Peaks. It is no coincidence, then, that the term “quality TV” first emerged during the TV II era (see Thompson, 1996), as TV II was responsible for the diversification of the collective serial audience into individual viewers, committed and casual. TV shows increasingly took this into account by relying on a “flexi-narrative” (see Nelson, 1997), a blending of episodic plot pieces, in order to attract disloyal or new
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audiences, and long-term storylines to further engage fans. This strategy is far from outdated: as ad-funded channels are pressured by ratings and censorship, they reach out to a larger, heterogeneous audience. The networks’ ongoing effort to remain open to casual and new viewers proves that the “TV II” era is not merely a ghost of television past. Bearing in mind a certain notion of serial narration and viewership, “TV II” continues to this day and currently clashes with the business models and audience conceptions of “TV III” and “TV IV.” The cultivation of the committed viewer was furthered by the rise of pay-TV in the mid-nineties, with a special focus on original programming (Rogers et al., 2002, 47f.). While not a new invention by any means (ibid.), the subscription model gained in popularity following the introduction of original shows such as HBO’s The Sopranos. Not only was the “programming free of commercial interruption and uncontaminated by the demands of advertisers” (ibid., 46)–its production values and prestige were marketed as major selling points aimed at even more precisely defined “quality demographics” than in the “TV II” era. By advancing serialization and adopting cinematographic aesthetics, premium TV channels “woo” committed and sophisticated viewers while at the same time excluding casual audiences. Original pay-TV series are promoted as exclusive goods meant to be enjoyed by those who can afford them. Inversely, subscribers are viewed as sharing certain “tastes” in narration and style (see Feuer, 2010). By raising economic and cultural barriers and thus subverting the inclusiveness of traditional network television, these pay-TV originals further divided the audience (see Lotz, 2007). It might be argued that this development is continued by streaming platforms and their originals. However, as I have previously discussed, Netflix’s focus on fictional series, its double-supply structure and ambitious production quota lead to a more ambivalent conclusion. As opposed to premium TV channels, Netflix does not sell a single, meticulously crafted programming schedule, but rather offers a multitude of simultaneously available serial programs. In an attempt to define the concept of “TV IV,” one main feature that stands out in comparison to “TV II” and “TV III” is the detachment of the series from the rest of the linear television program. While the introduction of the DVD may have had a similar effect, streaming platforms are not shackled by the concept of the box set. Streaming services separate a TV show from its original context within a fixed programming schedule consisting of heterogeneous formats, and (re-)offer the show in a much more homogeneous environment. A single series is presented as part of a lavish menu alongside a variety of other series, in turn establishing the new initial context of Netflix’s original series. By placing each series in
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a competitive environment characterized by ubiquitous availability, Netflix creates a time-independent juxtaposition of possible line-ups. This development goes hand in hand with the individualization of the audience. As Amanda Lotz has noted, central characteristics of internet- distributed television are “nonlinearity” and “user specificity” (Lotz, 2017, unpag.). With regard to recording devices such as DVR, catch-up TV and DVD box sets, nonlinear viewing is no innovation in and of itself, but contributes to shaping “TV IV.” Unlike HBO, Netflix does not build its subscription model around one particular demographic or “prestige audience.” Instead, the platform offers an enormous digital “warehouse.” On the one hand, Netflix’s organization seems to rely heavily on the users’ willingness to create their own “schedules” according to their preferences (with regard to subject matter, time, and mode of reception). Owing to the vastness of the portfolio, television series are no longer casually tuned in to. Instead, these series are now offered as commodities meant to be selected and viewed in an act of conscious intent. This individualization of the viewer serves as another defining trait of “TV IV.” On the other hand, Netflix actively targets the individual consumer by systematically tracking his or her viewing activities and using this data to predict future programming choices. Based on the viewer’s recent selections, the interface frequently updates and reorganizes its individualized recommendations. Netflix addresses its users by analyzing their preferences and tastes, by calculating and generalizing their individual viewing activity. This “mathemization of taste” (Alexander, 2016, 81) is far from a neutral approach, as Netflix’s ulterior motive is, of course, to promote its very own original content. A variety of different preview pictures are used which, too, adapt to one’s recent activity and genre preferences (Jansen, 2017). The preview images for Stranger Things may be swapped regularly, depending on whether the user has recently watched an episode of Mad Men, The Big Bang Theory or Orphan Black, for example. While claiming to personalize content suggestions, Netflix at the same time creates a personal filter bubble to subtly promote its original content. The algorithmically filtered suggestions are, of course, not entirely accurate, and will never fully replicate individual tastes (ibid., 94). Nevertheless, Netflix’s personalized treatment, however manipulative it may be, presupposes an understanding of its committed audience that introduces a new relation between the mass and the individual. Before “TV IV,” mass audiences and “quality audiences” (or niche audiences) remained separated from one another by the offerings of networks interested in ratings and fluctuating
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audiences, and the offerings of subscription channels inclined to nurture a loyal audience. Coinciding with the rise of economically diversified streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon and their eventual evolution into global competitors, the two initially distinct understandings of the audience now appear to be merged. Netflix seems to have succeeded in attracting a global mass audience4 of dedicated serial viewers, possibly consisting of many different niche or “quality” mini-audiences. Catering to an unspecified and customized audience, Netflix now mainly targets the single, secluded viewer whose behavior is continuously observed and algorithmically quantified. Conversely, despite this constant consideration of individual preference, Netflix simultaneously seeks to actively influence and shape its users–not only regarding the process of content selection via personalized promotion of originals, but also concerning viewing practices. As I will discuss in the next segment, Netflix is specifically interested in cultivating highly committed viewers as well as excessive manners of consumption.
Bingers Preferred or: Netflix’s Model Spectator Generally speaking, internet-distributed television is open to every mode of reception. Users are free to choose when and how to watch their preferred programs. Watching just one episode per evening or week is just as feasible as bingeing an entire season in a single sitting (or any other viewing practice). With streaming platforms on the rise, the expectation of choice and freedom among viewers has become increasingly common (Snider, 2016, 127). Netflix’s promotional tactics, however, are designed to encourage certain viewing habits more strongly than others. Tapping into the practice of rewatching shows on DVD (Hills, 2007) by specifically endorsing binge-watching (Jenner, 2018, 119ff.), the streaming service addresses heavily engaged recipients, the fans. Recalling the above-mentioned tweet on Stranger Things 2, this proves to be especially true for Netflix originals. Since “TV III,” the norms of watching TV series have undergone significant change. Series have increasingly been emphasizing “committed viewing” and have worked on building fan communities through follow-up formats such as aftershows. The possibilities of the Internet are also utilized, most notably with regard to the distribution of additional content and social media activity. Subscription channels tend to further “praise” the dedicated viewer by promoting their programs as sophisticated, aesthetically appealing and “rewatchable” narratives.
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Additionally, following the rise of so-called “quality TV” and complex serials, “binge-watchability” has been attributed to a number TV shows of the 2000s. This predicate was usually awarded in hindsight, after the initial run of a program. In contrast, TV IV’s straight-to-web-series allegedly need to be watched in a single sitting (see Tryon, 2015). Netflix’s initial marketing strategy for its very first original series, House of Cards, was to promote “the text’s suitability for the practice of binge-watching” (Jenner, 2016, 263). Although this ascription of “binge-watchability” has become a universal “seal of quality” on every Netflix original, it is now being treated less as a textual feature of a given series, but rather as a shared cultural experience among the platform’s subscribers. Netflix’s “Ready. Set. Binge!” tweet does not necessarily prove that Stranger Things’s second season is a highly serialized narrative and thus suitable for instantaneous consumption. Instead, the model spectator is meant to “devour” the show’s latest episodes in a specific and hedonistic fashion. In promoting binge-watching, Netflix goes out of its way to enforce rapid reception as the primary (and intended) way of consuming serial content. During the short countdown in-between episodes of a syndicated show, which typically ranges from 15 to 20 seconds (depending on the streaming device),5 the screen is split into three units. The outro is shrunk and moved to the upper left corner, while the lower right segment of the screen displays a still image previewing the next episode. Two or three buttons present options on how to proceed (“Back to Browse,” “Leave fullscreen mode”6 and “More Episodes”). On the left, a short synopsis of the upcoming episode is shown—it is just barely readable before the countdown ends. These interepisodic phenomena are comparable to typical textual segments frequently encountered on linear TV. Take side phenomena of the televisual “flow,” for example: inserts, flashes, bumpers, and stingers reminding us of the following program and (ideally) keeping us glued to the screen. Intended to provide “a flow series” and “an evening’s viewing” (Williams, 2003, 93), these programming links are designed to ensure the viewer’s willingness to stick around for the following broadcasts by promising upcoming attractions (Bleicher, 2004, 250). By cutting short the outro and displaying previews for the next episode of a show, Netflix reshapes the segmented structure of linear TV. Because Netflix’s programming links closely resemble the “connective tissue of the television flow” (Jacobs, 2011, 260) in terms of organization and logic, they may crucially contribute to the understanding of streaming platforms as a form of “television.” I argue that both broadcast television and internet-distributed
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television seek to enhance “bingeing” among viewers, as in the continuous reception of one chosen program—the main difference being that regular television provides us with a pre-set heterogeneous “flow” of programming segments while internet-distributed TV encourages the user to select and remain engaged with an ongoing stream of homogeneous data (several episodes in succession, if not an entire season). By automatically playing the following installment mere moments after the current episode has ended, streaming services have minimized the intermission between episodes. With its plethora of original content, Netflix takes this idea even further. When watching Stranger Things, for example, the countdown between episodes is cut down to just under five seconds, completely eliminating any preview elements and almost instantly playing the next episode. This choice of interface design intentionally denies the user the conscious decision whether or not to watch the end credits, pause the stream or choose something else to watch. In contrast, Netflix’s treatment of syndicated shows implies a connection to the original programming logic of television: here, a short, but reasonable, intermission between episodes remains. Considering the vast offering of alternative content and the manageable time frame, binge-watching is in this case framed as a “deliberate, self-scheduled alternative to ‘watching TV’” (Jenner, 2015, 1). In the case of Netflix originals, however, the radical minimization of the already brief countdown, alongside the visual omission of options,7 almost aggressively nudges the viewer towards binge-watching by providing an alternative “insulated flow” (Jenner, 2018, 135) of subsequent episodes. In addition to the extreme reduction of intermissions, Netflix offers interventional functions which alter the generic structure of an episode. The “Skip Intro” and “Skip Recap” buttons encourage viewing habits formerlytied to the DVD format by specifically addressing committed viewers who may find rewatching the intro to every single episode redundant. Users are, in short, encouraged to skip undesired segments and accelerate reception. Offering to exclude integral segments of a series from its reception–or, even more radically, automatically skipping them–strengthens its consumerist approach and implies an economy-driven understanding of its audience. Netflix’s encouragement of binge-watching is not merely a promotional campaign–its serves first and foremost as a programmatic strategy meant to cultivate an audience of “media bingers” (Devasagayam, 2014). Requiring a high degree of involvement and engagement with a show, binge-watching is premeditated as a form of “active participation” and contributes to the viewer’s pleasure and self-image (Snider,
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2016, 118ff.). Further enhancing the concept of bingeing, every once in a while–after a few episodes have played without interruption–an intertitle pops up, asking the viewer to confirm that he or she is “still there.” This interruption appears to be designed to prevent merely passive reception caused by fatigue, boredom or physical absence. This serves to re-engage the audience, to exert a slight but noticeable degree of control over the viewer: Netflix seemingly idealizes a responsive and dutiful fan audience (Tryon, 2015, 112) that is supposed to grasp every minute of a series with utmost attention. Overall, Netflix’s treatment of content as well as its UI design point towards the idealization of a loyal and continuously engaged spectator, but also an immoderate one, always in search of another series to power through as quickly as possible.8 By offering a vast portfolio and ensuring an (almost) uninterrupted stream of content, Netflix attempts to serialize the reception and enforce the trend of “media-bingeing.” Meanwhile, the concept of casual television audiences is lost on Netflix’s original series. As the service relies on a steady pool of subscribers, there is simply no need for individual episodes to attract new spectators on a weekly basis. Netflix may be open to a variety individual viewing habits. Then again, as previously discussed, both Netflix’s business model and the characteristic presentation of serial content strongly suggest an understanding of viewership that does not include fluctuating audiences. The very feature that once defined TV I and still widely characterizes TV II has been largely abandoned by TV III and TV IV.
Conclusion: Netflix, TV IV, and the Contemporary Television Landscape As outlined in this chapter, Netflix weaves together television series, streaming technology, and the mode of binge-watching. The platform thus conceptualizes internet-distributed television as an experience increasingly detached from “TV as we knew it,” defined by periodicity, accessibility, and inclusiveness–linear programming features both TV I and TV II heavily relied on. Despite forcing the audience to adhere to a fixed schedule, broadcast television offered easy access to serial content–in terms of distribution, technology, and narrative. After TV III abandoned two of linear TV’s characteristics— with subscription channels maintaining the periodic schedule while aiming at an exclusive audience—TV IV now rids itself of even this last feature of “traditional television.”
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Not only does the loss of periodicity signify a change in transmission technologies and distribution strategies. Streaming platforms, most notably Netflix, altogether dislodge TV series from a vertical broadcast schedule targeted towards an anonymous mass audience. Instead, they rearrange serial content on a horizontal, web-based menu designed to cater to individual tastes. As a new “era,” or more preferably: as a new cultural conception of television, TV IV is not solely defined by technological and industrial shifts, but also by how these shifts reshape our perception of seriality and television audiences as a whole. TV series have evolved from avoiding the status of “regular TV” (TV III) into avoiding the status of “television” altogether (TV IV). It comes as no surprise, then, that the epistemological status of the TV series seems to be in jeopardy. The uncertainty of whether or not audiovisual series—especially streaming originals—can accurately be defined as television is aggravated by the overall plurality of the medium itself. Today, there exists not just one television—but instead several “televisions” all differing from one another in technology, dispositif, content, and (self-) presentation. We live in an era where serial content is gradually shifting from linear TV to non-linear distribution. As a result, TV II, III and IV neither chronologically follow, nor have they replaced each other. Rather, these concepts coexist and contrast one another in terms of production, distribution, and audience appeal, thereby shaping a global, highly heterogeneous television landscape. TV IV, in particular, defined by non-linearity and individualization, leads to a different understanding of seriality. Contemporary series, with Netflix originals at the forefront, are intended to be watched continuously from beginning to end. TV shows (and web series, most of all) have abandoned the ideal of being occasionally and casually tuned in to. With the rise of on-demand and subscription platforms, series have become distinct commodities requiring deliberate and continuous engagement. It would, of course, be an exaggeration to claim that TV shows accessible to fluctuating audiences and thus aligned with the traditional television concept (TV II) were becoming extinct. There is, however, a growing gap between traditional television series broadcast to a mass audience, and “new” straight-to-web series consumed by individual recipients. Watching a network show during its original run—including advertising breaks and other side phenomena—differs drastically from bingeing an entire season on Netflix, with programming links and intermissions reduced to a bare minimum. In conclusion, then, Netflix’s business model and its idealization of the ever-engaged viewer indicate a loss of common ground among the different concepts of television and television series.
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Notes 1. For example, Germany-based fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones if wanting to watch the series right after its original broadcast have to either buy into a package deal with pay-TV supplier Sky or purchase the whole season digitally for DVD pricing on Amazon. 2. For a recent conceptualization of TV IV and Netflix’s role within the processes of this new era, see Jenner, 2018. 3. For further exploration of TVI to III see Pearson 2011 among others. 4. Netflix currently has 109.25 million subscribers worldwide (Q3, 2017), see statista. 5. The countdown is 15 seconds long when Netflix is accessed via an internet browser, but amounts to 20 seconds when it is an app integrated in a Smart TV set or made available by an external TV stick. 6. This option is only included if Netflix is accessed on a computer via browser. 7. Users are always free to exit the current episode, but that very option is not explicitly pointed out by the interface. Instead it has to be self-motivated and actively chosen. 8. This approach might be strongly motivated by Netflix’ exuberant supply structure. With encouraging binge-watching and thus possibly shortening the amount of time spent with the reception of one series, Netflix ensures that users make time for even more of its original content.
References Alexander, N. (2016). Catered to your future self: Netflix’s “predictive personalization” and the mathematization of taste. In K. McDonald & D. Smith-Rowsey (Eds.), The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st Century (pp. 81–100). New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic. Bleicher, J. (2004). Programmverbindungen als Paratexte des Fernsehens. In K. Kreimeier, G. Stanitzek, & N. Binczek (Eds.), Paratexte in Literatur, Film, Fernsehen (pp. 245–260). Berlin: Akad.-Verl. Devasagayam, R. (2014). Media bingeing: A qualitative study of psychological influences. In D. DeLong, D. Edmiston, & R. Hightower Jr. (Eds.), Once Retro now Novel again: 2014 Annual Spring Conference (pp. 40–44). Chicago, IL: Marketing Management Association. Feuer, J. (2010). HBO and the concept of quality TV. In J. McCabe & K. Akass (Eds.), Quality TV: Contemporary American television and beyond (pp. 145–157). Reprint. London: Tauris. Hills, M. (2007). From the box in the corner to the box set on the shelf: “TV III” and the cultural/textual valorisations of DVD. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 5(1), 41–60. doi: 10.1080/17400300601140167 Holloway, D. (2017, June 10). Netflix’s Ted Sarandos talks “Sense8,” “The Get Down” Cancellations. Variety. Retrieved from http://variety.com/2017/tv/news/netflixs-ted-sarandos1202461684/ Jacobs, J. (2011). Television, interrupted: Pollution or aesthetic? In J. Bennett & N. Strange (Eds.), Television as digital media (pp. 255–282). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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Jansen, J. (2017, October 23). Streamingdienst: So analysiert Netflix seine Nutzer. Retrieved from http://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/unternehmen/netflix-so-analysiert-der-dienstseine-nutzer-15259930.html?printPagedArticle=true Jenner, M. (2015). Binge-watching. Video-on-demand, quality TV and mainstreaming fandom. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(5), 1–17. doi: 10.1177/1367877915606485 Jenner, M. (2016). Is this TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and binge-watching. New Media & Society, 18(2), 257–273. doi: 10.1177/1461444814541523 Jenner, M. (2018). Netflix and the re-invention of television. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. Lindsey, C. (2016). Questioning Netflix’s revolutionary impact: Changes in the business and consumption of television. In K. McDonald & D. Smith-Rowsey (Eds.), The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st century (pp. 173–184). New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic. Lotz, A. D. (2007). If It’s Not TV, What Is It? The Case of U.S. Subscription Television. In S. Banet-Weiser, C. Chris, & A. Freitas (Eds.), Cable visions: Television beyond broadcasting (pp. 85–102). New York, NY: New York University Press. Lotz, A. D. (2016). The paradigmatic evolution of U.S. television and the emergence of internet-distributed television. Icono, 14(2), 122–142. Retrieved from https://dialnet.unirioja. es/descarga/articulo/5615373.pdf Lotz, A. D. (2017). Portals: A treatise on internet-distributed television. Michigan: University of Michigan Library. Retrieved from https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/maize/mpub9699689 Nelson, R. (1997). TV drama in transition: Forms, values and cultural change. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Number of Netflix streaming subscribers worldwide from 3rd quarter 2011 to 3rd quarter 2017 (in millions). (2017, October). Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/ statistics/250934/quarterly-number-of-netflix-streaming-subscribers-worldwide/ Pearson, R. (2011). Cult television as digital television’s cutting edge. In J. Bennett & N. Strange (Eds.), Television as digital media (pp. 105–131). Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Rogers, M. C., Epstein, M., & Reeves, J. L. (2002). The Sopranos as HBO brand equity. The art of commerce in the age of digital reproduction. In D. Lavery (Ed.), This thing of ours: Investigating the Sopranos (pp. 42–57). New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Snider, Z. (2016). The cognitive psychological effects of binge-watching. In K. McDonald & D. Smith-Rowsey (Eds.), The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st Century (pp. 81–100). New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic. Thompson, R. J. (1996). Television’s second golden age: From Hill Street Blues to ER. New York, NY: Continuum. Tryon, C. (2015). TV got better: Netflix’s original programming strategies and the on-demand television transition. Media Industries, 2(2), 104–116. Williams, R. (2003). Television: Technology and cultural form. (2nd ed.,/with a new preface by Roger Silverstone). London: Routledge.
·2· netflix , imagined affordances , and the illusion of control Annette Markham, Simona Stavrova, and Max Schlüter
Introduction In our everyday interactions with technology, we are often told that we are “in control.” For example, Twitter’s TOS (Terms of Service) assure us we can control the distribution of our content through our account settings. Facebook’s FAQs likewise explain how we can easily control the content we see in News Feed by adjusting our preferences. In both examples, “control” as a term connotes actual as well as perceived agency, which can be exercised in relation to these platforms through application settings, choices, and actions available to us. However, the outcomes of these actions are influenced by many other mediating factors. At the surface, the distance between perceived and actual agency might tell us something about how platforms such as Netflix obscure or make invisible the actual decisions being made on behalf of users. Moving to a deeper level of analysis, we can explore what critical organizational theorists Deetz (1992) and Mumby (1988) would call “deep structures” of meaning, where various threads from the software, machine learning, and stakeholder decisions weave patterns that build and reify particular meanings around the agential interaction between user and interface in ways that are not easily (if at all) untangled.
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The purpose of this chapter is to explore the infrastructure and affordances of the Netflix platform through the lens of control. As a case study, it helps us build a strong argument for the importance of operationalizing the concept of control when using it as a term to describe or explain the relationship between micro elements of technical systems or between users and digital media platforms. We argue that focusing directly on and using the lens of control can enhance the way we make sense of complex interaction processes between multiple actors, both human and nonhuman.
Problematizing the Concept of Control Control is a consistent theme in conversations around digital media use, yet attempts to clarify how the concept is being used will often fail, since it is used in competing, paradoxical ways. Like most concepts, the term “control” itself is ambiguous, referring to various aspects of social and lived experience. It can be a noun, verb, object, subject, state of being, feeling, and so forth. It can work at the individual level (self-control) or the social/institutional level (social control, power). It is both process and product, and as Markham (2013) argues, tautological.1 The very ambiguity of the concept of control can function powerfully to give a sense of common understanding when in fact, control is never experienced or understood in the same way by different actors in different contexts.2 For example, we can think of control as a power we possess. In the broadest sense, control can be conceptualized as “realized contingency between behavior and event” (Heckhausen, 2001, p. 2719). To put it differently, control represents the extent to which we feel our actions can lead to expected results. Such a perspective makes it easy to position control as a binary construct, as something we either possess or we don’t. If our actions lead to expected results, we have control, and vice versa. This conceptualization can also assume that we have knowledge of this binary; that we are aware of the things we have control over, while at the same time know our limitations and therefore can name the things that are beyond our control. We can also think of control as a state of being, akin to a condition of relative balance or a state of knowing. This is often represented by the phrase “being in control.” Whether we feel “in control” or not may be a condition determined by our interpretation of the mechanics of a particular situation and by our perception about our abilities to perform behaviors that lead to
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a desired outcome or prevent an undesired one. Our sense of control is then essentially a belief about our role in relation to the external environment. To feel in control, we have to perceive this environment as structured in a particular manner and as responsive to our actions (for a good review of this, see Skinner, 1996). We believe the concept of control is a useful tool for analyzing platforms. For the present analysis of Netflix, we begin with the presumption that the concept of control influences our perceptions of the socio-technical relation. We use the concept itself as a sensemaking device to gain insight into some of the complexities of digital contexts. Is control enacted through the conditioning of behavior? Or does it represent our mastery over technology? Are we experiencing control as an unproblematic notion or as a contested, negotiated state? Simply by asking “what does control mean in this context,” we open the door to explorations of agency, power, identity, and much more. Using a series of user journeys through the interface, we recorded and critically analyzed each moment of the Netflix experience. Prompts centered attention on expressions or questions of control (i.e., who is in control at a particular moment?; how does control work?; what work does control do?). Although these questions don’t have easy or straightforward answers, they encouraged us to explore and problematize many issues of control, showcasing the paradoxical and contested nature of this concept.3 Rather than trying to clarify the concept of control, we embrace the contradictory uses and operationalize it iteratively. Over the course of the analysis, then, we end up foregrounding different aspects of the infrastructural, relational, and influential elements of the overall sociotechnical Netflix experience. In what follows, we focus below on three complexities: First, the user experience of the Netflix interface is embedded in a narrative that the viewer has agency and controls the Netflix experience through their choices. This is apparent in the rhetoric of Netflix itself as a company and is reinforced through the platform parameters and the socially constructed tacit understandings about how the platform works (or should or might work). Second, the Netflix platform functions both directly and indirectly to condition users toward certain behaviors and attitudes. Directly, Netflix’s corporate strategies promote their own original content and limit content based on marketing agreements and region-specific regulations. Indirectly, elements of the Netflix interface design invite certain uses, such as auto-play, an affordance that encourages binge-viewing. Third, the incomprehensibility of the recommendation algorithm creates an always-unsteady state of being, whereby viewers are never
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quite sure if they have control or not. This incomprehensibility functions as an imagined affordance. We conclude that these three complexities reveal a tangled distribution of control among various actors in different moments, which we interpret from a critical organizational theory perspective.
Control as Choice: The Netflix Narrative of Individual Agency and Power At first glance, it seems easy to claim that control on Netflix is situated with the individual user. A narrative of control as freedom of choice begins the moment a user creates an account, when they are given the ability to choose up to three movies or shows they “like” in order to help Netflix “find TV programmes & films you’ll love!” (Netflix, 2016a). The choice extends to the ability for the user to simply skip this step. This narrative of choice is reinforced continuously as one interacts with the interface. After all, the platform gives us the ability to watch what we want to, when we want to, however many times we want to, without any interruptions, yielding continuous viewing practices that Matrix (2014) termed “The Netflix Effect.” On the front page of a brand-new account alone, we are faced with thirty-nine rows with forty movies per row, each representing a category or subcategory. Myriad other options are available through the search feature. This seemingly endless and constantly updating array of content stands in contrast to the rather disappointing choices presented by our national television providers outside of the prime-time bracket. Additionally, this content can be experienced at any pace—from spending countless hours binge-watching our favorite show to watching a movie just a little at a time— although the latter pace is not what we associate with Netflix, which is optimized for binge-viewing. From a traditional broadcast media standpoint, the configuration of limitless choice is an expression of incredible user empowerment, specified through one’s individual control of these choices. This is neither a new practice nor exclusive to Netflix, as it “builds on models of individualized viewing practices and self-scheduling of TV” (Jenner, 2016, p. 267). The power to “schedule programming” (and with it our routines or other practices) is shifted away from centralized media owners and substituted with a freedom to choose what to watch on-demand. This brings control to the users who no longer have to conform to external standards and can enjoy a personalized experience,
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adapted to their own unique viewing style. This is similar to the affordances of DVDs or recording hardware (i.e. devices like TiVo), which allowed users to circumvent the constraints of scheduled programming (Jacobs, 2011; Jenner, 2016). Netflix capitalized early on this idea. Initially (from 1997), they offered users unlimited DVDs for a monthly subscription and later (from 2007) offered unlimited streaming as part of this subscription. Though certainly not the first to offer streaming, Netflix is widely perceived as the revolutionary service that disrupted the established status quo. Alongside the freedom of choice associated with unlimited streaming, the recommendation system plays a strong role in personalizing the experience. These algorithms are not only built from information about what the user has watched previously (and rated highly), using the premise that if multiple people like the same content, they’re likely to have other favorites in common, but also from myriad “traces of interactions recorded in activity logs” (Seaver, 2018, p.10). Even if algorithmically determined and not based purely on a single user’s choices, the appearance of likable suggestions lends to the belief that one’s own viewing habits and ratings of content over time yield the most relevant, or preferred, choices for future viewing. This idea of choice is central to the experience of Netflix as a service. It also seems fairly unproblematic (unlike, for instance, control on Facebook, which is mediated by a number of factors and further complicated by the interaction with other users), as it works well—for the most part, unless there is a technical breakdown—in allowing us to tailor our experience to our preferences. However, this narrative can be easily disrupted when we scratch even a bit beneath the surface.
Control as a Mechanism: The On/Off Switch of Netflix Limiting Content Although Netflix seems to allow us to control what and how we watch, the one thing we have very limited power over is the underlying availability of content. One reason is that the Netflix company limits content in various direct and indirect ways. Their direct pre-selection of content is made with a specific purpose in mind (to keep people engaged, subscribed, and watching) and is contingent on partnerships with content owners and distributors, licensing agreements, as well as on Netflix’ natural privileging of their own
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content production, which has grown significantly in recent years. Netflix’s overt limitation of content is realized most obviously when the user encounters local restrictions—i.e. when some shows are available on the American but not the Danish version of Netflix, or vice versa. Netflix has thus far played the role of intermediary, rather than a mediator, especially if users are not satisfied with the selection available in their country. They emphasize they are not a library but a curator of content (Obenson, 2013). Netflix shifts accountability, perhaps justifiably, to content owners and distributors who have not made their content available to everyone. Although Netflix might not be the originator of some of these limitations, as a delivery platform, it must comply with and enforce extant restrictions, for various political, legal, and economic reasons we don’t discuss here. Netflix’s crackdown on the use of VPN and proxy use, starting in late 2015, is an interesting illustration of how it, as both a company and an interface/platform, walks the line between exerting control over content and functioning passively as a (neutral) conduit (intermediary) for content. Previous to 2015, users unsatisfied with content available in the geographic region of their IP address could use VPN or proxy services to mask their own IP, replacing it with an IP address in a country where their desired content was available. Netflix put a system in place that disallowed this practice of “virtually crossing borders” (Oliveira, 2015). The logic behind this restriction is clear—to avoid lawsuits for distributing content in countries where it is not licensed, and to remain in good standing with media conglomerates who are concerned about copyright, piracy, and licensing agreements. However, it also seems clear that this VPN restriction is not strictly enforced. In many ways enforcement of VPN restrictions would be counterproductive to the narrative of choice Netflix begins to build from the moment a person launches a new subscription account—the narrative that emphasizes that users should not merely be satisfied with the available content, whatever that might be, but should enact their choice about content by providing information to help make the recommendation system more accurate (by rating content through the 5-star system in early versions, or by the binary like/dislike response system instituted in 2015). This narrative insists that the user’s control includes a great deal of freedom of choice about what can be watched. By using a VPN, users are arguably enacting a strategy to regain some of the control over their consumption. Netflix ostensibly restricts VPN access, yet there are still some cracks in the system and VPN access to Netflix is still an option. This loophole, deliberate or not, enables Netflix to
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retain its role as a neutral intermediary, placing responsibility on the shoulders of the user to decide whether to use a VPN or not. It also preserves and maintains the narrative of Netflix as the provider of (limitless, or regardless of location restrictions) choice.
Control as Persuasion: Netflix and “Soft Conditioning” Much less directly, Netflix conditions the user’s behavior through the design and or functioning of the platform’s interface. The idea of “soft conditioning” can be traced back to Deleuze’s (1992) notion of control societies and their dependence on modulations for regulation of behavior. Similar ideas are expressed by Nikolas Rose (1999) who suggests that “government at a distance” is dependent on disciplined freedoms and individual self-regulatory practices. Rather than being told what to do, individuals are steered toward “appropriate” behavior by the systems they interact with. One way to illustrate this phenomenon is through Deleuze’s (1998) metaphor of the highway as a control mechanism or a control technology. The highway enables a person to experience freedom while simultaneously restricting the choices one can make. A somewhat different approach is taken by Galloway, who describes protocols as “conventional rules that govern the set of possible behavior patterns within a heterogeneous system” (2004, p. 7). Protocols may reflect a number of possibilities but will also signal preferred choices, thus functioning as “the etiquette for autonomous agents” (p. 75). One is always free to make a choice, but is gently steered toward a narrow range of pre-built possibilities. An obvious example of this soft conditioning of conduct is Netflix’ default Autoplay setting. As soon as an episode of a TV show is completed, if Autoplay is on, Netflix continues by playing the next one in a few seconds. The option to opt out of this default is buried in the subscriber’s account settings. We can also manually intervene to stop an episode from playing. But the default autoplay still functions as a protocol to teach us what the preferred path might be (i.e., to continue watching). Over time, this has the potential to influence our viewing habits. And it likely has. A recent study by Netflix (2016) revealed that the average user finishes an entire season within a week. An essential component of this soft conditioning is adaptation: that the individual adapts to the system parameters or defaults. Paradoxically, the user may feel empowered even as possibilities are constrained. This controlled autonomy impacts behavior by conditioning its potential (Cheney-Lippold, 2011) rather than removing the possibility of choice (i.e. confinement or
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discipline (Foucault, 1977). There is a gentle conditioning that occurs by the narrowing of possibilities, which ensures the “proper” or “adequate” functioning of the system of protocols (Galloway, 2004) and defaults (van Dijck, 2013). The lens of control as persuasion is useful in focusing attention on the relationship between the user and the system. It highlights how users are trained or disciplined (in the Foucauldian sense), rather than invited to take particular actions, which would be the focus if analyzing the platform through the lens of, for example, affordance theory. In other words, in the case of autoplay, the notion of control helps us see (as an intermediary concept) how the default setting is a control mechanism, steering both our immediate response (continue watching) and long-term attitude/belief about watching media content (we have always watched series one after the other continuously).
Control as a State of Being: Incomprehensibility of the Algorithms and Imagined Affordances Many (most?) Netflix users are well aware by now that algorithms are used to deliver customized content on various digital platforms. But it remains very unclear for users exactly how algorithms filter, curate, guide, steer, or otherwise shape and delimit our experiences on these platforms. The algorithmic process, hidden from the surface of the interface, creates an understanding of the relationship between action (of the user) and response (by the system) that seems causal but is actually incomprehensible for the user. We discuss this incomprehensibility as contributing to a paradoxical feeling of being in control and not being in control. We walk through this argument below: Algorithms are used across most platforms “to select what is most relevant from a corpus of data composed of traces of our activities, preferences, and expressions” (Gillespie, 2014, p. 168). Algorithms become powerful actors in the situation when they shift from identifying to creating relevance (c.f., Langlois, 2013). By sorting inputs into “relevant” outputs, algorithms “have the capacity to shape social and cultural formations and impact directly on individual lives” (Beer, 2009, p. 994).
The algorithm itself is a powerful agent, but in addition, the obscurity of the algorithm and its processes creates what Nagy and Neff (2015) call an imagined affordance. We can see this more clearly when we distinguish the actual from the imagined affordances of the interface. For example, the visible elements of the interface like “play” buttons or highlighted texts invite the
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user to take certain actions in a fairly direct manner. Norman (1988) would call these “technical affordances,” which give the user clear direction about what to do just by looking at the item on the screen. There are other, less visible affordances that construct a particular relation between the user and Netflix. An imagined affordance is one that “emerges between users’ perceptions, attitudes, and expectations; between the materiality and functionality of technologies; and between the intentions and perceptions of designers” (Nagy & Neff, 2015, p. 1). As a user engages with the Netflix interface, they experience the company’s rhetorical pitch that one’s viewing habits will influence what future content appears on the site. Alongside this narrative of choice, the recommendation algorithms serve up some relevant content, maybe even mostly relevant content. This recommendation algorithm seems to work fairly well, as many of us have experienced when we use Netflix. But when we see irrelevant content, we might wonder if this means the algorithm is not working or that we need to work harder to instruct the algorithm about our preferences. Such “gaming” of the system is a regular practice among Netflix aficionados. This is an apt illustration of Nagy and Neff’s notion of imagined affordances, which enables a more complex understanding of the relationship between the user and the interface: “Simply locating the action possibilities of a social media platform in a set of features will not do because users’ perceptions, beliefs, and expectations of what the technology does or what the platform suggests it is for ‘shape how they approach them and what actions they think are suggested’” (Bucher & Helmond, 2018, p. 14, referencing Nagy & Neff, 2015, p. 5). The recommendation algorithm, and our expectation of how it might work, impacts how we respond to it immediately as well as how our decisionmaking is guided in future interface interactions. A continuous dialogic interaction occurs between user and algorithm, users and other users. These interactions are accompanied by the obscure, ongoing inner workings of the interface. All together, these co-construct an imagined consensus of how it all works. The resulting “imagined affordances” can function, paradoxically, to give the user a feeling of being in control and understanding the rules, even though we are far from it. In our own analysis of Netflix, we contend that the obscurity—or more precisely, the incomprehensibility of the algorithm plays a strong role in how the user perceives their own control in the interaction between themselves and the interface. This combines with the rhetoric of choice presented by
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Netflix itself. In other words, even as the user might be learning that the recommendation algorithm is operating in confusing ways that may not yield preferred content, the user is also led to believe that the algorithm is accurate, when Netflix presents content unproblematically, using deceptively straightforward headings such as “Top Picks for You,” or “Because you watched …” This is akin to Gillespie’s recent notion (2018) that the invisibility of the algorithmic process can lead users to believe that when they search for something, they’re finding everything that’s available (p. 186). Of course, Netflix does not yield all available results. As with all search engines, results are highly filtered and not in any way universal. The misperception can play out in the opposite way also, as Gillespie (2018) notes, by “searching for something and getting nothing” (p. 182). Taking the example of Tumblr, Gillespie focuses on how the algorithm blocks “NSFW” or “adult” blogs content from its search results, regardless of whether the particular post itself or the search inquiry is explicit (p. 174). Consequently, certain content remains unfindable through the search function, even if the user is specifically following “NSFW” or “adult” blogs, and even if the user is searching by certain hashtags that are well known and used in these communities. The algorithmic process creates the illusion that certain content (or combination of content e.g. gay and porn) simply does not exist. In both of these scenarios—“searching for something and getting nothing” and “searching for something and seeing everything”—we can see how both the actual and imagined interactions between the user and the algorithm(s) will influence how the user responds in the immediate and in future interactions. This generates a feedback loop that generates the system itself, as Bucher (2017) and Bucher and Helmond (2018) note. This is made more problematic when we add Netflix the corporation back into the mix, with their soft conditioning toward certain, versus all, content. This is an important arena to critically examine, not only (or maybe not even primarily) because the algorithm is, like other features of the interface, encouraging us to view Netflix-specific content. We would expect that. It is important because the incomprehensibility of the algorithm creates an imagined affordance. The problem is that the user is kept in a steady state of confusion whereby, for example the list of choices we see are presented as if they are the most popular or the trending movies or programs, when they are actually a personalized, curated list for individual users. Netflix is not simply an intermediary, but a curator hiding behind the perceived neutrality of the imagined affordance of the recommendation algorithm.
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The Impact of the Netflix Interface How the algorithm works is less important than the overall question, “what work does the algorithm do?” The algorithm certainly shapes trends and influence behaviors. It can “tell” us something about ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, the interface functions to reinforce certain values and political interests over others. The platform does this all under the guise of being a neutral, all-inclusive conduit for content that the user controls directly through their own choices and indirectly through the help of the recommendation algorithm. This exerts powerful control over the user as well as larger understandings of or meanings around the sociotechnical situation, as we elaborate below. What has been called “algorithmic identity” is a crucial element of the Netflix experience, as our “self” on the platform is constantly produced and reproduced based on our behavior and interactions with it. This claim is informed by a growing body of literature that acknowledges the role of algorithms in producing certain versions of our identities online. Cheney-Lippold (2011), for instance, claims that “categories of identity are being inferred upon individuals based on their web use” (p. 165). Similarly, Markham (2013) argues that “algorithms co-construct identity and relational meaning in contemporary use of social media” (p. 1). We see—and build—a version of ourselves reflected in the platforms we use, based on the content we are exposed to. A recent study by Bucher (2017) highlights this, by citing a participant who, after seeing multiple ads for pregnancy-related apps and dating sites, noted that “Facebook seems to think that she is ‘pregnant, single, broke and should lose weight’” (p. 5). When we look at the Netflix interface, we don’t see this immediately, but over time and routine use, the algorithmic identity begins to emerge in and with the other agential elements of the infrastructure. To begin with, there is no profile page to refer to, at least not in the “typical” (i.e., social network) sense. Instead, users can set up a small profile to tell Netflix “who’s watching?” Here, one can select an avatar, a preferred language, and a “maturity level.” There is also an account page, which configures some aspects of the experience (i.e., membership and payment, account privileges, viewing quality, subtitle style, etc.). Beyond that, where can we find ourselves on Netflix? Because of the high level of personalization, our profile on Netflix can be thought of as mirrored in our landing page, as its display of content begins to reflect our tastes over
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time. This is similar to our Twitter feeds, which feature topics we are likely to be interested in, thus reaffirming a particular rather than generic sense of self. Our interests, preferences, and guilty pleasures are all reflected back to us in the algorithmically-generated lists that appear on our Netflix home page. This is the case for any kind of personalized, algorithm-based service, which adapts to our preferences over time (such as Spotify or Apple Music, for instance). In any case, there are roughly about forty rows on each person’s Netflix homepage, sorted into various categories, based on genre, previous interactions, etc. The number of rows is less important than how their headings function ideologically, beyond the seemingly neutral descriptions of what each row is about. This classification, like every classification if we borrow from Bowker and Star’s (1999) analysis, helps us order, structure, and make sense of the world around us, including ourselves. In the case of Netflix classifications, the choices behind these headings are deliberate, strategically producing a certain version of the world, situated in a particular context. In that sense, every classification promotes one point of view, while potentially silencing alternatives. For example, Netflix labels particular content (and the people who are likely to consume it) in specific ways. It presents personalized cover images of content to users. And categorization matters. Are you a person who enjoys “Romantic Favorites” or “Binge-worthy Colombian TV Soaps” or TV Shows Featuring a Strong Female Lead”? These are some of Netflix’ so-called niche categories, which work to reinforce certain ideas about who we are, based on the content we watch or enjoy. The complexity of these categories is astonishing. They are often incredibly detailed, almost bespoke. Because they continuously increase in complexity. A 2014 study by Alexis Madrigal4 revealed that there are 76,897 unique categories Netflix uses to describe types of content. With the continuous addition of new content and the ever-increasing amount of user data available, this number is likely higher now. The increasing precision of this categories leads to an effect similar to what Pariser (2012) describes as the “filter bubble.” Our Netflix interface becomes so saturated with content which is (very) similar to what we’ve previously encountered, that over time we experience new or diverse options less and less. Seaver (2018, p.11) has described this as an industry-wide shift toward “captological” recommendation algorithms, which seek to persuasively “hook” users, conflating user retention with user satisfaction. Although we are seemingly confronted with endless choices, the increasingly precise filtering boxes us into the already familiar (O’Gallagher, 2016),
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reaffirming our existing ideas about who we are and about what content is worthy of our attention. One need not look far in Twitter, Facebook, or internet memes to find people reflecting on what’s happening to their understanding of themselves based on what Netflix is feeding them, with comments such as: “Hotel Transylvania is my top Netflix pick! I hope the algorithm is messed up and that doesn’t actually reflect my taste.”, “*Looking through Top Picks for Me on Netflix* Really? Is this what you think of me?” These categorizations also tend to fade into the background, becoming an unquestioned part of the infrastructure (Star, 1999). This invisibility allows them to exert significant power over their users. As critical organizational theorist Mumby (1988) argues in his work on power and discourse, “deep structure” power mediates the relation between agency and structure, building ideologies between the surface level and the infrastructural levels. At the surface, we simply choose something to watch on Netflix. At some level, we know what’s going on: Perhaps we think about how Netflix is showing us only certain content and maybe we’re alternately frustrated or happy at the absence or accuracy of relevant content. At the deep levels of the infrastructure, our experience is being organized, over and over again, reinforcing particular ways of “doing” things, like watching Netflix. The algorithmic recommendation system combines with the designed structure of the interface and although we can influence this to a degree, we neither fully understand how it works nor believe we can ever understand it. Gillespie (2018) adds to this the idea that “when the design features are used to moderate, human judgment is transformed into a highly codified value system that’s built into the structure of the platform itself, materialized, automatically imposed, in many ways rendered invisible to the user, and thereby harder to call into question” (Gillespie, 2018, p. 179). Inspired by Deetz’s articulation of “discursive closure” (1992), we can draw out the implications of what this means, in the sociotechnical sense. The interface functions to naturalize and neutralize our perception of the world as is. The logic of Netflix, including the obvious inequality in exposure of content, seem natural to us now, which we dismiss with a shrug or a phrase like, “that’s just the way it is.” The practice we have come to expect is a value laden practice, influencing our everyday understanding of the world we live in. This critique could be leveled at most digital platforms that serve us what we have been trained to think we need through multitudes of incomprehensible algorithms and deliberately designed interfaces. And it’s an important
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critique: As custodians of the internet (Gillespie, 2018), these platforms function as mediators of our understandings of ourselves. Everyday routine is where the fictional concept of structure manifests itself into something tangible with visible consequences (Deetz, pp. 316–317, also cf Giddens, 1984). In this case study, we can see how our own choices, the algorithm, and the interface together nurture a certain routine that we take for granted, thus creating a new normal way to interact with media and each other. Over time, choices become habit, and as Deetz would say, “routines survive the conditions of their production” (1992, p. 317). The strength of the surface to hide this infrastructure is what Antonio Gramsci warns against in his discussions of hegemony, whereby our inability to identify the deep structure ideologies means we are controlled through consent. Hence, the importance of continued critical analysis such as this, to try to break through the surface to see various forms and complications of control within the infrastructure.
Conclusion Netflix begins its user journey with the idea that the platform yields content based on how the user interacts with the system. If the user selects their preferences, the system will use its special recommendation algorithm to display only the content that the user desires. This suggests, quite strongly, that the user is the agent in control—an admittedly naive idea that breaks down once the active role of platform owners and other stakeholders in delimiting the experience is highlighted. Control becomes an even more contested notion when the obscurity of the algorithm functions as an affordance, helping the user imagine, over time, how their relationship with the interface is working and whether this is an effective/happy relationship or not. The confusion about whether or not one controls the interface is not surprising, as there’s no clear cause-effect sequence that the user can follow to dictate the outcome of the interaction. The relationship between the user and the Netflix interface is not only confusing, but also powerful, in that the feedback loops (Bucher, 2017) build a protocol for interacting. This protocol paves the way, through soft conditioning and also deep structure power, toward an algorithmically influenced identity among Netflix users, whereby the interface informs the user how they should respond, what they should prefer, and over time, how they think of themselves. Thus, Netflix is not simply a mediator of the experience on its platform, but a mediator of the representation (or experience)
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of the self. We clarify how we believe these different agencies are situated in Figure 2.1 below.
Figure 2.1. Three forms of control contributing to the expected affordances of Netflix.
Our analysis highlights how control on Netflix is never situated within a single entity. Instead, it is distributed between various actors in different moments. Control is also not unidirectional, but continuously reproduced in the process of interaction between the different human and nonhuman entities on Netflix. Users are simultaneously empowered and conditioned by the platform and its affordances. Owners are in a position of power, but their revenue is dependent on the active participation of users and the accurate anticipation and regulation of their behavior. Algorithms have the power to condition possibilities and reproduce identities but require inputs and configurations to work properly. Thus, control can be seen as a negotiated product of the interaction process, which is why it is often experienced in contradictory ways by various actors in different moments. At the same time, we agree with contemporary critical organizational theorists that through routine use of Netflix, deep ideological structures are reinforced and maintained. These ideologies, far from neutral, privilege the interest of particular stakeholders over others, promote particular views about what is valuable or valued content. In
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closing, we believe that exploring Netflix through the lens of control is a strong method for continuing past the now typical stopping point of saying infrastructures are entangled. It is a particular thread in the tangle we can pull on, to examine what’s going on, rhetorically or ideologically, within or because of the routines.
Notes 1. Actually, this paragraph is a bit of a simplification for purposes of not completely overwhelming the reader. In a 2016 comprehensive review and textual analysis of the term’s use in scholarship around digital technologies over the past twenty years, Simona Stavrova found that control can be thought of as an object, a spectrum, a myth, a force, a negotiated condition, a state of being, a balance. Control can be expressed independently or through a comparison or combination with other concepts, such as automation, choice, freedom, etc. Control can be articulated in absolute terms or within a range of possible meanings. Control can be paradoxical and tautological. Control can function as a stand-in for other terms. 2. This statement draws on organizational culture scholar Eric Eisenberg’s work on how corporate logos, mission statements or other rhetorical can function to create a vague but cohesive sense of shared understanding through what he labels “strategic ambiguity” (Eisenberg, 1984). 3. This analysis of Netflix emerged at the end of a broad meta-analysis of how the concept of control has been used in scientific studies as well as popular writing about digital technology since the mid 1980s. From this review of literature, we know the term control is both common and, for the most part, presumed to be understood already rather than defined or clearly operationalized by scholars and writers. This study is part of a larger project to better explicate this concept as a central feature and illusion within sociotechnical infrastructures (cf Markham, 2014; Stavrova, 2016). 4. Madrigal (2014) scraped Netflix category data to analyze the platform’s vocabulary and categorizations and even uncovered a formula for how these complex categories are generated: “Region + Adjectives + Noun Genre + Based On … + Set In … + From the … + About … + For Age X to Y” (para. 33). This is the recipe behind categories like “Violent Suspenseful Action & Adventure from the 1980s” or “Critically-acclaimed Crime Movies based on Books.”
References Beer, D. (2009). Power through the algorithm? Participatory web cultures and the technological unconscious. New Media & Society, 11(6), 985–1002. Bowker, G., & Star, S. (1999). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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Bucher, T., & Helmond, A. (2018). The affordances of social media platforms. In J. Burgess, A. Marwick, & T. Poell (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of social media (pp. 233–253). London: Sage Publications. Bucher, T. (2017). The algorithmic imaginary: Exploring the ordinary affects of Facebook algorithms. Information, Communication & Society, 20(1), 30–44. doi: 10.1080/1369118X. 2016.1154086 Cheney-Lippold, J. (2011). A new algorithmic identity: Soft biopolitics and the modulation of control. Theory, Culture & Society, 28(6), 164–181. Deetz, S. (1992). Democracy in an age of corporate colonization: Developments in communication and the politics of everyday life. New York, NY: State University of New York Press. Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the societies of control. October, 59, 3–7. Deleuze, G. (1998). Essays critical and clinical. London: Verso. Eisenberg, E. M. (1984). Ambiguity as strategy in organizational communication.Communication Monographs, 51(3), 227–242. Feldman, D. (2017, October 16). Netflix Is on Track To Exceed $11B In Revenue This Year. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/danafeldman/2017/10/16/netflix-is-on-trackto-exceed-11b-in-revenue-this-year/#ad8aa9e65dd2 Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. Galloway, A. (2004). Protocol: How control exists after decentralization. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Gillespie, T. (2014). The relevance of algorithms. In T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, & K. Foot (Eds.), Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and society (pp. 167–194). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Gillespie, T. (2016). Algorithms. In B. Peters (Ed.), Digital keywords: A vocabulary of information society and culture (pp. 18–30). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Gillespie, T. (2018). Custodians of the Internet. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Heckhausen, J. (2001). Control behavior: Psychological perspectives. In P. Baltes, & J. Smelser (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences (pp. 2719–2724). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier. Introna, L. D., & Nissenbaum, H. (2000). Shaping the Web: Why the politics of search engines matters. The Information Society, 16(3), 169–185. Jacobs, J. (2011). Television, interrupted: Pollution or aesthetic? In J. Bennett & N. Strange (Eds.), Television as digital media (pp. 255–282). London: Duke University Press. Jenner, M. (2016). Is this TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and binge-watching. New Media & Society, 18(2), 257–273. Langlois, G. (2013). Participatory culture and the new governance of communication: The paradox of participatory media. Television & New Media, 14(2), 91–105. Mackenzie, A. (2006). Cutting code: Software and sociality. New York, NY: Peter Lang. Madrigal, A. (2014, January 02). How Netflix reverse Engineered Hollywood. The Atlantic. Retrieved October 30th, 2018 from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/ 2014/01/how-netflix-reverse-engineered-hollywood/282679/
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·3· the emergence of netflix and the new digital economic geography of hollywood Luis F. Alvarez León
Introduction The internet’s differential impact across economic sectors and industries has catalyzed new divisions of labor and rewritten (though not eliminated) the role of distance in the production and distribution of goods and services. While a growing array of tasks is increasingly susceptible to being routinized, automated, and outsourced (Autor, Levy, & Murnane, 2003; Frey & Osborne, 2017), others continue to require proximity and are in fact more likely to benefit from spatial agglomeration (Leamer & Storper, 2001; Scott, 2007, 2012). Cultural and creative industries are key arenas in this socio-spatial rearticulation, since they are at the nexus of the centrifugal and centripetal forces catalyzed by digital communication networks. On the one hand, the production of goods such as books, magazines, film, television, music, fashion, visual and performing arts usually requires high levels of expertise, dense networks of relational exchanges, and flows of complex ideas and tacit knowledge that are highly concentrated in a handful of specialized locations across the world (Currid & Williams, 2010; Gibson & Kong, 2005; Leslie & Rantisi, 2011; Scott, 2000). New York, London, and Barcelona for publishing; Hollywood in Los Angeles and Bollywood in Mumbai for film; Paris and Milan for fashion,
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are but a few prominent examples of the spatial concentration of cultural and creative industries, and their close identification with key urban centers around the world. On the other hand, digitization compounded by the diffusion of high-speed internet (both fixed-line and mobile) has allowed cultural and creative products to be reproduced and distributed through electronic platforms that can instantaneously reach unprecedented numbers of users over vast geographical distances (Currah, 2003, 2006; Leyshon, 2003, 2009). However, while the new spatial and technical divisions of labor enabled by the internet bring about fresh opportunities, these come with persistent challenges. Piracy, a long-standing concern for many cultural and creative industries, acquired renewed levels of urgency (particularly in the media industries) due to the possibilities of duplication and unauthorized distribution presented by digital networks (Blackburn, 2004; Castro, Bennet, & Andes, 2009; Choi, Bae, & Jun, 2010). Due to a combination of the degree of anonymity of users on the internet, the proliferation of peer-to-peer sharing networks, and widespread piracy, until recently there was ongoing skepticism (particularly informed by the experiences of the music industry in the early 2000s) about the chances for content providers to makes use of the internet to successfully “compete against free” (Anderson, 2009; Rosoff, 2009; Smith & Telang, 2009). However, over the past decade the maturation of payment services, distribution platforms, computing technologies, and (the threat of) legal enforcement, have enabled the growth of legal providers of digital goods and services for consumers seeking everything from films and television (e.g., Netflix, Hulu, CBS All Access, etc.) to arts and crafts (e.g., Etsy, a shop specialized in handmade and vintage goods), emerging types of audiovisual content (e.g., the videogame streaming service Twitch), and retailers with a vast catalogue of goods, such as Amazon’s online store. Thus, with the expanding constellation of legal and illegal catalogs, competition in digital environments has come to be characterized by the long-tail phenomenon (Anderson, 2006; Elberse, 2008) that results from the simultaneous availability of thousands (or even millions) of differentiated choices. As content producers, such as film and television studios, have learned though a number of internet ventures and partnerships with varying degrees of success throughout the past decade (Vudu, UltraViolet, MovieLink, and CinemaNow are some examples), expansion into digital distribution requires intensifying linkages with those actors who have consolidated a foothold in this realm. Chief among these are information technology firms who, until recently, were seen as intermediaries limited to the delivery of content produced by
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others. However, firms such as Amazon, Facebook, YouTube (Google), and Netflix, have leveraged their successful role as media distributors to claim and solidify advantageous positions in the media production landscape. They have done this deploying increasingly sophisticated digital media distribution platforms in a variety of complementary ways: from providing high volumes of finely grained consumer feedback, which is used to fine tune demand, to collecting a wealth of data on user behavior and preferences. These data-driven insights, coupled with market incentives deriving from their dominant position as distributors, and the high costs of licensing third party content, have led technology companies to branch out from focusing solely on distribution and make significant investments into the production of original films, television, and other audiovisual content. This chapter argues that the emergence and growth of Netflix, first as a dominant platform for the distribution of films and television, and then as a successful producer of original content, signifies a larger rearticulation in the economic geographies of the entertainment and technology industries—in North America and beyond. In particular, Hollywood’s recent adoption of the internet as a distribution platform for film and television is already producing a distinct economic geography linked through digital networks. This implies a change in the globalization of American film and television, the development new strategies to market these products at home and abroad, and the deployment of different models to exploit the depth of the studios’ media catalogs, as well as cheaper ways of finding niche audiences for each product. The examination of the economic geographies catalyzed by the rise of Netflix and other digital distribution services is developed throughout this chapter with the aim of highlighting: a) The role of new technological systems (in this case for distribution) in (re)shaping the spatial configuration of markets. b) The industrial rearticulation that follows the introduction and widespread adoption of a new distribution systems. c) The substantive implication of space, place, territory, and other geographic elements–and their changing configurations–in constituting economic processes and outcomes. (Barnes & Christophers, 2018, p. 28) I begin this analysis by establishing the geographical configuration of the film and television industry in the United States, in order to show how the
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advent of Netflix and other online distribution platforms is the product of a punctuated history of technological and geographical disruptions, while simultaneously leading to a new spatial and industrial configuration characterized by the significant enrollment of the information technology industry. The following section thus establishes the forces that have shaped the historical development of functional linkages between the film and television industry in the United States and new distribution technologies and platforms. This informs and contextualizes the emergence and expansion of digital distribution platforms, such as Netflix, and their incursion into the realm of content production. The third section of this chapter shows how Hollywood is being transformed by the configuration of new economic geographies that are directly related to the intensification of digital distribution spearheaded by Netflix, and the cross-sectoral ramifications that have brought new entrants such as information-technology firms into the media markets formerly dominated by film and television studios. The fourth section concludes the chapter and provides some directions towards a geographically-informed study of the changing cultural and economic landscape of film and television—with important implications for other cultural and creative industries.
Industrial Restructuring in Two Acts The film and television industry in the United States is one of this country’s most successful worldwide exporters, both in terms of cultural influence, and through its sustained monetary gains. According to the MPAA’s latest (at the time of writing) annual statement on “The Economic Contribution of the Motion and Television Industry in the United States,” the American film and TV industry registered a positive trade balance in nearly every country in the world, and “had a positive services trade surplus of $13.1 billion in 2014, or 6% of the total U.S. private-sector trade surplus in services” (Motion Picture Association of America, 2016, p. 1). While the reach of this industry is decidedly global, its roots are firmly anchored in the regional economy of Los Angeles—to the degree that the entire industrial ecosystem has long been associated with the place-based shorthand of “Hollywood.” While this geographical synecdoche is useful to identify a core location and locus of power, it has the downside of masking a complex economic geography of production, regulation, distribution, and consumption in continuous transformation. For example, a significant share
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of Hollywood’s revenues, for over half a century, has come from foreign markets. As a result of this ongoing globalization, the integration between US film and television and foreign markets is transforming the geographies of production, consumption and distribution: from the offshoring of filming locations to Canada, Mexico, the UK, and several countries in Eastern Europe, to the increased attention to the demand specificities arising from the growing Chinese media market. Yet, the economic geography that gave rise to Hollywood as a site of production and core of the film industry was initially cast a century ago. While many of the initial factors that drove its establishment in Southern California are no longer in play, the path-dependency of this site as the home of the film and television industry has been maintained through a succession of historical events, technological innovations, and regulatory decisions. However, at every turn, these have implied significant transformations of what Hollywood is, what it produces, and how it finds and creates new markets of media consumption in the process. While these historical and geographical transformations have been ably described elsewhere in greater depth (Christopherson & Storper, 1986, 1987; Scott, 2005), below I have identified two key moments in the development of Hollywood’s economic geography that help understand both its present form, and its ongoing rearticulation catalyzed by the emergence of digital distribution as a transformative force. The first episode concerns the initial regulatory intervention that would contribute to the formation of Hollywood. In the early days of the film industry, at the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Edison—one of the largest patentholders in the United States—and his Edison Manufacturing Company dominated the manufacturing of film and projection equipment. One of his key business tactics was to exert pressure on his main competitors through threat of litigation. This effectively succeeded in disabling competition, and his former competitors joined him to form the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908, also known as the Edison Trust. The New York-based Trust held a tight grip on all aspects of the film industry—from the technologies of production to the distribution of film. However, such was the dominance of the Trust and its stranglehold on competition in the budding film industry that, within less than a decade, it was terminated in 1915 through a federal court decision citing its violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act (West Publishing, 1915). An unforeseen consequence of this regulatory action was the power vacuum it created in the economic geography of the film industry. Out of this vacuum, a new industrial hub emerged from the shadow of the Trust, far from the
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remnants of its regional influence in the Northeast. Separated by a continent, it was the booming periphery of early-20th century Los Angeles that would soon become the center of a new film industry, establishing a competitive edge through a combination of locational advantages (year-round favorable climactic conditions for outdoor filming), and product innovations (such as the film star system and the feature length film). Over the course of the first half of the century, the film industry in Los Angeles matured into the Hollywood studio system, anchored by the Big Five production companies: Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, MGM, RKO, and Warner Brothers. By the end of World War II, this studio system had perfected its own version of Fordism: a vertically integrated approach to filmmaking that housed all stages of film production (from screenwriting to filming and editing) under one roof. The roof, in fact, extended beyond production itself (and the studios’ own backlots), covering the distribution of films to various markets and their exhibition in theaters. Thus, the same oligopolistic tendencies that characterized the Trust were also present in the Hollywood studio system, leading to another round of regulatory-mandated restructuring. The second key moment to understand the evolution and configuration of Hollywood is the 1948 Supreme Court decision in the United States vs. Paramount Pictures, Inc. case, which ordered the named studio (along with the other majors) to break up their hold on the film industry. Since the major Hollywood studios controlled film production, distribution, and exhibition, they were forced to divest themselves from their exhibition operations, while keeping the integration of production and distribution functions (Christopherson & Storper, 1986; Scott, 2002). The decades-long transformation that resulted from the 1948 Paramount decision gave birth to a regional economy of filmmaking characterized by six major studios (Fox, Disney, Universal, Paramount, Sony, and Warner Bros) and a constellation of smaller studios and firms specialized on tasks such as independent film production, make-up, special effects, catering, set design, audio equipment, and many others. In short, the Paramount decision was a catalyst that led to Hollywood’s reorganization, from an industry solidly characterized as vertically integrated to becoming a regional cluster defined by a network of vertically disintegrated firms, shifting project-based configurations, recurrent collaboration networks, and a central hub of six major film studios (Christopherson & Storper, 1986). These two key moments in the history of the film industry in the United States illustrate how major shifts in its economic geography have been
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characterized by the interplay between the industry’s oligopolistic tendencies, and the countervailing force of regulation—which has, in various ways, triggered waves of industrial reconfiguration. Furthermore, these moments also show how such waves are associated with the particular segments of the production chain favored by industry incumbents, and with the technologies in which these incumbents decide to invest their resources and bet their future prospects. While the early 20th century Trust focused on controlling filmmaking and projection technology (which led to its Antitrust woes), the pre-1948 Hollywood studio system survived by preserving control over its production operations, opting instead (under duress) to divest from its exhibition arm. At both of these historical junctures, what has been evident is that each of the key decisions made by industry incumbents leads to power concentration in a particular area of the film production chain, while leaving others relatively open for innovations, and—eventually—forces capable of reconfiguring the entire film industry. The excessive zeal for the protection of film technology by the Edison Trust eventually contributed to its early decline, and the power vacuum that allowed the Los Angeles industry to emerge. Decades later, in the aftermath of the 1948 decision, Hollywood remade itself into a vertically disintegrated regional economy with global reach. While this new industrial model helped Hollywood’s expansion, diversification, and continued innovation in film production in the ensuing decades (particularly after the advent of the summer blockbuster in the 1970s), it was in the very space where the major studios lost influence—the exhibition side of the industry—that new technologies began to exert an increasingly transformative influence.
New Economic Geographies of Digital Distribution First with the vertiginous uptake of television since the 1950s, and then with the advent of home video in the early 1980s, Hollywood was continuously beset by disruption through the widespread adoption of new technologies for content distribution and exhibition. However, these disruptions eventually led the industry to adapt, and even build synergies across various sectors, such as electronics, and later information technology. For example, Hollywood initially treated the VCR as a threat to its revenue generation due to its time-shifting capabilities that allowed users to record television programs. Yet, within a few years, this new technology was embraced and fostered as the centerpiece of an emerging home video industry.
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Thus, through the growth of direct sale and rental videocassette, and later DVDs, Hollywood found another profitable avenue to distribute their films after theatrical distribution that was also complementary with—rather than substitutive of—television viewing. In fact, as early as 1986, the combined revenues from video rentals ($3.37 billion) and sales ($1.01 billion) surpassed for the first time those from the theatrical box office ($3.78 billion) in the United States (Cabral, 2009, p. 8). While theatrical exhibition suffered a downturn, the home video market continued to accelerate its growth with the adoption of new media technologies. The DVD player, which was released in 1996, took only four years to become the highest selling format in history, surpassing the VCR in 2000. The global popularity of this format continued to increase throughout the decade: in another four years, by 2004, there were 272.7 million DVD player-owning households worldwide (McDonald, 2007, p. 93). Parallel to the growth of the worldwide DVD market in the early 2000s, the internet underwent a simultaneous transformation from a repository of static documents into an engine for the distribution of digitized multimedia content (such as music and video digital files), as well as myriad platforms to buy and sell an expanding range of products and services (such as books and other analog media). Within a few years, new entrants with internet-centric models of distribution swiftly disrupted established content industries, much like Amazon did to booksellers and publishers. The twin trends of a rising global demand for DVDs (and media content more generally), and the maturation of the internet for commercial purposes in the early 2000s, jointly enabled a new transformation of the film and television industries, starting by way of the distribution of content. This in turn precipitated the creation of new economic geographies based on the intensified connections between information technology and the film and television industry. In this context of widespread market penetration for DVD players, Netflix emerged as a new entrant with yet another source of disruption, leveraging the technological readiness of consumers (who had both DVD players and internet connections), and catering to their growing demand for media content. While brick-and-mortar incumbents, led by Blockbuster Video, dominated the home video market, these faced important challenges, such as storage, title rotation, inventory limitations, and—most contentiously from the consumer perspective—late fees. Introducing a model that addressed all of these challenges, Netflix built a parallel distribution structure that allowed consumers to search and order titles through an internet platform, and rent the discs via by mail, all without charging any late fees.
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With growth in its first decade fueled by the mail DVD business, Netflix reached 8.7 million subscribers by 2008, and was on track to adding one million more annually (Hansell, 2008). Soon after, however, the DVD as a format began to give way to new technologies. It was then that the company shifted the core of its efforts towards capitalizing on the possibilities enabled by its vast internet search catalog and building its nascent online-streaming service (which was initially viewed as an add-on) into a robust content distribution platform. This shift is the result of Netflix’s bet on the widespread adoption of internet broadband, along with increased consumer buy-in of online streaming content, which had steadily grown in popularity since the introduction of YouTube in 2005 and its subsequent ascendance (Kyncl, 2017). Streaming represents several advantages for Netflix in the form of significant savings on disc purchases, storage, and postage. On the other hand, the acquisition of content depends on costly licensing agreements with film and TV studios—which in turn contribute to the continuous rotation of its catalog when content is no longer under contract (Netflix, n.d.-b). However, the most important advantage presented by the streaming model may be the creation of a closed distribution platform where Netflix can interact directly with (and collect data from) consumers in multiple revenue-generating ways, establishing positive feedback loops between consumption, distribution, and production of content. These include streaming video content, suggesting viewing options through a proprietary recommendation engine, measuring consumers’ use patterns and viewing behavior, and—crucially—building an extensive user base with increasing disincentives to switch to competing services (Plummer, 2017). Netflix’s successful deployment of the streaming platform represents the full incorporation of the internet’s distribution capabilities into the film and television production landscape, signaling a qualitative shift in its industrial composition and the economic geographies both of production and distribution of content. This shift was further accentuated by Netflix’s decision to round out their media ecosystem by moving into the production of original content— precipitated by the combination of advantages from their proprietary online platform, on the one hand, with high third-party content acquisition costs, on the other. The firm’s venture into content production began tentatively with its short-lived Red Envelope entertainment studio (2006–2008), which was closed to avoid competition with Hollywood studios (Goldstein, 2008). However, in 2011, Netflix embraced its dominant position in the distribution market, pivoting decisively towards the production of new content and
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the creation of a proprietary library (“Netflix Originals”) with exclusive deals such as House of Cards, Lilyhammer, and Orange Is the New Black TV series. Since then, the production of Netflix original content has grown steadily and, with it, audience engagement, revenue, cultural recognition, and market penetration. Thus, by 2018, the company has established a firm foothold in the entertainment industry by producing critically acclaimed films (Beasts of No Nation, Okja), popular culture franchises (Marvel series such as Daredevil, The Punisher, and Jessica Jones), cult-following series (original productions such as Stranger Things, and Orange Is The New Black continuing seasons of existing ones, like Black Mirror, and Arrested Development), talk-shows (Chelsea), docu-series (Chef’s Table, Making a Murderer), and foreign-language productions in several countries (Club de Cuervos in Mexico, Marseille in France), among many other genres. These international productions are part of Netflix’s broader strategy to expand towards carefully delineated territorial markets outside of the United States. The internationalization of Netflix is both a sign of the new geographies of content distribution, and it follows the well-trod path established by Hollywood studios over half a century ago. The territorial contours of content distribution are themselves a market-making exercise that results from IP geolocation technologies, which restrict users’ access to content depending on the physical location of their internet connection. In this way, Netflix can ensure that each territorially defined market (usually along national boundaries) only has access to the content for which the rights have been licensed. This is why, when a subscriber crosses international boundaries, the catalog of content available changes accordingly. At the time of writing, Netflix is available in 190 countries (Netflix, n.d.-a). While the firm’s continuous market expansion is the main driver of its recent growth, it has also held back its profit margins due to the high investment required for the production of original content for expanding markets (Shaw, 2017; Trefis Team, 2017). Moving beyond the enrollment of international locations as merely low-cost labor pools, or sites of potential consumption, Netflix’s strategy relies on developing collaborative relationships with local talent and content producers all over the world. This allows the firm to assemble territorially differentiated media libraries that leverage the provision of American films and television, for which there is global demand, and complement it with high production-value locally produced content tailored for each market. The increased output of Neflix’s original products (whether financed wholly by the company, or through various partnerships), and the aggregate
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positive returns of this venture (in monetary, as well as critical, and cultural terms) support the notion that this firm has successfully leveraged its dominance in digital distribution to secure a robust position as a content producer in the film and television industries. Two linked developments suggest a large-scale rearticulartion of the film and television industry as it intensifies its competition and collaboration with the information technology industry. First, other information technology companies with a background in digital distribution, such as Amazon, YouTube (owned by Google), and Hulu (owned by Disney and Comcast) are following a strategy towards the production of original content. Second, content producers are emphasizing their development of digital platforms through the pivot towards “TV Everywhere” (Lasar, 2010)—some of them with exclusive content (such as CBS All Access). This rearticulation derives from the incorporation of streaming technology and the continuing development of comprehensive digital platforms for the provision of extensive catalogs that combine licensed and originally produced content. Underpinning the development and expansion of digital platforms is the tightening interrelation of existing industrial clusters specialized in the production of content, and new means of digital distribution: Hollywood and Silicon Valley, respectively. This linkage between industries is characterized by collaboration, competition, parallel growth, and substantial areas of overlap. For example, each of these clusters continues to conduct many of its operations with relative independence from each other. Hollywood’s theatrical box office continues to grow on an annual basis (totaling $38.6 billion in 2016), with rapid expansion of the Asia Pacific market, now its top-grossing region (showing a 44% increase from 2012 to 2016, totaling $14.9 billion, $6.6 billion of which was concentrated in China) (Motion Picture Association of America, 2017, p. 7). On the other hand, Silicon Valley’s firms are engaged in an ever-widening range of activities that do not primarily involve film and television production or distribution, such as social networking platforms, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and search engines, to name a few. However, the intersection and integration (as well as increasing competition) between these two clusters—particularly the production of content and the development of new technologies of distribution and consumption—has become a signature of the new era of digital entertainment, and the digital economy more generally. This has resulted in the formation of new economic geographies of film and television. The strategies adopted by Netflix and other internet leaders in
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film and television cast a major influence on the spatial and relational dynamics that underpin the Hollywood industrial cluster. An economic geographic appraisal of the changes catalyzed by the emergence of digital distribution includes at least four layers that combine to produce flows of (often monetizable) information in space. First, there is a virtual layer of digital information flowing from one terminal to another within digital networks. This virtual layer is continuously in transformation and drives the production and consumption of new market goods. The digitization of content and its provision through information networks is one of the qualitative shifts in the digital economy. For instance, the transformation of the internet from mostly static websites in the 1990s to a panoply of platforms hosting user-generated content, expanded options for online retailing, and the rise of streaming services, illustrates how the flows of information are deeply intertwined with cultural tastes, consumption patterns, technological innovations, and economic dynamics beyond the boundaries of what is often identified strictly as “Information Technology.” Second, there is a physical and territorial layer of the internet as communication infrastructure: the server farms, hubs, and undersea cables that make up the network. This physical and territorial layer matters greatly for the distribution of information and the constitution of electronic markets. While it is invisible to most users, the material configuration of the network enables in very direct ways the production or consumption of content online. Bandwidth speeds, for example, can be the defining factor behind the ready availability of streaming content, and the opening of previously inaccessible regions to new online media markets. In this context, it is no accident that social-media platforms like Facebook are heavily investing in ways (such as internet-beaming drones) to open these markets by bringing high-speed internet services to areas of the world that currently do not have it (Associated Press in Yuma, 2017). Third is the political and legal layer, which consist of the negotiations, deliberations, legal regimes, and governance mechanisms shaping who can access what content, for what price, and from which locations. Due to legal frameworks, regulatory requirements, and other factors such as government censorship, the location of content (whether from the point of view of storage, distribution, or consumption) is to a significant degree shaped by geographical factors. In the case of Netflix and other online content providers, the ability to locate users’ access to content has enabled the creation of territorially defined markets throughout the world.
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Fourth is the economic layer, which encompasses the various (and expanding) mechanisms for monetizing information on the internet, from direct transactions, such as subscription services, to more obscure indirect transactions which often seem free of charge to the end user, such as data mining and advertising. This layer brings together the informational flows, the physical infrastructure of the internet, its regulatory frameworks, and enrolls them into the dynamics of global capitalism with the purpose of deriving economic value from online content. The degree to which strategies of monetization can succeed simultaneously drives the expansion of the digital economy, while setting up domino effects in the economic landscape beyond the internet— such as the industrial rearticulation between IT and film and television cited above, or the wholesale disruption experienced by the publishing and bookselling industries as a result of (primarily) Amazon. The continuous and mutually constitutive interactions between these layers is simultaneously social, political, economic, and deeply spatialized. Indeed, both the structure and constitution of the internet as an information network, and the spatial arrangements (locational patterns, regional economies, territorially-defined regional markets) behind the production and distribution of online services, continuously interact in the process of making new digital economic geographies. The example at the core of this chapter—of tighter interrelation, through competition and cooperation, between content producers and content distributors across the film and television and information technology industries in the context of widespread online video— is illustrative in this respect: while the means of distribution have changed from discs to online streaming, the forms of production have followed suit, with distributors like Netflix entering into the production sphere, and bringing with them new technologies, business strategies, and modes of consumer engagement. These data-driven platforms, through recommendation engines and finely targeted consumer demographics fueled by the close monitoring of user behavior, in turn shape how firms like Netflix decide to produce or purchase new content, where they distribute it, and for whom. This is having important implications in reshaping content production and distribution industries, both in Hollywood and all over the word—with the rise of locally owned streaming services in many international markets and the activation of new arenas of competition for premium local content. Conversely, industrial rearticulations such as the one cited above have the potential of transforming not just the film, television and information technology industries themselves, but also the very nature and workings of
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the internet as a communications network. Online video streaming has been one of the core drivers of the continuous increases in web traffic, and has played a crucial role in the Net Neutrality debates due to the high usage of bandwidth by platforms such as Netflix, and its potential competition with rivalling content-distribution platforms owned by internet service providers (Bradley, 2017; Feldman, 2017; Spangler, 2017). Similarly, the creation of online markets for content distribution responds to, and is influenced by, existing political geographies where territorially-defined distribution rights and legal regimes shape access to, and legal consumption of particular digital content (Alvarez León, 2015, 2018). At the infrastructural level, the increases in the demand for streaming content over the internet carry with them corresponding requirements for higher bandwidth and network expansions that stand to reshape the informational capacity of some places—while others may be unable to cope with this demand and thus may be slower to adopt legal streaming markets (or may be entirely shut out of them). Thus, the new geographies of online video distribution should be read in a broader historical context where information networks are inscribed in patterns of development, technological adoption, information access, and institutional frameworks that are at once shaped by global forces, while also being highly dependent on particular contexts and locations. In other words, “the Net cannot float free of conventional geography” (Hayes, 1997, p. 214). In the case of the emergence of Netflix, first as a player in the distribution of video, and later as a bona fide producer of original content and major competitor in the film and television industry, this is both a consequence of the increased opportunities opened by the expansion of the internet as a platform for commercial activity, and simultaneously a driver of fundamental changes in the economic geographies of the film and television industries, as well as the information technology industry more generally.
Conclusion Hollywood is in a process of transformation that is directly linked with a shift towards an internet-centric mode of distributing film, television and multimedia content in general. The expansion of video streaming represents new opportunities for film studios, television networks and technology companies alike, but it also reflects the economic geographies underlying the growth of the digital economy across the globe. The emergence of Netflix as a central player in the online streaming and content production realms is a stark
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reminder that the internet, while opening new markets and broadening access to information, continues to be shaped by uneven geographical developments, such as patterns of industrial location, and the territorially-defined construction of markets. The rise of Netflix, then, is a story that goes beyond the strategic decisions of a single firm. It is a touchstone that has been simultaneously shaped by, and contributed to, the accelerating convergence of technological, monetary, and cultural resources from two distinct (but increasingly connected) industrial clusters: Hollywood and Silicon Valley. From this perspective, the geographical dimensions of a generalized pivot towards online streaming of media content are crucial because they help explain why this shift emerged from particular locations, who the relevant actors are, and what is the quality and range of their (expanding) spatial impacts. For digital distribution, as with upcoming transformations in the information economy, this underscores the importance of understanding the internet as a network that is embedded in space, place, and society—and is therefore neither purely virtual nor homogeneous.
References Alvarez León, L. F. (2015). The digital economy and variegated capitalism. Canadian Journal of Communication, 40(4), 1–18. Alvarez León, L. F. (2018). Information policy regimes and the spatial constitution of digital geographic information markets. Economic Geography, 94(3), 217–237. Anderson, C. (2006). The long tail. New York, NY: Hyperion. Anderson, C. (2009). Free: The future of a radical price. London: Random House. Associated Press in Yuma. (2017, July 2). Facebook drone that could bring global internet access completes test flight. The Guardian. Retrieved May 6, 2018, from http://www.theguardian. com/technology/2017/jul/02/facebook-drone-aquila-internet-test-flight-arizona Autor, D. H., Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2003). The skill content of recent technological change: An empirical exploration. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(4), 1279–1333. Barnes, T. J., & Christophers, B. (2018). Economic geography: A critical introduction. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. Blackburn, D. (2004, January 1). On-line piracy and recorded music sales. Working Paper. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.117.2922& rep=rep1&type=pdf Bradley, T. (2017, December 12). Netflix is in the power position now in the war for net neutrality. Forbes.com. Retrieved February 5, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/tonybradley/2017/12/12/netflix-is-in-the-power-position-now-in-the-war-for-net-neutrality/ Cabral, L. (2009, January 1). The Home Video Industry. Castro, D., Bennet, R., & Andes, S. (2009, January 1). Steal these policies: Strategies for reducing digital piracy. The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, I–IV.
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Choi, P., Bae, S. H., & Jun, J. (2010). Digital piracy and firms’ strategic interactions: The effects of public copy protection and DRM similarity. Information Economics and Policy, 22(4), 354–364. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infoecopol.2010.10.001 Christopherson, S., & Storper, M. (1986). The city as studio, the world as back lot: The impact of vertical disintegration on the location of the motion-picture industry. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 4(3), 305–320. Christopherson, S., & Storper, M. (1987). Flexible specialization and regional industrial agglomerations: The case of the U.S. motion picture industry. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 77, 104–117. Currah, A. (2003). Digital effects in the spatial economy of film: Towards a research agenda. Area, 35, 64–73. Currah, A. (2006). Hollywood versus the Internet: The media and entertainment industries in a digital and networked economy. Journal of Economic Geography, 6(4), 439–468. Currid, E., & Williams, S. (2010). The geography of buzz: Art, culture and the social milieu in Los Angeles and New York. Journal of Economic Geography, 10(3), 423–451. Elberse, A. (2008). Should you invest in the long tail? Harvard Business Review, 86(7–8), 88–96. Feldman, B. (2017, November 21). Without net neutrality, What happens to my Netflix? Retrieved February 5, 2018, from http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/11/what-happens-tonetflix-when-net-neutrality-is-gone.html Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2017). The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114, 254–280. https://doi. org/10.1016/j.techfore.2016.08.019 Gibson, C., & Kong, L. (2005). Cultural economy: A critical review. Progress in Human Geography, 29(5), 541–561. Goldstein, G. (2008, July 22). Netflix closing Red Envelope. Retrieved February 5, 2018, from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/netflix-closing-red-envelope-116138 Hansell, S. (2008, October 9). Why Netflix may be an Online Video Leader. Retrieved February 12, 2018, from //bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/09/why-netflix-may-be-an online-video-leader/ Hayes, B. (1997). Computing science: The infrastructure of the information infrastructure. American Scientist, 85(3), 214–218. Kyncl, R. (2017, September 13). The inside story of how Netflix transitioned to digital video after seeing the power of YouTube. Retrieved February 12, 2018, from https://www.recode. net/2017/9/13/16288364/streampunks-book-excerpt-youtube-netflix-pivot-video Lasar, M. (2010, January 6). TV everywhere: Gift to consumers or plot to kill online TV? Retrieved February 5, 2018, from https://arstechnica.com/telecom/news/2010/01/tv- everywhere-causing-controversy-everywhere.ars Leamer, E. E., & Storper, M. (2001). The economic geography of the Internet age. NBER Working Paper Series. Retrieved from https://econpapers.repec.org/paper/nbrnberwo/8450. htm Leslie, D., & Rantisi, N. M. (2011). Creativity and place in the evolution of a cultural industry the case of Cirque du Soleil. Urban Studies, 48, 1771–1787. Leyshon, A. (2003). Scary monsters? Software formats, peer-to-peer networks, and the spectre of the gift. Environment and Planning D, 21(5), 533–558.
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Leyshon, A. (2009). The software slump?: Digital music, the democratisation of technology, and the decline of the recording studio sector within the musical economy. Environment and Planning A, 41(6), 1309–1331. https://doi.org/10.1068/a40352 McDonald, P. (2007). Video and DVD Industries. London: British Film Institute. Motion Picture Association of America. (2016). The economic contribution of the motion picture & television industry to the United States (p. 1). Washington D.C.: Motion Picture Association of America. Retrieved from https://www.mpaa.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/ MPAA-Industry-Economic-Contribution-Factsheet-2016.pdf Motion Picture Association of America. (2017). MPAA Theatrical Market Statistics 2016 (p. 31). Washington D.C.: Motion Picture Association of America. Retrieved from https://www.mpaa. org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/MPAA-Theatrical-Market-Statistics-2016_Final-1.pdf Netflix. (n.d.-a). Where is Netflix available? Retrieved May 6, 2018, from https://help.netflix. com/en/node/14164 Netflix. (n.d.-b). Why do TV shows and movies leave Netflix? Retrieved February 5, 2018, from https://help.netflix.com/en/node/60541 Plummer, L. (2017, August 22). This is how Netflix’s top-secret recommendation system works. Wired. Retrieved February 5, 2018, from http://www.wired.co.uk/article/how-do-netflixsalgorithms-work-machine-learning-helps-to-predict-what-viewers-will-like Rosoff, M. (2009, February 12). Total Music: “Free” can’t compete with free. Retrieved February 9, 2018, from https://www.cnet.com/news/total-music-free-cant-compete-with-free/ Scott, A. J. (2007). Capitalism and urbanization in a new key? The cognitive-cultural dimension. Social Forces, 85(4), 1465–1482. Scott, A. J. (2012). A World in emergence. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=XemcQykCnjsC&pg=PA198&dq= A+J+Scott&hl=&cd=15&source=gbs_api Scott, A. J. (2000). The cultural economy of cities. London: Sage. Scott, A. J. (2002). A new map of Hollywood: The production and distribution of American motion pictures. Regional Studies, 36, 957–975. Scott, A. J. (2005). On Hollywood: The place, theindustry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Shaw, L. (2017, July 17). Netflix is booming outside of America. Bloomberg. Retrieved May 6, 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-17/netflix-scorchessubscriber-forecasts-with-overseas-topping-u-s Smith, M. D., & Telang, R. (2009). Competing with free: The impact of movie broadcasts on DVD sales and internet piracy. MIS Quarterly: Management Information Systems, 33(2), 321–338. Spangler, T. (2017, December 14). Netflix slams FCC’s “Misguided” repeal of net neutrality regulations. Variety. Retrieved February 5, 2018, from http://variety.com/2017/digital/news/ netflix-fcc-net-neutrality-repeal-1202641165/ Trefis Team. (2017, July 14). Netflix’s International Business Likely Drove Q2 Growth. Forbes. Retrieved May 6, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2017/07/14/ netflixs-international-business-likely-drove-q2-growth/#75e39ec62e70 West Publishing. (1915). United States v. Motion Picture Patents Co. et al. In Federal Reporter (F1), Volume 225. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing. Retrieved from http://archive.org/ details/gov.uscourts.f1.225
·4· lovemarked distribution and consumers ’ behavior Netflix Communities Versus Piracy Users’ Conduct Gabriele Prosperi
The arrival of Netflix in the Italian market in 2015 destabilized the entire audiovisual distribution sector (Marrazzo, 2016), anchored to modalities that were out of step with consumers’ desires, both in terms of quantity and quality of distribution. Rather than encouraging the primary local distribution services to consider streaming content (Barra & Scaglioni, 2013), they instead labeled the phenomenon of online piracy a competitor and proposed a fundamental and efficient system of opposition to illegal and informal distribution (Lobato, 2012a). This approach was not grounded on the criminalization of users’ behavior (Crisp, 2014; Re, 2014), but on services that could be more appealing compared to those supplied by the informal platforms (Braga & Caruso, 2013). File-sharing platforms are usually associated with services based on the principle of indexing, a process of re-intermediation used in informal distribution as peer-to-peer platforms or linking sites connected to cyberlocker services that provide audiovisual content protected under copyright laws. Indexing sites appear not only as a way to make the online piracy system work for the user, and not only to gain a profit, but also to respond to users’ requests to respect their emotional intent in looking for a specific cultural content (Andersson Schwartz & Larsson, 2014). Even if indexing sites do not
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legalize file-sharing in the user’s perception—who, on the contrary, is aware of its illegality (Lessig, 2008)—they are able to transform illegal file-sharing into an appealing distribution model compared to the traditional one, which has not responded to consumers’ requests. This appeal is determined by specific visual characteristics that are able to make the site and its services efficient and, more importantly, recognizable. Links, and by extension their content, are promoted through the recognizability of an informal distributor, a key strength for being competitive with more formal and legal distributors. The visual architecture of successful linking sites acts as a “lovemark” ( Jenkins, 2006) to the users, associating identifiable political and socio- economic characteristics that create a community of consumers who identify with the use of some visual elements and their symbolic meanings. The lovemark is part of a wider process of self-justification of indexing sites’ actions. Images and site architecture are able to communicate norms, meanings, and shared values, reflecting a communion of interests, ideas and online behaviors. This chapter focuses on the opposition to such branding processes used by informal platforms. Commercial streaming services like Netflix provide appealing platforms, effectively stealing piracy’s users thanks to a system that is more interested in improving its functionalities in terms of economic convenience, easy access, and quantity of products. Focusing on Italian social media users, the chapter highlights the identification process of Netflix’s consumers into online communities based on discourse and recognition of the primary characteristics of the service, in the same ways this identification process successfully happened for informal lovemarked platforms. Both the pirated indexing sites’ and Netflix’s catalogues are the turning points of an affective response, a lovemark, that can be recognized as a branding strategy with specific political and socioeconomic traits.
Emotional Engagement The majority of online streaming and downloading utilizes services that are based on the principle of indexing, which represent new forms of access through strategies that constantly interact with the formal distribution and with its main actors (Lobato & Thomas, 2015). With linking (or indexing) sites, we mean portals that are designated to collect links that refer, in a more or less organized way, to copyright-protected audiovisual content. It is not a coincidence that this modality is often associated with cyberlocker sites
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(MegaUpload, Mega, RapidShare, NowDownload, RapidGator), services “which offer users the ability to share files through centralized servers, without relying on an underlying p2p infrastructure” (Antoniades, Markatos, & Dovrolis, 2009). The particularity of these services lies in their capability to put into play the same users, both for their operation and for the need of creating indexing sites that supply databases organized into links referring to the contents. The efficiency of this form of distribution is definitely connected— regardless of its legal status—to the cost of the service itself, as Cybernorms researchers (see below) have identified in their The Research Bay,1 recognizing both a convenience in speed and availability of the products and a cost-effectiveness in their use.2 In addition to the being free, another aspect appears partially capable to socially legitimize the phenomenon, which is the creation of communities (particularly of fans) that, along with economic convenience, allow users to take a more active role and participate in the consumption of streaming content. Participation is, in this case, meant to refer not only to uploading contents—which has been recognized (Crisp, 2014; Larsson, Svensson, & de Kaminski, 2013), as an activity achieved by a niche group of users tending to professionalization—but also to the recognition of the user within a community of consumers3: a community of free-rider users made of individuals who act with the same objectives. Requesting specific content is one activity that encourages the creation of informal structures of distribution, as Lobato (2012a) proposed: Demand for cinema is one of the key drivers of this entire storage-and-retrieval infrastructure and the many jobs it creates. For this reason cyberlocker and torrent tracker systems could quite reasonably be considered an informal wing of the film distribution industry. (Lobato, 2012a)
This emotional engagement is typical for informal platforms and is reshaping the official forms of online distribution, which are always more interested into singular, subjective and emotional aspects of their receiving consumers. For these reasons, collaboration among users appears to be a key element: the high rate of collaboration between fans of specific cultural content seems to increase the use of services that allow users to find content which is considered to have elevated emotional value, if those services are founded by the same community (of fans) with similar intentions. Membership in a community, as Janes and Crisp point out, referring particularly to Jenkins (2006), is characterized by an “intensely emotional
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experience” (Crisp, Hickman, Janes, & McCulloch, 2013, p. 320) which generates a unique relationship between fans and brands, as well as “a strong sense of empowerment and ownership, and the evolution of a community which sees distinctions between marketing content ‘for us’ (i.e., the fans), and marketing for a wider, uninitiated audience” (ibid.). This kind of economy, which Jenkins defines as affective and based on lovemarks, can be applied also to the delivery tool and, therefore, to the file-sharing. The love of the “brand” is surely observable as it is built by a “quite low percentage of uploaders” (Larsson et al., 2013, p. 76) that participates in uploading the real file, thanks to a high level of “‘professionalization’ or ‘specialization’ and to a partition of the work among the users” (ibid.). In this case, a strong sense of ownership of the content itself is established, leading the same uploaders to be “more interested in forms of defense of their data” (ibid.). It is also important to remember that “within certain filesharing communities there are pockets of behavior where groups of people go further than simply facilitating the sharing of files, instead they actively participate in the conversion, construction, amendment and review of those files” (Crisp et al., 2013, p. 321). In similar cases it develops a new sentiment, or the tendency to “add value” (ibid.) to the cultural object through this process. This is why we can define it, more properly than distribution, as the spontaneity of spread, or spreadability4 confirmed by the capacity of users to exploit new technologies and by the tools that can be assimilated within online distribution platforms (from a simple tweet or like on Facebook to the possibility of commenting the links posted on a site). Jenkins (2006) already hypothesized a similar reading in Convergence Culture, referring to American Idol fans. For this popular American talent show, as soon as the fans feel “the love or, more specifically, the ‘love marks,’” (Ivi, p. 70), they are traced back to the participatory regime. “Audience participation is a way of getting American Idol viewers more deeply invested, shoring up their loyalty to the franchise and its sponsors” (ibid.). The difference can be observed at the origin of the request: the official production in the case of the television show, the film buff in the case of cinephilia, the generic fan of a specific audiovisual product who uses unofficial distribution. As in a sort of auto-endorsement, the user justifies his/ her actions, approves them, and through this legitimization can receive, in exchange, the lovemark, which is in this case the desired object itself. It is not a coincidence that in the cinephile community, forms of pirate cinephilia (repackeur as defined by Renouard) rise up, “mainly made of regular buyers of
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‘legal’ DVD or Blu-ray editions, that want to benefit of a slackening of the law, aiming to discover, watch and share movies that have never been—or were—commercialized, so that they are not going to be forgotten” (Renouard, 2013, p. 236). Applying this approach to the distribution system, the same file-sharing can be examined from new points of view; concentrating the attention on itself—through its own unique characteristics and ways of operation— file-sharing can simplify not only the creation of communities of uploaders designated to supply the raw material that will be downloaded, but also and especially the creation of communities of downloaders and free-riders that get attached to that specific portal of distribution. This is when the role that linking sites fulfill comes into play and becomes essential, not as much in terms of functionality as of loyalty.
Indexing Sites Online platforms like Avaxhome (see below) act as collectors of useful information to index products (audiovisuals, music, literature, videogames, software), equally—or even more functionally—to a research browser like Google, and specialize in types of products to be spread. These sites act as a middle ground between an archive of audiovisual products (i.e., IMDb), but assign the effective distribution of copyrighted products to a third party. Similarly, the services that manage the structure of such a collaboration assign the responsibility of spread to those who insert the content, pointing out the nature of just hosting their contribution and the impossibility of subjecting the inserted material to on-the-spot checks. Thus, regardless of where the content has been found, if the provider of a service does not know of the violation, it should have no right to prevent it from being uploaded. On this principle, one-click hosting services (or cyberlockers) have increased and continued to be created. Through these services, the user has the possibility of sharing large files by way of two simple steps: the user uploads the file, the cyberlocker creates and provides an URL to access the file. More evidently than the torrent protocol, cyberlockers’ modality of operation makes immediate for the real users the working principles of the entire system, since it is based on the simple input of content into a container and then making an access point available. On the other hand, the service per se does not necessarily imply the trade of illegal content, but stands out for its
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efficiency in preserving and transferring large files, in addition to guaranteeing the anonymity of its clients. Obviously each of these functions might be more efficient the more appropriate the economic recoup is, by means of subscriptions, usually distinguished on the site in several classes (generally with more payment brackets—i.e. Silver and Gold—for a premium service). In order to incentivize the use of their functions, cyberlocker services summon consumers not only thanks to a functional practicality, but also guaranteeing free use, usually with limited possibilities that, nevertheless, do not compromise that use for non-paying users. These and other characteristics, such as the constant availability of the file (even if susceptible to being removed in the case of an identified violation), the anonymity guaranteed to the user, the good performance and content availability, as well as the presence of uploading incentives, encourage taste buds of an unenthusiastic viewer. These services facilitate “the creation of a vibrant user community that shares files reliably and inexpensively” (Antoniades et al., 2009). In addition to guaranteeing premium users access to popular content, which is not as much faster as more spreadable, they also confer the free user a bigger advantage in using cyberlocker instead of BitTorrent, an advantage that is also moral; unlike the informal systems defined by Lobato as extra-legal (i.e., BitTorrent), linking sites and cyberlockers are in a grey zone of distribution, defined as semi-legal (Lobato, 2012b). If on one hand, “the rise of grey intermediaries further complicates this scenario, throwing into the mix a new set of commercial and putatively legal services which work to deformalise online media markets,” (Ivi, p. 97), on the other hand, they open up not only “new commercial spaces and lines of business” (ibid.), but also new spaces of legitimization. Implying the sharing of common interests, community of purpose, and passion for a specific content, the grey zone is even greyer, highlighting the substantial interpretability of the term pirate: If we purchase bootleg DVDs from markets, (…) or download films, music or software using torrents, file sharing forums and cyberlockers, the illegality of our actions seems relatively straightforward. However, if we want to make a backup of our music on our computer, or if we want to show a film in a retirement home and charge a nominal fee to cover tea and biscuits, or if we lend a CD or DVD to a friend, are these infringements intentional, and are we causing “significant” economic harm? (Crisp, 2015, p. 73)
The bond which generates communities of users happens regardless the use of cyberlockers or BitTorrent, but it is more evident in the first case thanks to
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a larger need for using indexing sites. Thus, their links are more susceptible to be collected, as a consequence of users’ direct request of participation, and are responsible to choose which contents should be put into circulation. This response of the user guarantees on one hand better efficiency, and on the other hand, the spread of content that is less available through official distribution channels, since the same users look for this content directly (through his/her own free will or following a specific request by other users). It is understandable why, in parallel with the spread of cyberlocker services, indexing sites have also increased to make content really available or findable. Depending on the level of formality, online platforms are organized as real archives, in any case “tightly connected with the digital environment in which they were born. We can define them as ‘archives’ because they are based on selection and classification, and propose thematic collections” (Re, 2015, p. 265). The organization of these files range from low, which generally distinguishes products on the basis of the cyberlocker service where the file is uploaded, to high, represented by sites that categorize files into genres and, on some occasions—usually thanks to a more accurate and monitored organization—on the basis of characteristics of the content. We can distinguish indexing sites in two macrocategories that are susceptible of additional distinctions: – Mainstream browsers (i.e., searchshared.com) that, just as a common web research browser, sift through the web to find all the files uploaded via cyberlocker, and by means of a search key written by the user. Obviously the absence of a categorizing system to the bottom makes the results of this research various and imprecise. – Indexing communities: sites, forums, blogs of diverse constitution that organize the links to files into categories. The upload of files to be shared is not necessarily made by the end users or by the organizers of these communities (even if it is more than plausible). Particularly in the second type of indexing, several levels of organization exist. On one hand are, for example, websites generically dealing with any type of file, on the other hand are sites that, instead, specialize in types of content, collecting links to files corresponding with specific types of products. In the first group, Avaxhome is among the most frequently used, a cyberlocker version of The Pirate Bay, which indeed has changed its own domain and URL very often during the last decade, in order to evade local legislation. As it is easy to notice, the site is structured in several categories (eBooks & eLearning, Music, Video, Software, Magazines, etc.). This tool allows users to easily find
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the file they are looking for, and this organization is associated with an internal research browser. Every file with specific content has its own page, which, as in the most efficient cinematographic, literary, or videogames archives, describes the downloadable file in a detailed manner and with additional photos and hyperlinks, adding information about the dimension of the file, the kind of compression, the location of the file, and the basis of the cyberlocker service. Such cataloguing work has its foundations in organized and functional labor, which is established within a community of users that are responsible for the data and information retrieval and of their categorization; it is not a coincidence that the site provides for registration, even if it makes freely available information on files, therefore providing them to everyone. Even more important is the fact that the characteristics that identify the site become recognizable to the user, similarly to the modalities of cataloguing and selection that distinguish an online free archive, or a pay catalogue of audiovisual contents (i.e. Netflix, Hulu, Italian Mediaset Infinity). Hence, it is possible to propose an additional specialization—based on the request of the users, and particularly of fans—or a second group of indexing sites that gather specific categories of content. Some example are cases like worldscinema.org, entirely dedicated to auteur, experimental cinematographic products or to movies that are difficult to retrieve, and onlyoldmovies.blogspot.com, dedicated to cinematographic products made before the 80s, which are also movies that are barely supplied by formal distributors. The indexing site becomes, in the final analysis, a real catalogue, a library, for all intents and purposes, of a specific distributor—even if this distributor is not represented by an individual, but by a multiplicity of users. Through the indexing site, the role of the real beneficiary of potential profit moves from the user who actually copies the content on a distribution device and puts it into circulation, to the user who organizes the tools of distribution (links) inside a platform. This specialization becomes an additional appeal element, a recognizable character for the consumer.
Communities and the Impact of Netflix The justifications that encourage users to use illegal methods of retrieval are subjective and various, although it is possible to track down common lines of thought that are particularly evident in the Cybernorms research area
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regarding free comments granted by users. In April 2011, thanks to previous agreements undertaken between the founders of the site The Pirate Bay and the Swedish research group Cybernorms from the University of Lund, the logo of the site was replaced with The Research Bay logo for three days. The survey, which was accessible by clicking on the new logo, was completed by over 75,000 users of the site from every part of the world. Among the questions included in the survey, particularly interesting is the one where the user is asked to give a general comment on the file-sharing argument. The request for a free comment gave the researchers the possibility of identifying both the motivations and the justifications of those who illegally download content, in addition to other data useful in defining the characteristic of file-sharing from the social point of view. The personal motivations recall a movement within the online media environment, completely individual and personalized, and range from the simple convenience to the cost, including pseudoanarchic, populist, or libertarian motivations: “‘people will produce culture without remuneration’” (Andersson Schwartz & Larsson, 2014, p. 229). Despite very different justifications that encourage individuals to use file-sharing, a common theme is the redefinition of the viewing experience which, in addition to temporality, is now fragmented in several reasons of viewing, heterogeneously spread among the spectators: “the use of PC as the terminal device of the filmic fruition has redefined the spectators’ experience, creating an hybrid between the work screen and the download screen, manipulation, creation/recreation and fruition, and generating an original (…) overlap between spectator and author” (Rigamonti, 2006, p. 96). As soon as an overlap between spectator and author happens, the decisionmaking responsibility of the viewer increases, now being equal to the creator of the work, and indeed he/she becomes entitled to intervene in the work itself.5 The common trait of all the justifications seems to be the freedom to have and to independently follow one’s own opinion, which establishes a very strong bond with the kind of distribution one can choose. As Shirky pointed out talking about the social network Twitter, “as a medium gets faster, it gets more emotional. We feel faster than we think” (Shirky, 2009). As a medium, generically, it succeeds in simultaneously responding to a multiplicity of demands, and with the same velocity, it becomes the favored means by all individuals. This assumption gives us the opportunity to track down, in the users’ opinions, characters that redefine the pirate user on the basis of justifications (creating new moral criterions) and purposes (from simple fruition to collection building) that drive them. The answers of the active users
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reflect the need to fill an existing gap between the copyright laws and actual social practices.6 The victims of this incongruity, young people growing up with the ambiguity of being justified in violating the law, demonstrate in this case a high level of awareness of one’s own actions, as well as the desire that their own condition might change. The free comments for the survey The Research Bay demonstrate a need for change, with three main considerations about the concept of piracy: that it is unstoppable, culturally convenient, and democratic (Anderson Schwartz & Larsson, 2014). These justifications encourage the users of The Pirate Bay to take an iron-clad stance in support of piracy. The piracy users’ motivations are mainly political, characterized by a strong sense of their identity in evaluating their own justifications, to the point of stating that piracy will always win against any institution or ruling power. These users have a need to have their behavior accepted by society and treated as a legitimate practice. This need is eventually responsible for the creation of whole platforms for the retrieval of cultural contents through links that have the aesthetic and organizational markers of a legitimate market. These platforms demonstrate this need, to the point of being perceived on the same level of a formal distribution channel. To discuss some clarifying examples, the Italian landscape appears particularly exemplary of this practice, because of a delay in updating the audiovisual distribution market to the online environment. This timeline is why platforms like PirateStreaming, AltaDefinizione, or Eurostreaming, even after the arrival of Netflix in the online market in 2015 and the expansion of other local SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand services) like Mediaset Infinity and Sky Online, have maintained a dominant position. From the study conducted by Nextplora in the middle of 2016, data show that “78% of users choose to watch movies or TV series via pirate sites,” (Nextplora, 2016) against 35% of interviewees reporting that they access online content through legal services. Among the most used platforms, the previously mentioned sites stand out as able to meet the requests of their users: PirateStreaming (14%), Eurostreaming and AltaDefinzione (13%), followed by PopCorn Time (11%). Indexing sites seem to fulfil not so much the users’ request of retrieval functionality—then also supplying a possible occasion of economic profit—as an indication of the users’ emotionality in looking for specific cultural content, a right which is recognized as legitimate. The indexing sites do not legalize file-sharing in the perception of the final user—who also recognizes its illegality—but makes that same form of distribution appealing, in comparison
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to traditional forms of distribution that do not respond to personal requests for additional content. It is not a coincidence that the fight over file-sharing proved to be more efficient not as much through the blackout of specific services,7 but instead following real competition with online services, which are perceived as being at the same level and responding to the same demands of the online market. By competing with piracy, online distribution services like Netflix, Amazon or, in Italy, Mediaset Infinity, are now efficiently gathering users from the bucket of piracy, proposing an offer which is emotionally more interesting for the online viewer, implementing their functionalities in terms of convenience, access possibilities, comfort, and quantity.8 Similar to the Netflix catalogue—which is recognizable thanks to specific characteristics and peculiarities of viewing—the forms of cataloguing used by the majority of indexing sites propose efficient and recognizable functions. To name a few, the possibility to choose among several types of formats (HD or not), compression, and then quality of the audiovisual file, viewing types (streaming/download, with original language or not, subtitled or dubbed),9 or also the recommendation of similar content or of the most popular titles.10 These features allow these informal distributors to be—for all intents and purposes—competitive, with specific features that are interchangeable with formal distributors. Similarly, the user is able to feel a sense of love-mark towards the distributor that, in the case of informal platforms—even more if they are part of a grey zone hardly categorizable from a moral point of view by the user, as in the case of cyberlockers—becomes a brand of the distributor, with specific political and socio-economic connotations. If in the case of BitTorrent, the political motion significantly distinguishes the active uploader users from the free-riders, earmarking the linking site to have an essentially functional role that is often outdated in comparison with the simple research on Google, a different situation happens in the case of file-sharing through cyberlockers. Here, the indexing site more clearly becomes a primary vehicle for the user to recognize the service, acting as a showcase. At the same time, the formal distribution is learning from the informal systems the necessity to create, or to take advantage of, communities. As Marrazzo remembers, the primary and historic Italian public broadcaster RAI, even from 2013 has been distinguished “for a greater attention towards new languages and themes, through the choice of serial products constantly linked to the contemporaneity” (Marrazzo, 2016) and, more importantly, has been one of the firsts to experiment with “a productive line dedicated to the web-oriented production” (ibid.). This approach materialized with the launch
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in 2015 of the Ray portal, an online laboratory dedicated to the youth market. It is from these first examples to the actual online platforms launched by mainstream Italian broadcasters in the same period (2015), that is indicative of how they were learning a fundamental lesson: the need to make community, which both indexing sites and formal catalogues (including Netflix and other OTT services) fulfill. It is not a coincidence that both the showcases are currently overflowing with a specific product, the scripted TV series, in opposition to the reality and talk show formats—“the two genres-symbols of the crises (…) of the mainstream TV” (Ibid.)—for its own capability to create loyalty and collective identity. This content generates community, facilitating the emotionality of the viewers, projecting television storytelling always more towards the spectator’s private sphere instead of the collective one, which primarily characterizes reality and talk genres. As a consequence, the same catalogue becomes a special mean for the exhibition of emotionality. It must be able to generate community itself, creating discourses about the catalogue’s capability of containment and its potentiality, terms that become comparable to the formal characteristics of systems based on indexing sites, particularly if connected to cyberlocker services, which also have political and socio-economic implications. These modalities through which access points are exposed, types of distributed contents and— equally—the emotional bond they establish with the viewer. In both cases, catalogues’ and indexing sites’ characteristics and recognizability are proposed as elements of identification of the service (or lovemarks), and allow the consumer to choose a specific informal or formal distributor.
Notes 1. For an extended version of the research: Larson, Svensson, and de Kaminski (2014). 2. In their study on the justification of piracy, Andersson Schwarz and Larsson list a series of answers by an examined sample of The Pirate Bay users identifying as the main justification (30.63% in a total of 67,838 respondents) the answer “Cheapness/expenditure” (Andersson Schwartz & Larsson, 2014). 3. “The pirate that, for many reasons, appears as the digital version of the free-rider, should be considered nowadays as both a user and a consumer, even if anomalous compared to stabilized figures” (Pescatore, 2013, p. 48). 4. As defined by Henry Jenkins, i.e., “the capacity of the public to engage actively in the circulation of media content through social networks and in the process [expanding] its economic value and cultural worth,” Jenkins, 2009. In addition, the term refers to “the technical resources that make it easier to circulate some kinds of content than others, the economic
7. 8. 9. 10.
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structures that support or restrict circulation, the attributes of a media text that might appeal to a community’s motivation for sharing material, and the social networks that link people through the exchange of meaningful bytes” (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013, p. 4). Echoing Lessig’s definition of “read-write culture” and of the use of remix within it (Lessig, 2008), we could extend the idea to the concept of a GIF culture, aiming to highlight the users’possibility to decontextualize and appropriate a copyrighted and also authorial content to give it new meanings: “The communicative capabilities of the.gif image format—an image in movement characterized by a short duration and by a repetitive and looping pace— depend not only on the usability of the extrapolated content, but also on its total alienation from the authorial motion” (Prosperi, 2017). Read-write, Remix or GIF are the fundamental traits of a user-centered culture where the creator’s importance is perceived as secondary. Indeed, we can acknowledge a divergence due to something in the “metaphors of copyright that do not correspond to the conceptions of the corresponding social norms.” (Larsson, 2011, p. 21). And through specific communication strategies of criminalization of piracy, as it is pointed out by Yar (2008). Reasons that are among those found by the Nextplora’s study for the use of streaming services. A clear example is the Italian platform CineBlog01 (http://www.cb01.uno). As it happens in the platform Italia-Film (http://www.italia-film.gratis).
References Andersson Schwartz, J., & Larsson, S. (2014). The justification of piracy: Differences in conceptualization and argumentation between active uploaders and other file-sharers. In M. Fredriksson & J. Arvanitakis (Eds.), Piracy: Leakages from modernity. Sacramento, CA: Litwin Books. Antoniades, D., Markatos, E. P., & Dovrolis, C. (2009, November 4–6). One-click hosting services: A file-sharing hideout, in internet measurement conference. Proceedings of the 9th ACM SIGCOMM Conference on Internet Measurement, Chicago, IL. Barra, L., & Scaglioni, M. (2013). Tutta un’altra ficion. La serialità pay in Italia e nel mondo. Il modello Sky. Carocci, Roma. Braga, R., & Caruso, G. (Eds.). (2013). Piracy effect: norme, pratiche e studi di caso. Mimesis, Milano-Udine. Crisp, V. (2014). To name a thief: Constructing the deviant pirate. In M. Fredriksson & J. Arvanitakis (Eds.), Piracy: Leakages from modernity (pp. 39–54). Sacramento, CA: Litwin Books. Crisp, V. (2015). The piratical is political. Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture, 55(1), 71–80. Crisp, V., Hickman, J., Janes, S., & McCulloch, R. (2013). Of proprietors and poachers: Fandom as negotiated brand ownership. Participations, 10(1), 319–328. Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York, NY: New York University Press.
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Jenkins, H. (2009). The revenge of the origami unicorn: Seven principles of transmedia storytelling. Confessions of an Aca-Fan. Retrieved from http://henryjenkins.org/2009/12/ the_revenge_of_the_origami_uni.html Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York, NY: New York University Press. Larsson, S. (2011). Metaphors and norms: Understanding copyright law in a digital society. Lund: Lund University, Department of Sociology of Law. Larsson, S., Svensson, M., & De Kaminski, M. (2013). Professionalizzazione, gender e anonimato nelle comunità di file-sharing globale. In R. Braga & G. Caruso (Eds.), Piracy effect: norme, pratiche e studi di caso. Milano-Udine: Mimesis. Larsson, S., Svensson, M., & De Kaminski, M. (2014). The Research Bay—Studying the global file sharing community. In W. T. Gallagher & D. J. Halbert (Eds.), Intellectual property in context: Law and society perspectives on IP. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York, NY: Penguin Press. Lobato, R. (2012a). A sideway view of the film economy in an age of digital piracy. Necsus. European Journal of Media Studies, 1. Lobato, R. (2012b). Shadow economies of cinema: Mapping informal film distribution. London: BFI-Palgrave. Lobato, R., & Thomas, J. (2015). The informal media economy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. Marrazzo, F. (2016). Effetto Netflix: Il nuovo paradigma televisivo. Milano: Egea. Nextplora. (2016). Streaming video: in Italia vince Netflix. Seguono Infinity e Skyonline. http://business.nextplora.com/blog/2016/06/22/streaming, 22/06/2016 Pescatore, G. (2013). La pirateria come forma di consumo dei beni culturali. In R. Braga & G. Caruso (Eds.), Piracy effect: Norme, pratiche e studi di caso. Milano-Udine: Mimesis. Prosperi, G. (2017). Tra TV e GIF quality. The Young Pope come esempio di complessità televisiva. Annali online della Didattica e della Formazione Docente, XI(2), Università degli Studi di Ferrara. Re, V. (2014). Italy on Demand: Distribuzione online, copyright, accesso. Cinergie: Il cinema e le Arti, 3(6), 64–73. Re, V. (2015). Online film circulation, copyright enforcement and the access to culture: The Italian case. Journal of Italian Cinema & Media Studies, 3(3). Renouard C. Droit de visionnage versus droit patrimonial: le cas des repackeurs de films non commercialisés, In A. Beltrame, L. Fales, & G. Fidotta (Eds.), Whose Right? Media, Intellectual Property and Authorship in the Digital Era, Udine: Forum. Rigamonti, N. (2006). Personal home cinema: La rete, lo spettatore e il crogiuolo digitale. In F. Casetti, M. Fanchi (Eds.), Terre incognite. Lo spettatore italiano e le nuove forme dell’esperienza di visione del film. Roma: Carocci. Shirky, C. (2009, June 6). Q&A with Clay Shirky on Twitter and Iran. Ted Blog. http://blog.ted. com/2009/qa_with_clay_sh.php Yar, M. (2008). The rhetorics and myths of anti-piracy campaigns: Criminalization, moral pedagogy and capitalist property relations in the classroom. New Media & Society, 10(4), 605–623.
·5· netflix and tv - as - film A Case Study of Stranger Things and The OA Ana Cabral Martins
For the last two decades, the emergence of digital content distribution has made filmed entertainment available through a myriad of new platforms and formats thanks to this technology. Online digital platforms, such as Netflix, have been erasing medium-specificity, i.e., features that are unique to the nature of one particular medium, specifically cinema and television. This blur between cinema and television has also increased through the same treatment offered by platforms such as Netflix to its properties, including episodic content such as their original “television” series, or films they produce or buy to distribute. The Cannes controversy over Bong Joon-ho’s new film Okja (2017) that led the festival to proclaim that Netflix films will not compete for festival prizes starting next year is proof of Netflix’s disruptive force. As both cinema (see the shared universe model of the Marvel Cinematic Universe1) and particularly television, have become increasingly serialized, so too has the appeal of long-form storytelling increased. Evidence of this change can be found in the kind of talent that is increasingly attracted to serialized storytelling, whether on television (ushered in by the likes of the recent Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective series) or in streaming platforms under the guise of “quality television.”
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The impact of long-form storytelling has led to examples of such televisual storytelling considered as akin to long films. The phrasing “a very long movie” has been used by countless creators regarding their own projects, from Game of Thrones to The OA and Stranger Things. Essential characteristics of this new kind of long-form content of which The OA and Stranger Things are examples derives from features that are inherently specific to the Netflix platform: its “binge-watchability,” the fact that Netflix thinks and operates in terms of seasons and not episodes, and its pre-conception of a season in terms of a 10-hour (the usual although imperfect model), 13-hour (used by the Marvel Netflix series) or 8-hour narrative, which allows for new modes of structuring narratives. The 8-hour story, a model used by both The OA and Stranger Things, has arguably been the most successfully paced. It eschews most of the concerns critics such as Alan Sepinwall have regarding “pacing problems” when it comes to programs whose hours of content merely stretch narratives that are unable to sustain the runtime of the season (Sepinwall, 2018).
Erosion of Cinema and Television’s Medium-Specificity Emma Bee Bernstein wrote medium specificity is inextricably related to a “distinct materiality of artistic media,” even though this is essentially defined by convention given that “the qualities that define a medium are not irreducible or inherent properties” but instead “historically construed categories of tools and practices” (Bernstein, n.d.). In this way, cinema and television’s media specificity can be seen more as a “convention” than an actual inherent and inescapable quality of the media. I argue this is a relevant avenue of thought to explore considering how digital technology has, as a perhaps collateral effect, stripped media from its materiality. As David Bordwell (2012) proclaimed, a film is no longer an actual “film,” but instead undifferentiated content to be fed into a database. This freedom from materiality provided by the database or streaming platform, allows for inventiveness unfettered by rules of broadcast programming. In this way, filmmakers are drawn to the creation and production of stories that can bend narrative structures more easily—as is the case regarding both The OA and Stranger Things. Taking into consideration the importance of the apparatus for both media, let’s consider how the differences between the two have become more porous through the years, especially with the advent of digital technology.
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Anne Friedberg (2000) explored how film started losing its media specificity and cinema “as we know it” seemed to end (p. 380). Friedberg stated that the cinema screen “has been replaced by its digital other, the computer screen” (p. 439). The author argued that the end of the twentieth century encountered cinema as a severely transformed form of popular entertainment due to having become embedded, or even lost, in new media technologies, blurring the lines of media specificity: “the differences between the media of movies, television and computers are rapidly diminishing” (p. 439). The “symptomatic discourse” referred to this phenomenon as “media fusion,” “multimedia,” or “media convergence” (p. 439). Specifically, Friedberg contended that the kinds of images that are shown on screens (theater screen, television screen, computer screen) are “losing their medium-based specificity” (p. 439) due to the homogenization of digitization. Interestingly, the author discussed how a number of technologies introduced in the 1970s and the 1980s led to the “convergence of film and television technology” (p. 440), even before digitization, muddling the differences between media, as well as altering their respective viewing experiences. The video cassette recorder (VCR), television remote control, and cable television were able to not only change audiences’ “sense of temporality,” but also prepare them for “the advent of computer screens with wired (Internet) connections—for interactive usage instead of passive spectatorship” (p. 442). To Friedberg, the VCR made it possible for the “cinematic and televisual past [to become] more easily accessible and interminably recyclable” (p. 443). Like Friedberg, Laura Mulvey (2006) realized how much new media technologies and devices (video, DVD) have transformed the way we experience cinema. Audiences can now exercise control over movies with the abovementioned technologies and that changes their rapport, leading to “new ways of watching films” (p. 7) and even “new ways of watching old movies.” There is, in tandem, a new kind of “spectatorship” that is being developed by these technologies (p. 8). Mulvey also argued for a different kind of emancipatory quality brought on by video and digital technologies. The ability to return to and repeat a film interrupts the “flow of film, delaying its progress, and in the process, discovering the cinema’s complex relation to time” (p. 8). These mechanisms of delay and time-shifting are early indicators of a tendency towards the personalization of the home viewing experience. If the theater viewing experience of a spectator is much more immersive in a passive way (quietly sitting down and beholding what is presented without control over its presentation), the home viewing experience is immersive in an active way
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(having, increasingly, total control over the whole experience: when and where to watch, pause, skip, stop, etc.). One can say that digital technology removed film from cinema, but while the “filmic” (that which pertains to film) stepped out of the proverbial frame, the “cinematic” (that which pertains to cinema) takes center stage. As Cavell (1979) conveyed, the categories of “succession” and “projection” merely highlight that which is the “essence of the cinematic,” including montage and continuity (p. 73), which encompass the grammar of cinematic language. The idea of cinema possessing its own language and visual grammar is what transcends the medium beyond its materiality—and, therefore, beyond the issue of media specificity—and allows its endurance beyond its technological and technical support. Roberta Piazza, Monika Bednarek, and Fabio Rossi (2011) argued that the notion of “telecinematic discourse” establishes “a link between fictional/ narrative cinema and television” through seeing them both as examples of integrated multimodal (verbal and visual) fictional narratives. The authors were quick to point out, however, the “intrinsic differences between them,” because films and television shows follow “specific conventions and fulfill viewer’s expectations in different ways on all levels” (p. 1). Piazza et al. exemplified the differences between cinema and television by stating that they can be seen “in the contrast between a single isolated narrative experience in the case of film versus a more consistent and/or repeated exposure to a televisual narrative in the case of television” (p. 1). Nonetheless, I make the case for examples of televisual content that can—and have been—seen as more akin to cinematic content while not being beholden to either medium; the content has been created specifically for a digital platform, which upends usual conventions. In making this case, I venture that The OA and Stranger Things are adept at, on the one hand, crafting an isolated narrative and, on the other hand, encouraging said narrative be consumed as a single experience, rather than through repeated exposure. This way, these programs favor the unity of the narrative instead of its multiplicity. Here, I’m taking a cue from the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, Stéphane Delorme, who wrote what he considered to be the general difference between cinema and television, placing it squarely in a spectrum from multiplicity (television) to unity (cinema). Something that is though of, from its inception, as a unit would go further into the spectrum in the direction of cinema (Delorme, 2018). Notably, both The OA and Stranger Things work towards blending or blurring the lines between televisual and cinematic structures and languages.
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Netflix, Television, and Binge-Viewing When preparing to write a piece for the Portuguese magazine Sábado on the proliferation of television series and the growing supply across platforms (Cabral Martins, 2017), I interviewed a series of American journalists on their thoughts regarding “Peak TV”—a concept that emerged when John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks, stated in an industry event in 2015 that the United States had reached “peak television”—and on the idea often cited by creators of “the x-hour movie.” Reactions ranged from reasoning that streaming platforms have changed the logics of viewing and allowed for heavily serialized narratives, which increased the value of those programs, to damning such a reductive phrase. In most cases, while it’s an ultimately valid ambition, it reinforces an outdated distinction between TV as less serious than—or even, less creative than—and places the emphasis on movies as the artistic higher plane on which to aspire. At the same time, focus is placed on a season arc instead of on smaller stories and at the expense of crafting individual episodes. What is inescapable, however, is the notion than emphasizing the cinematic qualities of a television show corresponds to prestige, which is, at face value, a pernicious argument, as quality television cannot be something that solely strives to be cinematic. Chuck Tryon wrote about Netflix’s original strategies and analyzed the kind of discourse that the company enforced while trying to set itself apart with promises of participation, prestige and personalization. Tryon (2015) cited Kevin Spacey, of Netflix’s original series House of Cards, proclaiming (in a speech at the 2013 Guardian Edinburgh Television Festival): “Is thirteen hours watched as one cinematic whole really any different from a film?” (p. 104). For the author, the use of such a discourse of legitimation was more than familiar, new only when it came to linking “the practice of binge viewing to quality television” (p. 104). Furthermore, Tryon argued that Netflix was simply following in HBO’s footsteps—a cable channel that famously sought to differentiate itself from TV in order to present a more prestigious veneer (“It’s not TV. It’s HBO”)—seeking to “define the streaming service against traditional television, while also making streaming video into something that will fulfill the promise of textual novelty, of new storytelling practices” (p. 105). Thusly, Netflix’s aim in producing its own original content has been to, technologically and aesthetically, position itself as the future of TV while moving beyond TV. On the notion of “discourses of legitimation,” Tryon contended that Netflix has incentivized the “packaging” of their filmed entertainment, priming it
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to “be viewed sequentially and repeatedly” or continuously (p. 106). In turn, these changes have opened up two dominant modes of viewing on subscription video-on-demand services: “discovery or archival mode,” where viewers discover older shows, and “instant mode,” a mode “encouraged by Netflix’s practice of releasing an entire season of a series simultaneously”. Tryon argued that this latter mode is emphasized by Netflix in order to foster “promises of prestige, plenitude, participation, and personalization” (p. 106). The dynamic of the “instant mode” also tends towards facilitating consecutive viewing (with the ease that episodes follow each other up with only 5 or 15 seconds of repose) and turns binge watching into the new normal. Furthermore, while Netflix embraced television content by producing its own original library of series, it did so by “distancing itself from traditional modes of TV storytelling and consumption.” By fostering binge watching and simultaneous release practices, these became aesthetic components of contemporary televisual viewing. These practices have also led to “more innovative storytelling practices because a show’s creators can assume that those viewers will be more likely to remember subtle details” (p. 110). Tryon cited a Wired Magazine article by Grant McCracken where the latter argued that binge viewing was conducive to producing “better” television because creators and writers would not be shackled by the “need for recaps and other clunky narrative devices,” allowing for more “complex TV narratives” (p. 112). Finally, Tryon argued that through promotional discourses, Netflix “increasingly casts itself as participating in the reinvention and in the cultivation of new modes of TV storytelling.” While this position may reinforce ahistorical claims about changes in the television industry, it is still worth of our attention—Stranger Things and The OA are examples of how Netflix allows for different ways of creating longform content, specifically through a mixture of televisual and cinematic languages. Todd VanDerWerff (2015) contended, “binge-watching fundamentally changes the basic unit of cinematic storytelling.” Netflix storytellers, in particular, “aren’t just adjusting to this; they’re increasingly catering to it, telling longer and longer stories” (VanDerWerff, 2015). In the New York Times, James Poniewozik (2018) illustrated how, unlike other cable channels, Netflix doesn’t have a brand. Unlike the ethos of most American cable channels, Netflix’s is more akin to “something for everyone” like broadcast television. Although, because Netflix’s revenue does not come from the advertising model—which then “forces” every show to appeal to the broadest range of people—but from subscribers instead, which leads the service to be “breathtakingly broad and microscopically niche at the same time.
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It’s selling a platform to everyone, but by providing products for very specific tastes” (Poniewozik, 2018). Nevertheless, Thomas Schatz (2014) called Netflix one of the “most significant and disruptive forces in contemporary television,” whose pivot from “flix” to television changed “the ways we access and watch TV,” ending up representing a significant variation on the “ancient broadcast television model.” Schatz noted that Netflix’s online streaming operation was more favorable to TV series than it was to film content, and the key to its success has been its ability to make the right programming decisions. Netflix is interested in producing its own shows, as well as films, and cultivating new talent. This focus has meant a considerable migration of established, as well as not established, “filmmaking talent from movies, particularly the fading indie-film sector, to TV series production.” This move has led to an arrangement that seems to be the best of both worlds: talent is freed from the constraints of regular studio production, and “viewers are freed from the constraints of regular programming and commercial interruptions” (Schatz, 2014). Finally, in regards to medium specificity and convergence, Amanda D. Lotz noted that a case can be made that digital technologies and online platforms blur the lines between television and other media: In the first decade of the 21st century, television escaped categorization as “old media” and is now perceived as a crucial part of the digital, social, mobile media future. Some devil might advocate that it is more precisely video that is shared across a range of screens and contexts; that it is an unreasonable stretch to assert that tablet and smartphone technologies, industrial formations that include broadband distributors such as YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu, and the ability to view anytime, anywhere still make this content characteristic of television. (Lotz, 2014)
This passage denotes precisely how digital technologies have seemingly rendered cinema and television indistinct, insofar as the machinery that supports each medium has become one and the same. Just as there are proponents of a language of cinema that is transcendent from its technical capture and presentation, Lotz argued, “our cultural practice of experiencing daily, mostly video communication as television [author’s emphasis] overrides the technological nuance of delivery system.” She admits, however, to expanded storytelling possibilities and allows that the medium of audio-visual storytelling we call television is still ripe for exploration. My argument, of course, is that this exploration can draw television and cinema closer in the spectrum referenced by Delorme and mentioned above. In fact, the cultural practice of consuming
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video on Netflix doesn’t necessarily translate into experiencing it as television, but rather as content. And “content” is a much less rigid categorization and one that allows for the undifferentiated contemplation of television and cinema. When watching Netflix, there are no definitive lines that separate, for instance, watching eight, perhaps continuous, hours of The OA versus watching nearly five and a half of both uncut volumes of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013).
Case Studies: Stranger Things and The OA In an era of on-demand viewership, audiences are engaged and sophisticated, allowing the television medium to offer opportunities, not limitations. Stranger Things and The OA are examples of forms of storytelling that bridge the distance between cinema and television, that utilize the same language (or a combination of cinematic and televisual languages), and that are in a less extreme placement on the spectrum between television and film.
Stranger Things: American 80s Films as Television The word-of-internet success of Stranger Things stemmed, in large part, from its ability to recapture a certain essence of feeling that was present during the 1980s in the work of two Stevens: the films of Steven Spielberg and the books of Stephen King. The influence of these authors and the nostalgic feeling of this series is beyond the scope of this chapter. Furthermore, this analysis focuses on the show’s first season. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer began their careers with the 2015 horror film Hidden and worked that same year on episodes of M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of sci-fi novel Wayward Pines. Film director Shyamalan’s mentorship allowed the Duffers to pursue their own idea for a show. Their original rationale, inspired by Hugh Jackman’s Prisoners (2013), as told to Kory Grow from Rolling Stone, was: “‘Wouldn’t that movie have been even better in eight hours on HBO or Netflix?’” (Grow, 2016). Already the idea of treating it like a movie, only longer, was the kernel of idea that fueled the whole first season. The plot is easy to summarize: in order to rescue Will (Noah Schnapp) from the alternative dimension of the Upside-Down, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) worked alongside Will’s mom (Winona Ryder), police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia
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Dyer), Nancy’s not-truly-bad boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), and the mysterious and fantastical Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to confront evil and defeat it. They were able to rescue Will, but seemed to lose Eleven in the process, although, it was suggested in the final moments that she was still out there. Initially, it is interesting to consider how much the first season was thought of by the creators as a unified whole The episodes are not thought of as individual units, with beginnings-middles-ends, but as a purposefully slow building up of the narrative along three demographic lines: the adults, the teenagers, and the kids, who all converge in the latter part of the season. Stranger Things essentially works as an eight-hour version of a Steven Spielberg movie (the comparisons to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, 1982, are not far-fetched, on the contrary). The structure of the season is also very much movie-like—and let us not take for granted the auto-play feature and lack of episode recaps (it does, however, have open and end credits). This structure flows much more in a long-form storytelling mode—considering that it has, as Todd VanDerWerff (2017) argued, a “reasonably involving opening, a solid climax, and then a bunch of stuff in the middle.” The middle is where the difficulty setting is higher, because, on the one hand, it deepens and expands tropes, even if largely adhering to them (VanDerWerff, 2016); on the other hand, it does feature some plot contrivances, which allow for the “[d]elay of audience gratification,” something that has been “a staple of episodic storytelling for a long time” (Matthews, 2016). Both the production house and creative forces treated the text more akin to cinema in its marketing as well, and the second season was promoted as a sequel. In “‘Stranger Things 2’ Fights the Sequel Blues,” NPR’s Linda Holmes (2017) wrote that the creators were “insistent on treating their series like a film.” In the actual Netflix interface, while catalogued in the same section as the first season (i.e., within the folder of Stranger Things and not as a separate entity catalogued as Stranger Things 2), when one chooses the “episodes options,” instead of the customary “Season 1” and “Season 2,” they are labeled as Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2. Consequently, from the get-go, the season was positioned as a movie sequel—even if, in its second iteration, the Duffer brothers were prone to a more episodic structure, specifically at least when it came to episode seven, a contained story focusing only on Eleven. This example, however, only serves to underline how little the first season considered each installment individually. Holmes (2017) argued that while usually this type of “nitpicking of nomenclature and classification is a fruitless effort to beat back the inevitable
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collapse of filmed entertainment into a less cleanly bounded whole,” in the case of Stranger Things 2, this made sense. Not only because the first season felt like a contained and completed tale, but also because the second season actually features the shortcomings of a movie sequel, such as the existence of a “fine line between maintaining the feel and signature of a show and beginning to repeat its patterns”. Finally, it’s also relevant to observe how the names of the episodes are titled as chapters, like “Chapter Three: Holly, Jolly” or “Chapter Four: The Body,” which conveys less of an episodic structure and more of a literary structure (following the influence of Stephen King in the creation of this show), very much like a Tarantino movie that’s divided into chapters or the aforementioned Nymphomaniac, which was divided into chapters and two volumes.
The OA: Long-form Storytelling The OA was a December surprise back in 2016. The project was announced in 2015 but had few specifics and no release date until only a few days before it hit Netflix. For many viewers, the program was something they stumbled upon when it was released as an eight part series. A genre-defying thriller sprinkled with touches of spirituality and mystery, The OA focuses on a blind woman (Brit Marling) who disappears only to resurface with her sight regained. From the production’s early stages, The OA was pitched as having a five-season arc, and rather than developing a narrative that shifts directions after each season, the series is one long story which will be released in blocks. Peter Debruge considered The OA as a breakthrough because of “what it means for cinema—and the future of narrative storytelling.” Debruge explained that, while The OA is hosted and created by Netflix and technically divided into episodes and should, therefore, be labeled as “television” (or, perhaps, as Amanda D. Lotz also toys with), it is actually a “long-form movie.” Like Stranger Things, it’s divided into “eight chapters, conceived by a pair of paradigm-challenging filmmakers who’ve recognized untapped potential in this new medium.” Unlike Stranger Things, which can be perceived as a remix of influences that appeals to a nostalgic sentiment, The OA is one of “the purest pieces of auteur filmmaking,” coming directly from the mind of its creators, writer-director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer-star Brit Marling. If we continue to borrow Stéphane Delorme’s idea of the unity-to-multiplicity spectrum, where a text is thought of as a unity from a clear set of creators, then The OA is clearly using cinema’s structures and even languages. Batmanglij
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and Marling have been collaborating for a long time. Their first feature-length “brainchild” was actually Sound of My Voice (2011), which was “conceived as a serialized narrative, with miniature cliffhangers or twists paced every 10 to 15 minutes, building to one giant open-ended head-scratcher at the end.” Had Netflix been producing its own content at the time, it would surely have snagged it. As Debruge argued, they were already “thinking beyond the usual limitations of narrative” and working within a framework that is thoroughly ambiguous while committing to a destination, operating more in the “cinematic than television tradition.” This story was presented by the creators as a self-contained narrative, a standalone eight-hour story that has a beginning, middle and end, providing a “depth with which few two-hour mysteries can possibly compete”—while still leaving the door open for future seasons (Debruge, 2016). Batmanglij is not thinking in terms of episodes and each one runs a different length. In a more consistent way than Stranger Things, The OA has a very deliberate sense of pace when it comes to its chapters: the “opening” credits arrive nearly an hour into the first chapter to never appear again, further underlining how cinematic it is. The chapters are not so clearly identified as such in their names (as Stranger Things’ are), but the boundaries between each installment is incredibly porous. While the episodes have end credits, then don’t appear in auto-play mode. The only indication of a change in episode is an ethereal “separator,” an image with a circular point of light that lasts the five seconds it needs so that Netflix plays the following episode right away. In an interview with Esquire, Batmanglij divulged that they were “interested in the similarity between novels and long-form [my emphasis] television, and we wanted to approach this more like you would writing a novel.” This approach impacted how they planned character introductions and the placement of their “story engine[s]” and climax. In the same piece, Marling talked about Netflix as a place for filmmakers to “tell robust, different kinds of stories,” concerning “original, long format stories” (Dibdin, 2016). In an in another interview, Marling talked about how The OA “stretches the limits of what long-form storytelling can be” (Bramesco, 2016). Going back to the unity-to-multiplicity spectrum written about by Stéphane Delorme, The OA is a “continuous, ever-escalating narrative, and each of the eight segments distributed by Netflix is a chapter” (Debruge, 2016). Delorme (2018) also wrote about the desire to tell stories in long-form, and the filmmakers might see in television the opportunity to explore long-form in ways feature films don’t allow. This longing for something more long-form emulates literature,
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and he mentions filmmakers that have followed the literary model in their own work, such as Nymphomaniac or La Vie d’Adèle (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013). The interplay between long-form storytelling, literature, and cinema and a division into chapters is territory being explored on multiple fronts, both in theatrical cinema and in Netflix’s on-demand, streaming distribution model. The OA may be one of the most groundbreaking pieces of storytelling in recent years, I’d argue, because it blends so thoroughly these gaps between the languages and structures of television and cinema.
Netflix Poetics and Concluding Thoughts Casey McCormick (2017), argued, “the full-season dump model departs from the traditional industry logic of offering viewers a slow drip of content.” This traditional logic means hyping appointment television, as well as distribution gaps or hiatuses, which generate anticipation. Essentially, her argument here is that economic imperatives affect the formal structures of television, such as “plot, and character pacing, season and episode length,” but also types of character, tone, violence and other graphic content. When it comes to on-demand streaming platforms such as Netflix, the economic imperatives shift—although the platform does encourage appointment viewing and binge viewing2, as well as “binge racing” (Keene, 2017). Due to the subscription model, there is no “slow drip of content,” hiatus, or structured narrative breaks imposed by commercials. I have argued that on-demand native series can much more easily translate their freedom from the aforementioned restraints of the traditional television economy into new forms of storytelling and play with serialized storytelling in new ways. Stranger Things played with language usually reserved for blockbuster filmmaking, providing its first season not with a second one but with a sequel. The OA utilized the Netflix streaming apparatus to its advantage by creating a show that is devoid of televisual markers and instead plays as a long film, especially when taking advantage of the auto-play mode. The importance conceded to the episode versus to the season is of paramount concern when discussing Netflix’s stories. VanDerWerff (2015) has said, “Netflix thinks more in terms of seasons than episodes,” and Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos has famously stated, “the first season of Bloodline is the pilot.” To the streaming platform, the whole is more important than its individual parts, and the episode, the individual unit of television, is demoted in favor of the season as the true barometer of meaning. This
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emphasis indicates a tendency from Netflix itself toward narratives that favor a different kind of unity, one more closely associated with the cinematic reference of the single experience. Another television critic, Alan Sepinwall, has bemoaned this focus on storytelling and has defended the individual episode, having real reservations when TV positions itself as akin to literature or film (Sepinwall, 2015, 2017). In VanDerWerff eyes, however, Netflix is inadvertently inventing a new art form, somewhere between TV and film. This is notable, as I discussed in detail in this chapter, from the way both The OA and Stranger Things blur the lines between the “multiplicity” of their chapters and the “unity” of its narrative. The “movie-only-longer” slogan fits neatly when it comes to The OA and Stranger Things. According to McCormick (2017), the past years of prolific original programming has given creators working with Netflix “opportunity to experiment with this storytelling form,” having created a “specific set of tools and tactics for creating meaning in televisual narrative” that she calls “Netflix poetics.” The author describes the poetics—apart from distinctions in episode length and season structures—as including “thematic and stylistic consistencies across programming genres.” These consistencies, as well as this poetic structure, are present in The OA and Stranger Things and contribute to their status as longform narratives, somewhere between cinema and television. Both these shows are “metafictional or self-conscious about storytelling,” including narrators or underlining “storytelling-as-such” (like The OA). Of course, any recapping strategies are eschewed, and cliffhangers are utilized to a much lesser extent. The power of auto-play (an encouraged practice), as McCormick argues, is a feature that “subverts the power of endings,” and it primarily serves to keep a viewer watching: “we are often so lured by the joys of narrative immersion that we give ourselves over to the addictive flow of a particular series.” The immersive power of the narrative is imperative for the unfolding of these case studies as examples of longform storytelling that exist between cinema and television. Ultimately, as on-demand viewing emphasizes a “drive towards finality by encouraging binge-viewing” (McCormick, 2017), the longform nature of The OA or Stranger Things is reinforced. Finality is not achieved at the end of a particular episode, but at the end of the provided content—as if it were a movie.
Notes 1. Joanna Robinson writes about this in her article “Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe Actually the Most Popular TV Show of the Decade?” (2017) in Vanity Fair.
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2. While binge viewing can be considered a passive activity, there is an increased control put on the viewer’s end, where audiences have much more control over how and when they consume media.
References Bernstein, E. B. (n.d.). Medium specificity. The Chicago School of Media Theory. Retrieved February 27, 2018, from https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/ medium-specificity/ Bishop, B. (2017, August 9). Netflix doesn’t want to be a better streaming service—it wants to be Disney. The Verge. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2017/8/9/16116896/ netflix-disney-deal-streaming-future-original-content-reed-hastings Bordwell, D. (2012). Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies. Madison, Wisconsin: The Irving Way Institute Press. Bramesco, C. (2016, December 19). Brit marling on the OA, Netflix’s surprise show about dying. Vulture. Retrieved from http://www.vulture.com/2016/12/brit-marling-the-oa-netflix.html Cabral Martins, A. (2017, October 10). Porque já não vivemos sem séries. Sábado. Retrieved from http://www.sabado.pt/gps/palco-plateia/series/detalhe/series-porque-que-ja-nao-vivesem-elas?ref=GPS_Destaques_series Cavell, S. (1979). The world viewed: Reflections on the ontology of film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Conlin, L., Billings, A., & Averset, L. (2016). Time-shifting vs. appointment viewing: The role of fear of missing out within TV consumption behaviors. Communication & Society, 29(4), 151–162. Debruge, P. (2016, December 24). Why “The OA” is one of the year’s most important films. Variety. Retrieved from http://variety.com/2016/tv/columns/the-oa-netflix-brit-marlingfilm-critic-appreciation-1201948242/ Delorme, S. (2018, January). Éditorial: Film et série. Cahiers du Cinéma, (740), 5. Dibdin, E. (2016, December 19). “The OA” creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij break down the mysteries of Netflix’s surprise series. Esquire. Retrieved from https://www.esquire.com/ entertainment/tv/news/a51648/the-oa-netflix-interview-brit-marling-zal-batmanglij/ Friedberg, A. (2000). The end of cinema: Multimedia and technological change. In C. Gledhill & L. Williams (Eds.), Reinventing film studies (pp. 438–452). New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA. Grow, K. (2016, August 3). “Stranger Things”: How two brothers created summer’s biggest TV hit. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/features/stranger-thingscreators-on-making-summers-biggest-tv-hit-w431735 Holmes, L. (2017, October 23). “Stranger things 2” Fights The Sequel Blues. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2017/10/23/559484255/stranger-things-2fights-the-sequel-blues Keene, A. (2017, October 17). Netflix Touts the Rise of “Binge Racing,” i.e., the Worst Way to Watch Television. Collider. Retrieved from http://collider.com/netflix-binge-watching-data/
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Lawson, M. (2016, August 5). Nostalgic nightmares: How Netflix made Stranger Things a watercooler smash. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/tv-andradio/2016/aug/05/netflix-hit-stranger-things-highlights-tvs-trend-for-nostalgia Lotz, A. D. (2014, January 13). The persistence of television. Flow Journal. Retrieved from https://www.flowjournal.org/2014/01/the-persistence-of-television/ Lucas, C. (2014, October 27). The golden age of television (Cinematography). Flow Journal. Retrieved from https://www.flowjournal.org/2014/10/the-golden-age-of-televisioncinematography-christopher-lucas-trinity-university/ Matthews, A. (2016, August 24). Stranger things and the problem of “plotblocking.” Retrieved from http://www.talkhouse.com/stranger-things-problem-plotblocking/ McCormick, C. (2017, March 27). TV Finales: On-Demand Endings. Flow Journal. Retrieved from https://www.flowjournal.org/2017/03/on-demand-endings/ Mulvey, L. (2006). Death 24x a second: Stillness and the moving image. London: Reaktion Books. Nocera, J. (2016, June 15). Can Netflix survive in the New World it created? The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/magazine/cannetflix-survive-in-the-new-world-it-created.html?_r=5 Piazza, R., Bednarek, M., & Rossi, F. (Eds.). (2011). Telecinematic discourse: Approaches to the language of films and television series (Vol. 211). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing. Retrieved from http://www.jbe-platform.com/content/books/9789027285157 Poniewozik, J. (2018, February 14). Netflix is getting huge: But can it get great? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/14/arts/television/netflix-ryanmurphy.html Robinson, J. (2017, December 5). Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually the most Popular TV show of the decade? Vanity Fair. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/ hollywood/2017/12/is-the-marvel-cinematic-universe-actually-the-most-popular-tvshow-of-the-decade Schatz, T. (2014, January 20). HBO and Netflix—Getting back to the future. Flow Journal. Retrieved from https://www.flowjournal.org/2014/01/hbo-and-netflix-%e2%80%93getting-back-to-the-future/ Sepinwall, A. (2015, November 24). Why your TV show doesn’t have to be a novel: In defense of the episode. Uproxx. Retrieved from http://uproxx.com/sepinwall/why-your-tvshow-doesnt-have-to-be-a-novel-in-defense-of-the-episode/ Sepinwall, A. (2017, March 14). Your TV show doesn’t have to be a movie: In defense of the episode. Uproxx. Retrieved from https://uproxx.com/sepinwall/in-defense-of-the-episode-again/ Sepinwall, A. (2018, August 18). Why Netflix Dramas Sag Midseason—and How They’re Fixing It. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-features/ why-netflix-dramas-sag-midseason-cindy-holland-interview-707986/ Tallerico, B. (2017, October 23). “Stranger Things 2” operates from the James Cameron Sequel Playbook. Roger Ebert. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/demanders/ stranger-things-2-operates-from-the-james-cameron-sequel-playbook Tryon, C. (2015). TV got better: Netflix’s original programming strategies and binge viewing. Media Industries Journal, 2(2). https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/mij.1503 1809.0002.206
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VanDerWerff, T. (2015, July 29). Netflix is accidentally inventing a new art form—not quite TV and not quite film. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2015/7/29/9061833/ netflix-binge-new-artform VanDerWerff, T. (2016, August 2). Stranger Things doesn’t just reference ’80s movies: It captures how it feels to watch them. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2016/8/2/12328900/ stranger-things-netflix-review-emotions VanDerWerff, T. (2017, October 27). Stranger Things 2 is bigger, weirder, and—eventually— better than season 1. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/10/27/16548 566/stranger-things-season-2-review-spoilers
·6· at the fringes of tv Liminality and Privilege in Netflix’s Original Scripted Dramedy Series Jessica Ford
Netflix has produced and distributed an extraordinary amount of original content since 2012, including documentaries, variety series, and feature films. However, it is their original scripted television series that have attracted the most critical attention. Netflix original series are subjected to considerable scrutiny from of popular culture criticism sites, including Vulture, The A.V. Club, and Slate. In 2015, Vulture produced a “definitive list” that evaluated and ranked all of Netflix’s original series available at that moment (Lyons, 2015). Considerable digital column inches have been dedicated to the micro-analysis and critique of Netflix’s most “binge-able” series, including House of Cards (2013–2018), Orange Is the New Black (2013–2019), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015–2019), Stranger Things (2016-present), and 13 Reasons Why (2017-present). As of 2018, Netflix produces and distributes far more original scripted content than other subscription video-on-demand platforms, including Amazon and Hulu. Despite this, Netflix Originals still only makes up a small percentage of Netflix’s expansive catalogue both in the US and internationally (Wayne, 2017, p. 6). As a result, the overwhelming majority of content distributed by Netflix is produced and initially distributed via other platforms and networks. Nevertheless, Netflix Originals shape and influence Netflix’s
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brand identity more than the other content they distribute. Netflix is still an anomaly in the US and global television landscape in scale, branding, and content development, and how it operates at the fringes of the US television landscape as it functions outside the terrestrial broadcast and cable systems. Viewers need a certain amount of cultural capital to access Netflix’s original programming, as they must either pay the required subscription fee or have the know-how to access the series through illegal means. As such Netflix is simultaneously “outside” traditional US television structures and understood as occupying a privileged position. This chapter will explore how this tension between liminality and privilege manifests thematically, narratively, generically, tonally, and aesthetically in various Netflix original scripted television series. As such I will examine the Netflix Original dramedies Orange Is the New Black, Master of None (2015-present), Lady Dynamite (2016–2017), Dear White People (2017-present), and GLOW (2017-present). Although this group may seem disparate in terms aesthetics, form, subject, and tone, taken together they affirm the quiet radicality of Netflix’s approach to original scripted programming.
TV Today: “Young, Smart, and on the Move” In the past, US television was considered a feminized medium associated with the domestic space (Spigel, 1992, pp. 73–74). In the post-network era, however, the dominant narratives around US scripted television emphasize the narrative that it has been revolutionized. As Charlotte Brunsdon argues, “Instead of being associated with housebound women, this new television is young, smart, and on the move, downloaded or purchased to watch at will.” (2010, pp. 65–66) This concept of television as young and mobile is often associated with Netflix. Existing scholarship on Netflix largely focuses on algorithms, branding strategies, and binge-culture (Hallinan & Striphas, 2014; McDonald & SmithRowsey, 2016; Wayne, 2017). While certain original series, such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, have garnered considerable academic and popular attention, there is minimal examination of the aesthetic, thematic, generic, and narrative similarities across scripted Netflix Originals. Netflix has been celebrated by critics and audiences for its provocative and challenging programming that relies on previously unheard voices and stories, such as those of women, people of color, and differently-abled people (Boboltz &
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Williams, 2016; Page, 2016). Many of these Netflix original scripted television programs are at once marginal and privileged, as evidenced textually and extra-textually in the series’ thematic concerns, use of genre, and negotiation of issues of gender, race, class, and ability. Liminality and privilege are loaded (and often contradictory) political concepts that move across critical race theory, gender studies, postfeminist theory, cultural studies, whiteness studies, and examinations of class and caste. As they are historically embedded concepts with distinct ideologies, ontologies, and epistemologies they have varied meanings and uses that are often context dependent (Broadhurst, 1999; Kimmel & Ferber, 2016). Sang Hyun Lee notes that, “Liminality is the situation of being in between two or more worlds, and includes the meaning of being located at the periphery or edge of a society” (2010, p. x). I use the term liminality to refer to a state of marginalization, whereby something or someone exists or is forced to operate outside or at the fringes of a mainstream place or space. Privilege refers to the material, cultural, historical, and/or economic advantages that have been or are currently afforded to individuals or groups of people. Privilege is the result of systemic inequality based on race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, religion, ethnicity and other social and cultural divisions. I use the concept of “privilege” as it has emerged out of feminist theory (hooks, 1984). Privilege is a key issue of feminism’s third and fourth waves. Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed notes that “what makes a privilege a privilege” is “the experiences you are protected from having; the thoughts you do not have to think” (2017, p. 181). Privilege and liminality are lived experiences and they manifest in representations and cultural forms. Netflix is a privileged object within the US television landscape and operates at the fringes of that landscape. Through a series of case studies, I will explore how this intersection and negotiation of liminality and privilege manifests aesthetically, narratively, thematically, generically, tonally, and formally in various Netflix scripted dramedies. This chapter focuses on dramedies that challenge the existing structures of the US television landscape in different ways, namely Orange Is the New Black, Master of None, Lady Dynamite, Dear White People, and GLOW. These series circulate as part of what Casey J. McCormick calls Netflix’s “complex digital flow,” which marks them as both marginal and prestige (2016, p. 113). Although Netflix did not invent the dramedy, they have laid claim to the hybrid genre in recent years, investing considerable development dollars in series that fall at the intersection of the traditional drama/comedy distinction.
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This signals Netflix’s investment in a “prestige” narrative that is central to HBO, Showtime, Hulu, and FX’s marketing and programming strategies (Akass & McCabe, 2007; Newman & Levine, 2012). In recent years dramedies have become associated with so-called “quality” or “prestige” television. Dramedy is an industry term, that has been taken up in academic writing to describe series that bring together elements of comedy and drama (Keeler, 2010, pp. 30–31; Lotz, 2006, pp. 32–33). The dramedy is a particularly rich genre for performing complicated and often contradictory politics. However, Netflix’s investment in dramedy series (both hour-long and half-hour forms) makes award competition difficult as these series do not clearly fall into either the best drama or best comedy categories. In 2014 hour-long dramedy Orange Is the New Black competed as a comedy series at the Primetime Emmy Awards, but in 2015 it competed as a drama series. The dramedy is generically and formally both liminal and privileged. It exists in the space in between genres and is often viewed as an exciting, experimental, and innovative space (Bianchini & De Souza, 2017; San Filippo, 2017). This chapter focuses on dramedies created by and/or starring individuals who have historically been marginalized or ignored in the US television landscape. Starting with Orange Is the New Black, which is one of Netflix’s earliest original scripted programs and one of its most critically and (allegedly) commercially successful series (Obenson, 2013; Lyons, 2015). My exploration continues with Master of None and Dear White People, which are written, directed, and starring people of color, and center on the stories, lives, and perspectives of characters of color. With Lady Dynamite I will consider how fiction, biography, and absurdism are used to explore mental illness in the entertainment industries. Finishing with a discussion of GLOW, which is a fictionalized retelling of the establishment of a professional televised women’s wrestling league in the 1980s.
Forgotten and Ignored: The Women of Orange Is the New Black Orange Is the New Black is set in a minimum-security federal women’s prison and follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a new inmate, as she enters the correctional system for the first time. Piper has been sentenced to 15-months in prison on a drug trafficking charge from 10 years prior. In prison Piper meets a range of characters from various walks of life. Each of the women’s stories
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is treated with sympathy and understanding, with many characters getting flashbacks which attempt to explain and/or contextualize their actions in the present. The flashback structure emphasizes the humanity of the characters and the universality of their experiences. Often the flashbacks also highlight the structural and systemic injustices that lead to the women’s incarceration. Orange Is the New Black engages with ideas of liminality and privilege at a narrative and thematic level. The series is interested in how systems of power often oppress the most vulnerable in society, while simultaneously benefiting those in positions of privilege. The significance of Orange Is the New Black to this chapter lies in how it simultaneously participates in and takes on issues of liminality and privilege. Orange Is the New Black is a liminal object operating in a liminal space that takes on issues of liminality. The series is invested in the lives of women who are situated at the edges of society in a space (prison) that is largely forgotten and/or ignored. The series highlights the stories of incarcerated women, many of whom are people of color. Orange Is the New Black challenges the existing value hierarchy by privileging the stories and experiences of marginalized women. Various forms of systemic oppression are examined through the prison system and its enforcers: the guards, wardens, and counsellors. The system fails to meet the women’s basic needs, repeatedly. Over the course of the first three seasons, transgender inmate Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) loses her hormone treatments due to budget cuts not once, but twice. Almost all attempts by the inmates or the administration to challenge the level of control that the prison has over these women’s day-to-day lives fail. In season two, Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), Sister Jane Ingalls (Beth Fowler), and Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman) stage a hunger strike in protest of the poor conditions of the prison, but ultimately their work is undone and no systemic change is enacted. The narrative operates to remind the audience and the characters that they are forgotten and ignored. However, the series emphasizes that these women’s lives and stories are important and worth of being seen. The series stages a number of negotiations of systemic power. During season one an election storyline gives the inmates the allusion of agency. The inmates run for election to the Women’s Advisory Council (WAC), which is made up of “representatives” from each of the prison’s factions—the white inmates, the African American inmates, the Latinx inmates, and the “others,” which refers to some elderly inmates, and some of Asian descent. Even within the liminal space of the prison some groups are further marginalized than others. The WAC election is rigged by counsellor Sam Healy
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(Michael Harney) who chooses who he wants on the council. Despite not running or campaigning, Piper “wins,” due to Healy’s belief that she is a “nice white person” like him. Upon joining WAC, Piper learns that it is a ruse to quell the inmates’ desire for agency and maintain the status quo. Piper functions as an exemplar of white privilege and the limitations of white feminism. Ultimately Piper’s failure to change anything reinforces the status quo of the prison: the guards and wardens are in control and the women are powerless. Piper’s privilege in the external world, while transferred into prison, does not hold the same capital as it did on the outside. Interestingly, this tendency of negotiating and exploring liminality and privilege is not limited to one or even two Netflix original scripted series, but rather manifests across a range of shows. The friction between individuals and systemic power is also explored in Dear White People and GLOW. Master of None takes further the consciousness raising employed by Orange Is the New Black, in that Master of None eschews a white “entry point” for the audience in favor of a protagonist of color.
Distinctly Filmic Master of None Master of None is created by comedian and actor Aziz Ansari and writer Alan Yang, and stars Ansari as Dev—an Indian American actor living in New York, who is presumably struggling with many of the same things as Ansari, including being asked in auditions to “do an Indian accent,” being profiled as a terrorist, dating, and negotiating the cultural differences between his life in Westernized multicultural New York and his parents’ experiences as immigrants from India living in North Carolina. Master of None is a half-hour series with a loose approach to serialized narrative and a distinctly filmic aesthetic. The series explores liminality and privilege at the at the level of story and aesthetics and through its examination of race, class, and the immigrant experience. The series’ second episode “Parents” explores Dev and Brian’s (Kevin Yu) relationship with their respective immigrant parent. The episode is structured around flashbacks to each of their fathers’ earlier lives. Brian’s character is based on the life and experiences of co-creator Yang, who is the child of first-generation Chinese-American immigrants. In flashbacks we see Dev’s father Ramesh (played by Ansari’s father Shoukath Ansari) as a young child in India, his immigration to the US, and the alienation he experienced as
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a doctor in the US. We also see flashbacks to Brian’s father Peter (Clem Cheung) as a child in Taiwan where he had to kill his pet chicken for the family to eat. Both fathers’ stories are depicted as difficult, but ultimately as success stories. Ramesh becomes a well-respected doctor in North Carolina, while Peter ultimately owns a popular Chinese restaurant with his wife. The episode overtly contrasts the relatively impoverished childhoods of Ramesh and Peter with the luxury and excess experienced by Dev and Brian throughout their childhoods and in the present. Scenes of Ramesh’s childhood are contrasted with a young Dev (Rupak Ramki) playing video games in his comfortable suburban house. Young Dev is rude to his father, underlining the entitlement and privilege he experiences. One scene in “Parents” depicts an excited twenty-something Ramesh arriving at the hospital for his first day of work as a doctor in North Carolina. An awkward scene between Ramesh and his new boss cuts directly to Ramesh and Nisha (played by Ansari’s mother Fatima Ansari) eating in an empty cold, stark hospital cafeteria. The long shot makes Ramesh and Nisha appear small within the frame. They are made liminal, physically, psychically, and emotionally within the space of the hospital. Yet it is not as simple as Ramesh was marginalized, so that Dev could experience privilege. Master of None highlights that liminality and privilege are not antithetical, but in perpetual negotiation. Liminality is not traded for privilege in Master of None or more generally, but rather marginalization is often part of certain experiences or manifestations of privilege. Master of None draws aesthetically and stylistically on European cinema, situating the series in relation to a high-brow form of cinema that may be inaccessible for many within mainstream audiences. As seen in first episode’s use of French artist Jacques Dutronc’s song in the opening credits, which are formatted like an old European film. However, it is most overtly displayed in the second season episode “The Thief,” which adopts the aesthetic and tone of the Italian neo-realist film The Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948). Echoing the film, “The Thief” is shot entirely in black and white and follows Dev, in Modena Italy, as he attempts to retrieve his stolen mobile phone. Master of None is clearly placing itself within a tradition of non-American, non-Hollywood cinema through its engagement with European cinema. While this kind of cinema is not widely consumed in the US, it is often understood as prestigious. Master of None debates and complicates notions of liminality and privilege at the level of narrative, aesthetics, and form by playing with televisual form in particularly interesting ways. The episodes are not a consistent length,
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varying from 21 minutes to 57 minutes, taking advantage of the flexibility of streaming distribution. Each episode is structured somewhat like a short film and there are only a few consistent characters other than Dev. In the second season episode “I Love New York,” Dev is a peripheral character as the episode focuses on three new characters: a doorman, a store clerk, and a taxi driver. Furthermore, each of these figures are performing occupations that are often marginalized in US culture. In addition to referencing European cinema of the Cahiers du Cinéma era, Master of None adopts some of the tendencies of these films, including long takes, montages, and discontinuity editing. While Master of None explores liminality and privilege through aesthetics, genre, and form, Lady Dynamite takes on these issues in rather literal ways.
Making Fun(ny) of Mania in Lady Dynamite Lady Dynamite follows the fictional (although based in biography) life of stand-up comedian and actor Maria Bamford (played by Bamford herself) as she attempts to reestablish her personal and professional life in the wake of a mental breakdown and subsequent stay in a rehabilitation center. Mental illness is a key element of Bamford’s stand-up comedy persona and her character in Lady Dynamite. On stage and in the series, Bamford explores her struggles with anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and manic episodes. Lady Dynamite centers Maria’s experiences with mental illness rather than shying away from them. In season two her mental illness is depicted as a superpower that allows her to save the world. The series draws on Bamford’s experience with these psychiatric conditions, as well as her relationship with pug Bert and husband painter Scott Marvel Cassidy (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson in the series), her career as a comedian, spokesperson, and actress, and her childhood in Duluth with her parents and friends. These events are deliberately not rendered in a realistic fashion, but rather in a heightened and often absurd ways that emphasize Maria’s alienation, shifting emotional and mental states, and her fraught relationship with her family. Themes or messages that appear as subtext in many other series are often made text within Lady Dynamite. While Master of None implies a relationship between the past and present, Lady Dynamite makes overt the connection between events of the past and their relationship to and impact on Maria’s present and future. Season two has three timelines in operation within each episode. The first is set in 1987 Duluth, when Maria is in high school and experiencing the early symptoms of as yet as undiagnosed Bipolar2 disorder,
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including suicidal ideation. The second is the “present” where Maria is dealing with her engagement and wedding to Scott. And the final timeline is the “future” where Maria is filming a television series based on her life, that is very similar to Lady Dynamite but with science fiction elements. In the final episode of the season the seemingly unrelated timelines come together as it is revealed that the “future” represented in the series is the result of poor decision making in the “present.” These connections are made explicit within the series, with Maria clearly recognizing and articulating the relationship between the two timelines. She says: “I will not lose my mind over a dumb TV show, I’ve got integrity … I will not regret this, I’ve seen the future in my head.” Lady Dynamite shifts between different time periods throughout each episode. These shifts are marked by interstitial title cards and the employment of different filmic and aesthetic language, depending on whether the scenes are set in the past, present, or future. Scenes set in the “past” use a laugh track and sound cues reminiscent of 1980s family sitcoms. Unlike in the “present” and “future” the camera work in the “past” is smooth and controlled. Scenes set in the “future” use a synthetic discordant soundtrack and a frenetic editing style that highlights how Maria experiences reality as disjointed. These kinds of tonal and stylistic shifts keep the audience in a constant state of flux, whereby it is not always immediately clear what the objective of a scene or scenario is. Lady Dynamite positions itself stylistically and narratively at the fringes of traditional televisual content, as it employs an absurdist logic and tone that distinguishes it from much of the contemporary television content in circulation. Lady Dynamite uses shifting styles, forms, and narratives to put the audience on edge and create a sense of unpredictability within the series.
Dear White People: Interrogating Blackface The Netflix series Dear White People is based on the critically successful indie film by the same name. The 2014 film was directed and written by series’ creator Justin Simien and established the world of the television series—a fictional Ivy League College named Winchester University. The series’ first season distinguishes itself from the film by using the episodic structure to shift perspective with each episode. This allows the audience to experience the same event and reactions to that event from different characters’ perspectives. An almost didactic voiceover (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito) is one of the few constants in the series, and it is used to deliver exposition and develop a running commentary on the series’ repetition.
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The instigating event of the series is a blackface party hosted by a predominantly white student group that invited its guests to “dress up” as African American. The party is swiftly broken up by students from various campus political groups and the controversy is captured on camera and covered by a campus newspaper. Throughout the first season, we return to the party to further uncover the enabling circumstances and to explore the aftermath and how it impacts various characters. This structure allows the audience to witness the event and its ramifications from numerous often contradictory perspectives. In the first episode, we see the party through Samantha White (Logan Browning)—a campus activist, mixed-race Black-identified woman, Head of the Black Student Union, and host of a campus radio show called “Dear White People.” Sam uses her radio show to call out subtle and overt racism, such as probing questions about hair, hygiene, class, and familial background, and the proposed forced integration of the only all-Black student housing on campus. In the first episode, Sam addresses her fellow students via her radio show as follows, “Dear White People, here is a list of acceptable Halloween costumes: a pirate, a slutty nurse, any of our first 43 Presidents. Top of the list of unacceptable costumes: me. Winchester couldn’t get through 2017 without blackface?” Sam is initially the audience’s proxy in the diegesis, but she is not the only entry point, rather just one of many. Returning again and again the blackface party effectively forces a rethinking of the race, class, and gender politics at play. No singular vision is given priority, but rather the blackface party becomes a space upon which questions of marginalization and privilege centered on race are played out and debated. The structure of the first season allows for the perpetual renegotiation of these issues in a way that does not allows for a simple, singular understanding or solution to the systemic structural issues that impact the Black students at this fictional (but very much based in reality) Ivy League college campus. The series makes apparent that there is no easy solution to the ingrained racial issues, because they operate at all levels of the university administration and the system operates to increasingly oppress Black students, while providing many opportunities for white students to succeed. Dear White People privileges perspectives and characters that are generally understood and represented as liminal. Furthermore, this “liminal” perspective is multifaceted and often contradictory. The series presents and examines different kinds of African American experiences, embodiments of blackness, and engagements with racial politics. No two characters are depicted as agreeing on how to address the blackface party or the potential forced desegregation
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of the Black college housing. Sam is outraged and suggests organizing protests in response to these events, but Troy (Brandon P. Bell) wants to work with the university administration to come up with a solution. Racism and its associated marginalization are represented in Dear White People as both a lived experience with a material emotional, physical, and psychological toll and a systemic ingrained problem that is perpetuated through complicity and complacency. Those in power benefit from inequitable racist systems, even if those in power are people of color themselves, such as in the case of Troy’s father Dean Fairbanks (Obba Babatundé). Politically, narratively, and formally Dear White People is one of the more innovative and progressive original dramedies on Netflix. Form and narrative structure force the audience to sit in the discomfort and contradictions of race and racism in contemporary America. The Black experience is not simplified to be easily digestible or funneled through a single character or perspective. Rather the series enables race and class to complicate and deconstruct liminality and privilege.
“Liberty Belle” vs. “Zoya the Destroyer”: Conflict in GLOW GLOW stands for “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” and the Netflix series is a fictionalized take on the real professional women’s wrestling league established in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The series is created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and produced by Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan. GLOW has many similarities with Orange Is the New Black, including its blending of low and high culture, its use of a predominantly low-key aesthetics, and its employment of a large diverse women-centric cast. Like Orange Is the New Black, GLOW also uses a young pretty white woman—Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie)—as its way into an exploration of a world dominated by nonwhite women with varying body sizes and shapes. GLOW makes the fight between privilege and marginalization literal in its depiction of women’s wrestling, at the level of story and character. The central character conflict is between actresses Ruth and Debbie (Betty Gilpin). In the first episode it is revealed that Ruth has been having an affair with Debbie’s husband, while Debbie has been caring for their newborn child. This conflict spans the duration of the first season and manifests both in and out of the wrestling ring as they are cast opposite each other, with
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Debbie as the all-American girl “Liberty Belle” and Ruth as a Soviet-style communist aggressor “Zoya the Destroyer.” Debbie’s animosity towards Ruth outside the ring fuels their rivalry inside the ring as they learn the moves and work through their issues. Ruth and Debbie are both marginalized and privileged and different ways. Ruth is a struggling actress with no prospects who is depicted as difficult. Debbie is a former soap star who left acting to become a fulltime mother and now feels irrelevant and ignored. Both actresses are seeking a space that values their talents. Placing these two ostensibly attractive, white, heterosexual, skinny women in a context where they are surrounded by women of color of various body sizes and shapes effectively highlights their privilege. The wrestling personas assigned to each of the women by their white male boss (played by Marc Maron) rely on overt racial, class, and gender stereotypes. Many characters have reductive and offensive wrestling personas, such as a Latinx wrestler “Machu Picchu” whose defining features are her race and size, “Beirut the Mad Bomber” who is instructed to “act like a terrorist,” and African American wrestler “Welfare Queen” who brags about her dependence on the welfare system. These are far from progressive characters, but the series uses these stereotypes to explore the parameters of identity, as well as critiquing these stereotypes at both a diegetic and series level. The thematic conflict of GLOW is between those who take wrestling seriously and those who do not. For many of the women depicted in the series, wrestling offers an opportunity to “perform,” which is not otherwise available because of the their race, class, gender, appearance, and/or abilities. Wrestling provides a space where their particular set of characteristics and talents are valued. In popular culture, professional wrestling is largely framed as a silly form of entertainment that is enjoyed by undereducated people (Mazer, 1998, p. 18). While this may not be accurate, GLOW uses the lack of prestige associated with professional wrestling, in particular women’s wrestling, to explore how women’s cultural products (both those aimed at women and featuring women) are often undervalued and disrespected. This operates as a meta-commentary on the historical devaluing of television, in particular melodrama, as women’s entertainment. Obviously, there is a male audience for women’s wrestling, but the series does not court the male gaze. The women’s bodies are not sexualized, eroticized, or objectified by the camera; it does not linger on the women’s breasts or legs, but rather focuses on their muscles at work, the wobble of their thighs, and the concentration on their face as they learn new maneuvers.
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In many ways GLOW follows the template set out by Orange Is the New Black, which is not surprising given the overlap in creative teams. Both Orange Is the New Black and GLOW explore liminality and privilege through theme, story, and character. While Master of None, Lady Dynamite, and Dear White People are more experimental and often progressive in form, politics, aesthetics, and style, Orange Is the New Black and GLOW ease the audience into their worlds with familiar characters, aesthetics, and narratives. Despite their varied approaches, each of the series I have examined highlight different aspects of the experience, depiction, and ramifications of liminality and privilege.
Conclusion This chapter explores how Netflix’s location at the nexus of liminality and privilege manifests in its scripted original dramedy series. Although it is largely considered mainstream today, Netflix still operates at the fringes of the traditional US television and uses a model of production and distribution that is still relatively unusual. Despite this, Netflix has been critically and commercially successful in its investment in original scripted programming. Therefore, Netflix is simultaneously operating within a liminal yet privileged space. These industrial conditions materialize in some of their original scripted drama series through form, genre, tone, aesthetic, narrative, style, and theme. My examination highlights how liminality and privilege are intersecting, but distinct concerns that manifest in across various Netflix original dramedies. While I have focused on five key Netflix original dramedies—Orange Is the New Black, Dear White People, Master of None, Lady Dynamite, and GLOW— this chapter’s conclusions could be extended to other Netflix series which operate at the nexus of liminality and privilege, including Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Grace and Frankie (2015-present), One Day at a Time (2017–2019), and Santa Clarita Diet (2017–2019). Can this seemingly niche content strategy continue as the industry behemoth continues to grow? The (assumed) popularity of these existing series suggests that it can. Netflix continues this niche tendency with its recent acquisitions that circulate as Netflix Originals outside the US market, such as The Good Place (2016-present), Marlon (2017–2018), Great News (2017–2018), Good Girls (2018-present), and Champions (2018). Hopefully, this suggests Netflix’s commitment to privileging marginalized and liminal voices, both behind the camera and on-screen.
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References Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a feminist life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Ansari, A., & Yang, A. (Creators). (2015-present). Master of None. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix. Akass, K., & McCabe, J. (2007). Sex, swearing, and respectability: Courting controversy, HBO’s original programming and producing quality TV. In K. Akass & J. McCabe (Eds.), Quality TV: Contemporary American television and beyond (pp. 62–76). London: I.B. Tauris. Bans, J. (Creator). (2018-present). Good Girls. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: NBC. Bianchini, M., & De Souza, M. C. J. (2017). Netflix and innovation in Arrested Development’s narrative construction. In C. Barker & M. Wiatrowski (Eds.), The age of Netflix: Critical essays on streaming media, digital delivery and instant access (pp. 98–119). Jefferson, NC: McFarland. Boboltz, S., & Williams, B. (2016, February 27). If you want to see diversity on screen, watch Netflix. The Huffington Post, 27 February. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com. au/entry/streaming-sites-diversity_us_56c61240e4b0b40245c96783 Broadhurst, S. (1999). Liminal acts: A critical overview of performance and theory. London: Cassell. Brunsdon, C. (2010). Bingeing on box-sets: The national and the digital in television crime drama. In J. Gripsrud (Ed.), Relocating television: Television in the digital context (pp. 63–75). London: Routledge. Brady, P., & Hurwitz, M. (Creators). (2016–2017). Lady Dynamite (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix. Calderon Kellett, G., & Royce, M. (Creators). (2017–2019). One Day at a Time. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix. De Sica, Vittorio. (Director). (1948). The Bicycle Thieves (Motion Picture). Italy: Produzioni De Sica (PDS). Duffer Brothers, The. (Creators). (2016-present). Stranger Things. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix. Fey, T., & Carlock, R. (Creators). (2015–2019). Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix. Flahive, L., & Mensch, C. (Creators). (2017-present). GLOW. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix. Fresco, V. (Creator). (2017–2019). Santa Clarita Diet. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix. Grandy, C., & Kaling, M. (Creators). (2018). Champions. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: NBC. Hallinan, B., & Striphas, T. (2014). Recommended for you: The Netflix prize and the production of algorithmic culture. New media & society, 18(1), 117–137. doi: 10.1177/ 1461444814586-46 hooks, b. (1984). Feminist theory: From margin to center. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. Kauffman, M., & Morris, H. J. (Creators). (2015-present). Grace and Frankie. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix.
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Keeler, A. R. (2010). Branding the family drama: Genre formations and critical perspectives on Gilmore Girls. In D. Diffrient & D. Lavery (Eds.), Screwball television: Critical perspectives on Gilmore Girls (pp. 19–35). Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. Kimmel, M. S., & Ferber, A. L. (Eds.). (2016). Privilege: A reader. (4th ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Kohan, J. (Creator). (2013–2019). Orange Is the New Black. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix. Lee, S. H. (2010). From a Liminal place: An Asian American theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. Lotz, A. D. (2006). Redesigning women: Television after the Network Era. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. Lyons, M. (2015, August 31). Every Netflix original series, ranked. Vulture. Retireved from http://www.vulture.com/2015/08/netflix-original-series-ranked.html Mazer, S. (1998). Professional wrestling: Sport and spectacle. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press. McCormick, C. J. (2016). “Forward is the Battle Cry”: Bing-Viewing Netflix’s House of Cards. In K. McDonald & K. Smith-Rowsey (Eds.), The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st century (pp. 101–116). New York, NY: Bloomsbury. McDonald, K., & Smith Rowsey, K. (Eds.). (2016). The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st century. New York, NY: Bloomsbury. Moynihan, C., & Wayans, M. (Creators). (2017–2018). Marlon. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: NBC. Newman, M. Z., & Levine, E. (2012). Legitimating television: Media convergence and cultural status. New York, NY: Routledge. Obenson, T. A. (2013, October 21). ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is Netflix’s most-watched original series ever—likely thanks to you. IndieWire. Retrievied from http://blogs.indiewire. com/shadowandact/orange-is-the-new-black-is-netflixs-most-watched-original-series- ever-likely-thanks-to-you Page, A. (2016, June 17). The rise of dramedy: Why TV comedies getting serious is a good thing. Collider. Retrieved from http://collider.com/dramedy-tv-orange-is-the-new-blackmaster-of-none/ San Filippo, M. (2017). Doing time: Queer temporalities and Orange Is the New Black. In C. Barker & M. Wiatrowski (Eds.), The age of Netflix: Critical essays on streaming media, digital delivery and instant access (pp. 75–97). Jefferson, NC: McFarland. Schur, M. (Creator). (2016-present). The Good Place. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: NBC. Simien, J. (Director). (2014). Dear White People. (Motion Picture). Los Angeles, CA: Studio Simien, J. (Creator). (2017-present). Dear White People. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix. Spigel, L. (1992). Make room for TV: Television and the family ideal in postwar America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Wayne, M. L. (2017). Netflix, Amazon, and branded television content in subscription video on-demand portals. Media, Culture & Society, 40(5), 725–741. doi: 10.1177/0163443 71736118
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Wigfield, T. (Creator). (2017–2018). Great News. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: NBC. Willimon, B. (Creator). (2012–2018). House of Cards. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix. Yorkey, B. (Creator). (2017-present). 13 Reasons Why. (Television Series). Los Angeles, CA: Netflix.
·7· programming gendered content Industry, Post-feminism, and Netflix’s Serialized Exposition of Jessica Jones Jason A. Smith, Briana L. Pocratsky, Marissa Kiss, and Christian Rafael Suero
Streaming services offer a new way for audiences to engage with messages encoded in television programming, challenging the traditional format of network and cable television. In addition to this novel way to engage with content, streaming services have responded to the demand for more and better representations in television and film. Netflix has consciously attempted to offer original programming that complicates tired, and regularly problematic, status quo depictions. However, cultural texts associated with progressive depictions can (re)produce inequalities in the guise of progressive content, ultimately creating a new form of unequal representation or contributing to the solidification of preexisting tropes and stereotypes. Therefore, there is an urgent need for scholars to critically engage with the influx of programming content that is labeled as, or brands itself as, progressive, alternative, or diverse as a means to distinguish itself in the market. This chapter addresses content of Netflix programming through a case study of the character Jessica Jones. As a product of the Netflix/Marvel television partnership, Jones is a character who appeared in both her own self-titled and individual show, Jessica Jones, and The Defenders, an ensembled crossover mini-series. Utilizing a media industries approach on the “interrelation of macro-political and micro-political analyses” (Johnson, 2009, p. 57) of
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Netflix programming, we highlight the connection between production and representation of the female hero Jessica Jones in both series. This chapter is grounded in literature covering the televised female hero and feminist theories of representation to understand how Netflix programming enters this culturally relevant subgenre of television studies. The larger political economy of Netflix programming interplays with the production and representation that is present in those programs. Thus, the serialized exposition of Jessica Jones offers a useful case study to examine the ways that gendered representations are malleable in the post-network era of media content. Crossing from her own self-titled show to an ensemble miniseries, Jones is a character reflective of Netflix’s attempts to generate programming in a post-feminist cultural environment. The production of these two shows must contend with the need for original and innovative content while maintaining a commitment to the political economic structure of the Netflix/Marvel deal. This chapter asks if Jessica Jones offers a nuanced representation of a female hero or does the character simply repackage stereotypical narratives, profiting from a post-feminist cultural moment?
A Media Industry Approach to Netflix Due to its structured and organizational mode of production, media content is not merely a way to entertain ourselves. As scholars who engage in “media industries” approaches attest, the media content which we use in our daily lives is a cross-current of political and economic dimensions that intersect with the social realm of our society. These approaches highlight the political economy of media and the ways that content is formulated based around the need for media companies to produce revenue or maintain control on a particular segment of the news and entertainment markets. Additionally, these approaches are often historical in their outlook and pay close attention to changes that occur within the institutions that intersect with media industries. Critical sociological studies of media compliment media industry approaches in their attunement to issues of power and inequalities as embedded within institutions—noting that “strategy follows structure” (Benson, 2014) within media organizations. Speaking toward this structure, Amanda Lotz (2009) categorized contemporary television as belonging to the “post-network era.” In this post-network era, the medium has undergone fundamental changes to its production and distribution patterns which impact its cultural relevance. The “bottle-necking”
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of content in the past among a handful of networks loosened with the spread of cable television and have given way to a large variety of programming genres and formats in the contemporary media landscape. As Lotz further noted, the digitization and accessibility of content through mediums other than television have increased cultural diversity at a surface level yet paradoxically fragmented audiences’ engagement with this diversity. In the post-network era, it becomes difficult to assess how media content has a cultural impact and whether counterhegemonic narratives can maintain their presence once they have emerged. Feminist discourses that are distant, or oppositional, to the status quo walk a fine line in gaining visibility within the media landscape.
The Netflix/Marvel Deal Within this post-network era, Netflix has emerged as one of the most recognized streaming services for media content. The shift to original content in 2011 has been a concerted business choice to establish itself as a leader in the streaming television field. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, has distinguished the company’s approach to programming as distinct from other “quality” and “niche” cable-channels such as HBO, AMC, and FX. Rather than focusing on specific programming genres, Netflix is about personalization—as Sarandos has stated, “I don’t want our brand to influence our programs, and I don’t want the programs to influence our brand … M aking our brand about one thing over another risk polarizing our customers” (quoted in Curtin, Holt, & Sanson, 2014, p. 144). The Netflix strategy to content has been a wide-reaching net, in which content for multiple audiences is produced to ensure subscribers to its service. In late 2013, Netflix and Disney announced a multi-year plan to produce several live-action shows to be aired exclusively on Netflix’s streaming service. The plan centered on utilizing Disney’s Marvel properties and releasing shows based on several characters: Daredevil (2015–), Jessica Jones (2015–), Luke Cage (2016–), and Iron Fist (2017–). The culmination of the individual series led to a cross-over mini-series, The Defenders (2017).1 Alan Fine, President of Marvel Entertainment, at the time stated that the deal was “unparalleled in its scope and size, [reinforcing a] commitment to deliver Marvel’s brand, content and characters across all platforms of storytelling” (quoted in Flint, 2013). While Jessica Jones is a rather recent addition to the Marvel universe, first appearing in comic form in 2001, the other series featuring Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist have a repository of comic book material dating back
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to the mid-1960s and early 1970s respectively. In speaking more on the deal, Alan Fine noted the benefits of a multi-series format to tap into these repositories, in which on-demand television would allow both Marvel and their fans the “flexibility to immerse themselves how and when they want” (quoted in McMillan, 2013). Since the announcement and subsequent release of these television series, reports have noted the relative success of the series both with viewers and critics. As the need for Netflix to create and offer original content increases in a fragmented media environment, the collaboration and business strategies employed will push Netflix to produce diverse content; content that is both engaging for its diverse population of subscribers, as well as news-worthy to distinguish itself from competitors. By news-worthy we mean the rate in which Netflix content attempts to become a cultural taste maker—producing television and film content that is circulated among popular websites and is discussed writ large in the general population (DeCarvalho & Cox, 2016; Tryon, 2015). Netflix’s ability to become a cultural taste maker had been fueled by its production of original content and viewing format. For example, Chuck Tryon (2015) noted that in order to distinguish itself early on, Netflix sought to have its programs compared to “more privileged cultural forms” among critics, and to cultivate an engaged audience through the practice of binge-watching (as episodes for shows were released all at once, as opposed to the traditional weekly episode television model).2 The task of being a cultural taste maker is not without considerable effort or the need to make risky decisions. In the 1980s and 1990s, channels such as FOX and HBO gambled in producing content for African-American audiences (Squires, 2009; Zook, 1999). Likewise, with issues regarding women and work, television networks before, during, and after the feminist movement of the 1970s struggled with producing shows which wrestled with the changing cultural ideologies of women’s roles in society (Press, 1991). As a new content producer in the post-network era, Netflix must thread the needle between content that pushes against, as well as molds, cultural trends and cultivating a sizeable audience for its streaming services. Jessica Jones, a female private eye with superpowers, is a prime case study to evaluate content and notions of gender diversity on television in the post-network era. As part of the successful Marvel Studios effort to move their comics onto film and television screens, Netflix makes an economically viable bet to maintain and generate its subscriber base.3 At the same time, producing a show with a female protagonist also taps into areas of cultural relevance.
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The Female Hero Genre and Post-Feminism It is important to consider how mainstream media play a role in influencing perceptions and expectations of the self and others. As a site of discourse production, entertainment media offers commentaries on power dynamics in society regarding if and how identities are represented. Media representations can produce and maintain social inequalities; however, representations also have the potential to challenge inequalities. Media industries as of late, such as Netflix and its ever-increasing list of original series, offer seemingly subversive or alternative representations of identities that include multidimensional characters that complicate or challenge status quo representations (e.g., Artt & Schwan, 2016). These series attempt to tell stories that we rarely, if ever, encounter in mainstream media. However, it is important to consider how these narratives fit into a capitalist media system. Earlier theories and studies regarding the representation of women in mainstream media argued that women were depicted as objects of the male gaze (Mulvey, 1975) and that they were almost entirely absent from or adhered to limited representations in mass media (Tuchman, 1978). In this sense, women were one-dimensional characters who did not move the plot forward or play an active role in the storyline of media content. While representations of women on television and behind-the-scenes employment has generally increased across various platforms since early studies regarding the representation of women in popular media, “gender stereotypes on television programs abound” on broadcast networks, basic and premium cable channels and streaming services, along with unequal employment behind-the-scenes between men and women (Lauzen, 2017, p. 2). Evolving digital platforms, such as social media, allow audiences to challenge representations of women and other underrepresented or misrepresented groups. As audiences have become increasingly media savvy, media producers have had to adapt to this new arrangement with content that meets the needs of multiple audiences. More recent mainstream media appears to offer content that includes more women (quantity) and more nuanced representations (quality). These narratives use a lens that intersect at multiple axes of identity to tell a story that is not usually represented in mainstream media. While this seemingly progressive step toward more and better representation of identities that fall outside of the dominant narrative may seem like representations of women are changing in meaningful ways, is this just occurring on the surface in the guise of girl power discourse? One way to make sense of
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the proliferation of the production of seemingly counterhegemonic narratives is to consider a post-feminist perspective. It is important to note that post-feminism (and feminism and postmodern analysis for that matter) can have many meanings and interpretations. However, post-feminism is generally situated in relation to second wave feminism. Angela McRobbie (2004) explained that we are currently in a “post-feminist” moment and under a new gender regime, in which the transformative feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s are rapidly becoming undone as a result of a substitute for feminism—a faux-feminism—present in media and state discourses. McRobbie (2004) stated that, “through an array of machinations, elements of contemporary popular culture are perniciously effective in regard to this undoing of feminism, while simultaneously appearing to be engaging in a well-informed and even well-intended response to feminism” (p. 255). McRobbie posited that media, specifically popular culture, played a major role in this undoing of feminism. Post-feminism is situated within a capitalist economy that uses neoliberal rhetoric to repackage traditional femininity. Rosalind Gill stated that “post-feminism should be conceived of as a sensibility” (2007, p. 254) that included analyzing characteristics of postfeminist media culture such as self-surveillance and discipline, individualism, choice and empowerment rhetoric, the prevalence of the makeover genre, increased sexualization, a reliance on irony, and consumerism present in contemporary media. McRobbie maintained that while media may include a strong feminist narrative at certain moments, this is usually ephemeral as texts need to constantly change in order to stay relevant and seemingly fresh to survive the capitalist market. For example, some media avenues, such as television shows, may begin with progressive content or a less popular structure and then adapt to mainstream values or interests in order to stay on the air (Ng, 2013; Paproth, 2013). Understanding the female hero in film and television within a post- feminist framework can provide a critical understanding of complex and contradictory ways women are represented in the media. The female superhero is a particularly interesting case to analyze because the notion of the superhero signifies traditional masculinity by default, and it is important to consider if female superheroes play with or challenge gender stereotypes. In analyzing the superheroine in comics and film, Gray (2011) explained that like male superheroes, “superheroines are typically white, middle or upper class, and have strong heterosexual appeal” (p. 77). In addition, Gray noted that superheroines, whose representations usually adhere to the male gaze, are threatening but not too threatening in order to appeal to the heterosexual, male audience.
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In the mid-1990s, shows with a strong female hero such as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), and La Femme Nikita (1997–2001) were popular on cable television. While the protagonists of these shows are largely praised by critics and academics for their nuanced and feminist representations, Mary Magoulick (2006) claimed that “these female heroes, conceived of and written mostly by men in a still male- dominated world, present male fantasies and project the status quo more than they fulfill feminist hopes” (p. 729). However, some argue that these shows of the mid-1990s played an important role in challenging gender stereotypes and the notion of the female hero. Wim Tigges (2010) demonstrated how Xena’s feminization of traditionally Western male spaces of heroism, such as the Shakespearean play, offered a commentary on gendered power dynamics and stereotypes. Using a post-feminist framework, Carol Stabile (2009) argued that following the September 11th attacks, sexism in the superhero genre was evident as feminized characters (i.e. women, children, the elderly) were depicted as vulnerable and in need of protection by active masculine characters in order to respond to the particular socio-cultural moment of fear and anxiety. Stabile (2009) explained that “[shows such as] Heroes may appear on the surface to be multiracial and gender neutral insofar as it features women, people of color, and immigrants, but at the end of the day, only white men protect, or survive to protect” (p. 89). Furthermore, Richard Gray (2011) claimed that the representation of the new millennial superheroine relied on “hotness,” which is “a delicate balance between sex appeal and physical strength” (p. 81) to make the superheroine approachable. While film and television female heroes of the 1990s and 2000s relied on a level of “hotness” to counteract their physical strength and/or intellect, portrayals of the female hero as of late seem to challenge this balancing act. As an entry into this genre, Jessica Jones was spearheaded by Melissa Rosenberg—operating as creator, showrunner, executive producer, and writer of the series—emerging in a contemporary moment where female superheroes seem to be getting their due. Journalist Sian Cain (2015) wrote, And then there is Jessica Jones. Where Agent Carter is playful and tongue-in-cheek and Supergirl is warm and bright, Jess is a markedly modern superhero. Currently in early retirement, she wears a constant scowl, has a taste for cheap bourbon and enjoys sex unashamedly, a superhero for the Girls generation.
As Cain noted, the “superhero for the Girls generation” (emphasis added) is indicative of a postfeminist ethos within contemporary popular culture. On
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Jessica Jones Jeffrey Brown (2017) stated, “[b]y featuring a superheroine who refuses to don a spandex costume and slink around fighting bank robbers or aliens, Jessica Jones offers a mature character and an intimate story of abuse and its effects that expands not just the Marvel Universe, but the possibilities for female characters within the genre” (p. 59). Yet the cross-over series The Defenders, which would culminate the individual Marvel/Netflix series, was led by Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez—functioning as showrunners on season two of Daredevil. Petrie and Ramirez sought to include the other series’ showrunners through character and script consultations, hoping to situate The Defenders as within each of the characters’ own adventures and narrative arcs in order to create a sense of consistency for viewers (Li, 2017). Within such a complex production cycle, in which multiple visions from showrunners can impact content, Jones—both as a series and a representation of contemporary female identities—is in a unique position to evaluate television content in the post-network era.
Single White Female At a descriptive level, Jessica Jones is portrayed as a flawed, yet complex, female lead. Throughout her self-titled series, she regularly disrupted traditional notions of masculinity and femininity and worked at expanding what viewers were given as a superhero within televised content. This is seen in the ways Jones challenged dichotomous understandings of gender expectations through her intellect, self-representation, and actions in the show. As well as amplified by the fact that she is, despite having a supporting cast, a loner. Her profession as a private investigator lent itself to this characterization to the point that her investigatory skills are rooted in solitude and her need for isolation—a need that corresponded with her own alcoholism. However, the show balanced this individualism with a supporting cast that is used to distinguish Jones from traditional forms of femininity (i.e., her best friend Trish who adheres to traditional femininity in her appearance and actions). The characteristics listed above help the narrative develop its overarching themes in relation to feminist perspectives. In addition, Jones’ body was not overtly objectified in a way that adhered to Mulvey’s (1975) notion of the male gaze. The flip of the gaze was seen in Jones as a skilled private investigator, a traditionally male occupation, who challenged the concept of the gaze by secretly watching and taking photographs of others throughout the series. While this is not the gaze in Mulvey’s voyeuristic sense, Jones as an
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investigator is the one watching rather than the one always being watched. However, the power inherent in the gaze is present throughout the series as several camera shots are centered on Jones’s posterior and, we argue, focused on this body part as a means of subtle objectification. Such voyeurism is apparent when dealing with female superheroines (Gray, 2011) yet operates in a contradictory nature within the context of Jessica Jones. This is exemplified in a sex scene between Jones and Luke Cage in which their mutually-shared abilities of enhanced strength equalized them during the act. Luke Cage: My bad, my bad. Jessica Jones: It’s okay. It’s okay, I won’t break. Luke Cage: Yeah, you will.
Scenes such as these exemplify the post-feminist tension within the show. In an interview with Vulture, showrunner Rosenberg stated why we see Jones engaged in a number of sex scenes, “One of the things I love most about her is she’s very unapologetic about who she is … Her sexuality, her powers—they’re simply a matter of fact” (Riesman & Buckley, 2015). The male gaze is complexified in the series as scenes such as these occur between the two characters and highlight a voyeuristic gaze that is also reflected from the female’s point of view by acknowledging Jones’s own preferences and sexual agency. The descriptive elements and gaze are indicative of the larger themes and feminist tones that are present within the series. Across the entirety of the series, the narrative centered on issues regarding gender-based violence. Solitude, alcoholism, and her gruff demeanor stem from the experiences that Jones had gone through at the hands of the show’s antagonist, Killgrave. As a superhero with incredible strength, Jones faced dangers to showcase her abilities and provide audiences with action sequences to drive the show forward. The physical attributes are normal for the superhero genre, and it is unsurprising to see them featured in Jessica Jones. Yet the degree to which we see her own body subjected to acts of violence is stark given her solitude. In relation to the Black Widow, who has starred in several of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films as the token female in the boy’s locker room, Jones does not need to share the screen with other male superheroes. This allows Jones to enact physical violence, as well as allowing physical violence to happen to her (rather than be perpetually saved or shielded by male heroes). This point is raised as it takes place within a shared cinematic space and functions within a media industry that is built around developing such connections into potential franchises. Jones’s physicality and the use of that physicality allows the
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viewer to delve into feminist critiques of media representations (van Zoonen, 1994) regarding stereotypes and socialization, bodily abuse, gendered power relations, and the often deep pains of psychological abuse. Tied to physical violence and rooted more into the feminist representations we see in the show is the emotional vulnerability and psychological trauma Jones experienced. Despite Jones being a victim of these various forms of violence, the fact that she is the protagonist and we follow her experiences is distinct from usual media depictions of gendered violence (Cuklanz, 2013). Having survived her prior experiences with Kilgrave, who had used his mind control powers to rape and force her to be his companion, Jones’s main narrative seeks to end Kilgrave’s repetition of those actions onto other women. While rape is not shown on screen, we do see incidences of Jones being sexually assaulted and experiencing intimate partner violence enacted by Kilgrave through unwanted touching or kissing in flashback segments—a critique of the male gaze and placing it within a context that is toxic for women. In addition to his violation of Jones’s body, Kilgrave further used her body as protection for himself—making use of her powers, particularly her strength, to defend him when needed. The effects of Jones’s time with Kilgrave can be seen in her struggle with PTSD and alcoholism throughout the series. Her characteristics stem from these past experiences and are used in the show’s attempt to thread the dynamics of rape and rape culture throughout the narrative.
One of the Boys The broader feminist themes that are present within Jessica Jones fail to transition once Jones finds herself in The Defenders. As mentioned above, the explicit focus on rape culture and vulnerability which make up the narrative in Jessica Jones situated (whether deliberately or not) feminist discourses on these subjects into a mainstream show. Despite Jones’s confrontation, and on-going resolution, with her experiences from her self-titled show, these themes in which she engaged with fall to the wayside when she is partnered with the all-male team. The unique storyline that is present gets substituted for a generic superhero narrative of good guys (and a gal) saving a city from villains. Becoming one of the boys undoes many of the gains that Jessica Jones momentarily achieved through its first season. To expand on this argument, the dynamics which take place regarding representation are worthy of note throughout the show. As stated above, Jones’s powers allow her body to experience acts of violence that carry with them a
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dual-reading regarding violence and vulnerability in relationship to women. Yet in The Defenders Jones is put within a context which subverted her physicality and abilities. Whether it was from her first encounter with Detective Misty Knight—who upon meeting Jones states, “I heard about her. Thought she’d be bigger”—to her action scenes with the other Defenders, in which she is continually covered and saved by various members, Jones faced a seemingly consistent undermining of her powers. This reverberates post-feminist themes that center on empowerment while maintaining traditional notions of gender. The fact that Jones cannot hold her own alongside Daredevil, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage further feminized her in relation to their abilities. Despite her strength being on par with Luke Cage, his ability of unbreakable skin set him apart and justified his protection of her in multiple action scenes. Likewise, for Daredevil and Iron Fist, their martial arts expertise set them apart from Jones—where her inability to effectively fight trained henchman led to multiple scenes in which she needed saving. In a later episode of the series, in which the Defenders are attacked by members of the Hand, Jones yells out during the fight: Jessica Jones: Ah! Jesus, am I the only one left who doesn’t know karate?
Although this scene was ideally meant for brevity, Jones’s reaction is telling of both her physical use in the series and her own perception of the situation she has found herself. Throughout many of the action scenes in the series Jones is situated as taking up space—unable to participate in fighting, Jones resorted to using her strength to merely throw objects, and not drive any of the action scenes toward a resolution. It is not until the very end of the series, when Jones is carrying an elevator up a ladder, that her abilities are met with a sense of wonderment from Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Additionally, the base characteristics which Jones possessed regarding her sullenness and alcoholism are related to developing an empathetic view from the audience in the self-titled show. As The Defenders is intended to be seen as a continuation, taking place directly after each of the individual series, the story building behind Jones as a character is undermined. Throughout The Defenders her alcoholism is maintained as a comedic or surface level characteristic (e.g., pouring liquor into her morning coffee in the first episode or needing a drink between fight scenes in later episodes) that renders her as one-dimensional. Whereas in Jessica Jones her alcoholism is portrayed as a coping mechanism, in The Defenders it is disembedded from any contextual background to ground her reasons for alcohol consumption in the later series.
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We raise this point in that it contrasts with the male characters who maintained characteristics related to their story arcs from their own previous series which carried through once the Defenders were assembled. Given how the major plot revolved around material introduced in Daredevil and Iron Fist, we echo Stabile’s (2009) critique of the superhero genre as a reaffirmation of the white male as both Daredevil and Iron Fist are members of the team which became central to various action scenes and were pivotal toward moving the plot forward throughout the series—thus both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage became secondary characters within the ensemble. The series’ showrunners, having previously come from Daredevil, likely are utilizing material they have the most familiarity with. The Hand, as the collective antagonist in both Daredevil and Iron Fist, retained their position within The Defenders and from a narrative position it made sense for the showrunners to continue those narrative arcs. But when considering the potential for alternative (or feminist) perspectives to appear within television genres, paying attention to these issues of production are of vital importance. As she crossed series, Jessica Jones became nothing more than a shell of a character—where character traits define her, not character development in which she is seen to change/adapt to narrative devices, or to drive the narrative herself.
Conclusion The complicated balancing act of (post-) feminist narratives is present in comparing the representation of Jessica Jones in the two Netflix series; despite a strong showing in Jessica Jones such feminist-oriented content fell to the wayside once the character was drafted for service in The Defenders. Although she was able to maintain individual characteristics across the series, Jones was unable to carry with her the nuanced themes that dealt with gendered violence and vulnerability—or to develop new themes relevant to feminist media criticisms. This presents Netflix with a contradiction in its programming: Provide culturally relevant content that pushes the boundaries of television, all the while maintaining a successful business strategy to keep its subscriber base high (and continuously growing). Herman Gray (2016) noted this dynamic as a current conjecture of “precarious diversity” in the post-network era—where diversity and multiculturalism are ordered around consumer branding rather than addressing exclusion and invisibility. The Marvel deal is undoubtedly part of the latter strategy to maintain a subscriber base for Netflix. While the individual shows can be creative in their approaches to representation and
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narratives that are outside the status quo, they ultimately abandoned that creativity once culminating to The Defenders. Regarding the creation of femaleled superhero content, the “tricky connotations” (Howell, 2015) of gender make feminist-centered programming difficult for media companies that must find ways to profit from them. The explosion of content seen on Netflix and other prestige, or niche, television should be critically evaluated in relation to the structures which produce them. Netflix has made considerable efforts to procure and produce original content in the past seven years. Yet the quantity of content available should never be a substitute for the diversity of content. What we see is not a fully open media space within the content provided by Netflix. Although diverse content does exist and could prove useful for media activism or fandom to generate alternative readings, overarching content categories that regularly center on only certain perspectives (such as male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, and upper-middle class) remain the norm. Netflix content which steps outside these boundaries is caught in a liminal position—being considered second-tier and willing to be co-opted into those boundaries, as well as being potentially profitable (which would then allow such content to make in-roads which challenge status quo perspectives). As Jessica Jones moves forward into future seasons, a critical eye geared toward the relationship between its content and where it fits within the marketing strategy of Netflix and Marvel Studios should be consistently present. The post-network era is not necessarily new regarding issues of content and representation, but rather reflects old patterns that die hard.
Notes 1. The Defenders premiered five months after season one of Iron Fist on Netflix, subsequently following the introduction of each character into the Netflix Marvel Universe. At the time of this writing, each show has had a second season released on Netflix. 2. This is similar to scholarship and industry conversations around “quality TV,” where “programming trends have become commercially viable and attained cultural status at particular points in time” (Logan, 2016, p. 147). Logan noted that this form of production represents an intersection of market conditions and taste formations among privileged social and economic demographics. 3. The Marvel Cinematic Universe refers to the films released under the Marvel Studios production company. Beginning in 2008 with the release of Iron Man and up through 2018, there have been 20 films amassing a cumulative $6.8 billion in the United States (Box Office Mojo, 2018). Marvel’s deal with Netflix extended the cinematic universe into television and carried with it a potential fan-base to become Netflix subscribers.
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References Artt, S., & Schwan, A. (2016). Screening women’s imprisonment: Agency and exploitation in Orange is the new black. Television & New Media, 17(6), 467–472. Benson, R. (2014). Strategy follows structure: A media sociology manifesto. In S. Waisbord (Ed.), Media sociology (pp. 25–45). Cambridge, UK: Polity. Box Office Mojo. (2018). Franchises: Marvel cinematic universe. Retrieved from http://www. boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=avengers.htm Brown, J. A. (2017). The modern superhero in film and television. New York, NY: Routledge. Cain, S. (2015, November 21). Fight the power: How the female superhero is finally taking flight. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/ nov/21/jessica-jones-agent-carter-supergirl-female-superhero Cuklanz, L. M. (2013). Mass media representation of gender violence. In C. Carter, L. Steiner, & L. McLaughlin (Eds.), The Routledge companion to media and gender (pp. 32–41). London, UK: Routledge. Curtin, M., Holt, J., & Sanson, K. (Eds.). (2014). Distribution revolution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. DeCarvalho, L. J., & Cox, N. B. (2016). Extended “visiting hours”: Deconstructing identity in Netflix’s promotional campaigns for Orange is the New Black. Television & New Media, 17(6), 504–519. Flint, J. (2013, November 7). Netflix and Disney’s Marvel strike blockbuster deal for new shows. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-ct-netflix-marvel-disney-20131107-story.html Gill, R. (2007). Gender and the media. Cambridge, UK: Polity. Gray, H. (2016). Precarious diversity: Representation and demography. In M. Curtin & K. Sanson (Eds.), Precarious creativity (pp. 241–253). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Gray, R. J. (2011). Vivacious vixens and scintillating super hotties: Deconstructing the superheroine. In R. J. Gray II & B. Kaklamanidou (Eds.), The 21st century superhero (pp. 75–93). Jefferson, NC: McFarland. Havens, T. (2014). Media programming in an era of big data. Media Industries, 1(2), 5–9. Howell, C. E. (2015). Tricky connotations: Wonder Woman as DC’s brand disruptor. Cinema Journal, 55(1), 141–149. Johnson, V. E. (2009). Historicizing TV networking: Broadcasting, cable, and the case of ESPN. In J. Holt & A. Perren (Eds.), Media industries (pp. 57–68). New York, NY: Wiley-Blackwell. Li, S. (2017, January 13). The Defenders EP talks juggling four heroes—and the “crisis” that unites them. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from http://ew.com/tv/2017/01/13/ defenders-marco-ramirez-interview/ Logan, E. (2016). “Quality television” as a critical obstacle: Explanation and aesthetics in television studies. Screen, 57(2), 144–162. Lotz, A. D. (2009). What is U.S. television now? The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 625, 49–59.
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Lauzen, M. M. (2017). Boxed in 2016–17: Women on screen and behind the scenes in television. Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, San Diego State University. Retrieved from https://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/2016-17_ Boxed_In_Report.pdf Magoulick, M. (2006). Frustrating female heroism: Mixed messages in Xena, Nikita, and Buffy. The Journal of Popular Culture, 39(5), 729–755. McMillan, G. (2013, November 7). Marvel to make 4 new superhero shows and a miniseries for Netflix. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2013/11/marvel-netflix-shows/ McRobbie, A. (2004). Post-feminism and popular culture. Feminist Media Studies, 4(3), 255–264. Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6–18. Ng, E. (2013). A “Post-Gay” era? Media gaystreaming, homonormativity, and the politics of LGBT integration. Communication, Culture & Critique, 6(2), 258–283. Paproth, M. (2013). “Best. Show. Ever.”: Who killed Veronica Mars? Journal of Popular Television, 1(1), 39–52. Press, A. L. (1991). Women watching television. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. Riesman, A., & Buckley, H. (2015, November 23). Jessica Jones cast and crew on the show’s unprecedented sex scenes. Vulture. Retrieved from http://www.vulture.com/2015/11/ jessica-jones-sex-scenes.html Squires, C. (2009). African Americans and the media. Cambridge, UK: Polity. Stabile, C. A. (2009). “Sweetheart, this ain’t gender studies”: Sexism and superheroes. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 6(1), 86–92. Tigges, W. (2010). Xena rules: A feminized version of Antony and Cleopatra. Feminist Media Studies, 10(4), 441–455. Tryon, C. (2015). TV got better: Netflix’s original programming strategies and binge viewing. Media Industries, 2(2), 104–116. Tuchman, G. (1978). The symbolic annihilation of women by the mass media. In G. Tuchman, A. K. Daniels, & J. Benét (Eds.), Hearth and home (pp. 3–45). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. van Zoonen, L. (1994). Feminist media studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Zook, K. B. (1999). Color by Fox. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
·8· netflix Culturally Transformative and Equally Accessible Kimberly Fain
For years, Hollywood television and film has reflected the angst of American pop culture icons. Generally, protagonists were “grimly captivating white guys like Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, struggling to find a foothold in a culture and economy that were leaving them behind” (Tanz, 2016). However, Netflix’s streaming service is changing the perception that hit shows have to feature white male heroes to succeed. With Orange Is the New Black, Netflix “proved that hit dramas could move beyond straight white men” (Tanz, 2016). Subscription based platforms such as Netflix are willing to take chances “that traditional networks might consider too risky. In the meantime, three decades of boundary-pushing television has created a more sophisticated audience, willing to watch characters that previous generations may have found alienating” (Tanz, 2016). Still, despite the increased participation of African American writers, actors, directors, and producers in Hollywood and Atlanta, unless people have an opportunity to access diverse content, they’re unable to widen their perspectives. Due to Netflix’s reasonable subscription prices, their platform is accessible to a wide range of audiences here and abroad. Based on the past flawed representations of African Americans in Hollywood, I appreciate Netflix’s role as a technological disruptor of
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American cinema and culture by using original programming to include diverse voices. Netflix’s original programming in the 2010s reflects characterizations of complex Black characters, written, directed, and/or produced by African A mericans. Thus, diverse audiences have an opportunity to experience African American characters, unlike past cinematic depictions, which are well rounded and fully realized human beings. Without a doubt, there are many Black performers and filmmakers who have laid the groundwork for the impactful work present in the following films. However, Netflix unabashedly features strong A frican American content, themes, and characters without hesitation and fear of White disapproval by streaming Beasts of No Nation, 13th, and Luke Cage.
History of Diverse Images Pervasively excluding African Americans or including them in Hollywood productions to perform caricatures of themselves reflects their second-class citizenship. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the visual rhetoric present, in Hollywood classic movies, is their rhetorical influence over how America perceived the images of African Americans. Images such as graffiti, photographs, propaganda, paintings, statues, or moving images in film or video are visual artifacts that have the power of persuasion. Since images convey meaning, they reflect the views, values, and history of a culture and their institutions. Society may be moved to act or think about a marginalized culture in a positive or negative manner, based on the type of images portrayed in print and/or online. Consequently, how a marginalized group is portrayed in the media may adversely affect how they’re treated in America. In Defining Visual Rhetorics, Hill and Helmers (2004) discuss how Life magazine and National Geographic’s images effectively molded America’s conscious and our position in the world. In other words, they seek to discover how images rhetorically act upon audiences. Moreover, since our focus here is on Netflix’s portrayal of digital images, we should contemplate the viewers’ rhetorical response, meaning their level of engagement with Netflix’s depiction of African American images, and the cultural effect subsequent to their online encounter. However, in order to determine the transformative nature of Netflix’s programming, we must examine how Black images were depicted historically on stage and in the cinema.
Blackface Minstrelsy With regard to the entertainment industry, due to Jim Crow laws of the South and racial discrimination in general, Whites were either not exposed to Black images or they saw Black images through the gaze of White fear, prejudices and stereotypes. Unfortunately, early on, Black minstrelsy was the preferred manner to vicariously experience Whites’ interpretation of Black culture and Black people. Although some may argue that minstrelsy is not offensive, their view is generally rooted in a lack of understanding of how damaging minstrelsy is to the subjects of blackface—African American people. Blackface minstrelsy centers a White actor, director, and producer’s (oftentimes erroneous) interpretation of blackness, in terms of language, dialect, and characterization. As opposed to later stage and cinematic depictions of blackness, centering an actual Black actor who inhabits the personal insights of Black life, and the introspection that accompanies authentically interacting with Black people and experiencing Black culture. In Making America Home, Michael Rogin (1992) states that blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of mass entertainment. Blackface, which is the cultural practice of White actors darkening their skin with burnt cork or shoe polish to play Blacks on stage and in films, represents both “racial aversion and racial desire” (p. 1052). Meaning the oftentimes offensive art form sought to both differentiate European American culture from African American culture and simultaneously, the early art form expressed a dual desire to identify with marginalized people. Yet, I conclude that this attempt at identification communicated a perception that African Americans were visually and mentally inferior to European Americans. White actors exaggerated their accents, movements, and features, such as their lips, which was perceived by Blacks as a mockery of their ethnic features. According to José Miralles Pérez (2011) blackface performers wore “woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation” (p. 134). When audiences saw actors in these “woolly wigs,” the hair appeared unkempt and the “ragged clothes” insinuate that all Blacks are hobos or lacking in economic resources. In other words, minstrelsy failed to depict the cultural diversity present in our hair texture and economic status. Thus, the entertainment industry placed African Americans in a monolithic box that left no room for alternate representations of Black identity. For the literary giant who authored Invisible Man (1952), Ralph Ellison, this demeaning expression of Black culture under the guise of art was culturally dangerous.
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In Ellison’s opinion, “blackface art has a malignant effect on the African American culture because it substantiates irrational fears and prejudices of white Americans” (Fain, 2015, p. 5). In Shadow and Act, Ellison (1964/1995) said blackface was a figment of white imagination and cultural misappropriation of black cultural performances, in terms of “Negro idiom, songs, dance motifs, and word-play” (p. 47). Ellison (1964/1995) considered blackface spectacle to be an inferior representation of blackness and demonization of Black people; the “ringing of banjos and rattling of bones, … cackling jokes in pseudo-Negro dialect, … nonsense songs, … bright costumes and sweating performers” is dehumanizing (p. 48). In other words, “minstrelsy creates a black mask that imprisons the black male within a one-dimensional prism of buffoonery” (Fain, 2015, p. 5). Unfortunately, for decades these limited perceptions of blackness restricted the opportunities of Black performers. Due to the inundation of stereotypical images of Blacks, Whites were unable to imagine Black actors as dynamic characters or fully realized human beings. Consequently, for years to come Hollywood produced movies that featured characters, plots, and themes that exemplify the normalization of whiteness and demonization of blackness.
The Birth of a Nation Over the years, scholars and critics have discussed the harmful impact of the visual imagery, representations, and symbolism of blackface in The Birth of a Nation (1918). Michele Faith Wallace writes in “The Good Lynching and The Birth of a Nation: Discourses and Aesthetics of Jim Crow,” that this “is the only historical epic focused on the fear of so-called Negro domination in the Reconstruction era” (p. 86). The director, G. W. Griffith, based his classic movie on Thomas Dixon’s virulently racist novels, The Clansmen and The Leopard Spots. For this Southern pastor, an ever-present theme of D ixon’s books was his obsession with white genealogical purity. Griffith builds on Dixon’s racial intentions by subsequently emphasizing “the undeserved and unearned prosperity of blacks during Reconstruction” (Wallace, 2003, p. 87). To emphasize his revolutionary skills as a filmmaker and the predominant notion of audiences that whiteness is an ideal, Griffith uses black and white nitrate film. Additionally, Griffith employed melodrama and nostalgia for the Confederate fight to preserve slavery. Not to mention, he presented a heavy dose of pathos in order to emphasize the Southern narrative of White victimhood.
As for the stereotypical Black characters, the Mammy and the elderly trusted Black males slave, those actors were played by Whites in blackface; meanwhile, Black actors played the joyous slaves working in the fields (Wallace, 2003). In other words, until the intervention of Northerners, the racial discourse of this movie emphasizes that Southern slave owners and slaves were happy with one another. However, once the slaves are freed after the Civil War, Dixon strikes fear into White audiences by depicting Blacks as corrupt legislators; incompetent and ignorant voters; and obsessed with miscegenation. Black members of the state legislature are shown seated with their bare feet on their desks, openly drinking whiskey. Blacks are shown selling their votes outright or simply unable to comprehend what voting means. Black demonstrators are shown with picket signs demanding mixed marriages. (Wallace, 2003, p. 93)
Even though the socio-political rhetoric of The Birth of a Nation is dangerous, perhaps the most culturally damaging element of this movie is its advocacy of the Ku Klux Klan. Despite the harsh reality of lynching, as seen in postcards and photographs, Griffith romanticized the vigilantism of the Klan. Moreover, this glorification of the Klan ignores the harsh reality of the festive crowds who witnessed victims (mostly Black males) “tortured, slowly burned alive, or castrated” and then distributed “their body parts … among the crowds as keepsakes” (Wallace, 2003, p. 94). In the film, Griffith creates a lynching scene, featuring the stereotypical Black brute, Gus, played by a White actor in blackface. Gus is set on raping “the youngest Cameron daughter; rather than be defiled by the black male body, she commits suicide by tossing herself over a cliff” (Fain, 2015, p. 11). Although most would agree that rapists are horrible people who should be punished regardless of their race, the preservation of White female purity justifies terrorizing and murdering Black men without an investigation, trial, and legal conviction in The Birth of a Nation. Additionally, it ignores the legacy of White men raping Black women during slavery and the Reconstruction era. This film perpetuates the stereotypical notion that Black men are rapists and White men are honorable, even when they’re criminals avenging White womanhood. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (2015) reiterates that the film is “unquestionably white supremacist and racist... and is animated by some of the ugliest rhetoric America ever produced.” Aesthetically, the women are featured as “so pale and delicate that, photographed from the right angle, they appear noseless,” which emphasizes their dependence on men and desperate need for male protection because of their
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“fair-skinned feminine purity” (Vishnevetsky, 2015). In sharp contrast to the soft beauty of White womanhood, the Black male is featured as ugly, violent, and monstrous. Therefore, Griffith’s glorification of the KKK’s methods of maintaining White supremacy is redemptive, and preserving White dominance is the pathway to salvaging the White culture.
Gone with the Wind Like The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind (1939) championed Southern characters as the moral victors of the Civil War. According to Molly Haskell (2009), the classic movie still causes uproar because it’s perceived as racist, melodramatic, and “apologia for the plantation culture.” However, she dismisses those negative perspectives and focuses on a progressive take of Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling book. The film features star-crossed lovers Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O’ Hara (Vivien Leigh), “the agony of war, of economic loss and devastation, the resilience of a woman who won’t accept defeat” (Haskell, 2009). Scarlett is depicted as revolutionary because she refuses to be controlled, dictated by love, and submissive to Yankees. Yet, she still vows to keep her father’s plantation, Tara, going despite the invasion of the North and the opportunistic carpetbaggers (Smith & Schneider, 2015). Perhaps one of the many reasons that Scarlett captured the heart of audiences was her Southern belle wardrobe featured in Technicolor, as well as her bravery as she walks among the wounded Confederate soldiers in gray and her “dash through the blazes as Atlanta burns” due to General Sherman’s orders (Smith & Schneider, 2015, p. 150). For those reasons, although Scarlett is a progressive White heroine for her times, the racial rhetoric and imagery in Gone with the Wind communicates a message of African American inferiority. In particular, the aesthetic depiction of African-American actress Hattie McDaniel as the Mammy is in stark contrast to Scarlett. Donald Bogle (2013) notes in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks that the 1930s Hollywood era featured more “black faces carrying mops and pails or lifting pots and pans than the Depression years” (p. 36). According to Bogle (2013), the Black servant figures provide societal hope because of their sarcastic humor, foolish behavior, lighthearted personalities, and fidelity. In essence, the subservient Black characters, says Bogle (2013), were a symbol of stability in American life: “The servants were always around when the boss needed them. They were always ready to lend a helping hand when times were tough” (p. 36). Even though some may deem these
subservient characteristics as positive, the servants were often mistreated and demeaned by the owners in these roles. Whereas, the subservient roles of Black men are problematic in Gone with the Wind, Hattie McDaniel’s performance was hailed by critics, which led to the first Academy Award received by an African American. As the Mammy, Hattie is proud of her devotion to the O’Hara family. Bogle (2013) notes how she boasts of having “diapered three generations of O’Hara women” (p. 88). But, she freely criticizes anyone who defies her sense of morals, including Scarlett and Rhet. Furthermore, Mammy is a powerful maternal figure for Scarlett, which Bogle (2013) states is a more accurate portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship consistent with practices in the old South (p. 88). But the Mammy’s ambivalent status is dependent upon the will of her White owners. Additionally, her status over the plantation and her fellow workers is respected because she’s upholding the positions of Southern White hierarchy and maintaining their property, which equates to the wealth of the owners. Still, Mammy’s ability to run the Big House, according to Bogle (2013) was “her brand of black power” and her familiarity “with her white employers” caused Southerners to complain (p. 92). Nevertheless, the purpose of the Mammy figure is to suggest that Black women operate exclusively in the domestic sphere and, in order to demonstrate usefulness, they should not appear aesthetically pleasing as the Southern Mammy archetype in their slave or servant clothing. Kwate and Threadcraft (2015) writes in “Perceiving the Black Female Body: Race and Gender in Police Constructions of Body Weight” that this perception of Black women as Mammy figures prevails today: “the public face expected from Black women is one of obedience, attentiveness to the physical and emotional needs of the White body and thus consummately nurturing of that body and of acceptance of placement in the racial hierarchy” (p. 214). In other words, the stereotypical Mammy is way of defining the boundaries (physical and behavioral) between subservient Black woman and elite White Woman (Kwate & Threadcraft, 2015, p. 214). Although Gone with the Wind does have cinematic value in terms of acting performances and cinematography, it maintains the stereotypical notions of the Mammy figure whose sole purpose for being is to nurture White women as they pursue their goals, fight for love, and find their place in this world. For African American women who seek to see themselves accurately portrayed on screen, it cannot be understated the damage these Mammy stereotypes have on the psyche and self-esteem of young Black women.
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Netflix: Programming and Access Netflix: Why Diversity Is a Top Priority Netflix is recognized for its diverse programing. Diversity in creating, casting, and programming is an intentional priority not just a fashionable trend. Pilot Viruet (2017) writes in “Why Netflix Has Decided to Make Diversity a Top Priority” that in 2017 the streaming service plans to feature shows that have “predominately non-white casts.” Shows, such as Master of None, Orange Is the New Black and Narcos, are evidence of Netflix’s commitment to diversity as they continue, “to greenlight more diverse shows” (Viruet, 2017). What sets Netflix programming apart from others is how they actively explore “the specificities, cultures, and lived experiences of marginalized groups that don’t often get to tell their stories—or have them told at all” (Viruet, 2017). In other words, Netflix programming reflects the growing demographical changes that are oftentimes sidelined because they represent a minority. Although Hollywood popular culture still tends to elevate traditional voices that represent the majority culture, Netflix provides a digital platform where marginalized people are seen, heard, and are active participants, as actors and of the creative process, as producers, directors, and/ or writers. Shows such as Dear White People demonstrate how Netflix confronts issues of the marginalized and “picks apart race issues instead of tiptoeing around them” (Viruet, 2017). As a result, Netflix’s diversity formula succeeds with audiences because their stories come from the people who have actually lived these experiences and their characters are well rounded (Viruet, 2017). Sara Boboltz and Brennan Williams (2016) write in “If You Want to See Diversity Onscreen, Watch Netflix,” that Netflix has a “hands-off approach” that “starts at the very top.” By allowing creators to create with less interference, their methods for producing diverse content result in “fewer creative roadblocks in developing original series” (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). Since streaming services don’t have preconceived notions of how a “show should look and sound,” narratives reflect marginalized voices that are authentic. Netflix’s origins were content distribution and only transitioned “into original shows and films within the past few years” (Boboltz & Williams, 2016). Ultimately, they have created their own playbook because they distribute their content to massive audiences (Boboltz & Williams, 2016).
Beasts of No Nation Beasts of No Nation (2015) is based on Uzodinma Iweala’s 2015 book about child soldiers. The novel’s raw and gripping authenticity had wide appeal despite its violent depiction of militant Africans at war. As the story goes, after troop invaders murder Agu’s (Abraham Attah) father and brother, his mother and sister must abandon their home (“Beasts of No Nation”). Suddenly Agu is left wandering in the forest; militants, led by the Commandant (Idris Elba), capture and force him to become a child soldier (“Beasts of No Nation,” 2015). With Agu’s transformation from an innocent to a murderer, pillage and rape by the rag tag rebels and the relentless abuse by the Commandant mar his journey through life. Despite the painful abuse suffered by Agu, he must come to terms with his sexuality, masculinity, and humanity. Directed by Asian director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, the desperate quest to retain one’s humanity, despite tragic circumstances is a complex depiction of this young, African boy’s life. Allison Mackey (2013) writes in “Troubling Humanitarian Consumption: Reframing Relationality in African Soldier Narratives” that the best manner to consume narratives of child soldiers is to put ourselves in the place of the other (p. 118). In other words, consider the fact that you’re reading about another culture and social history and the global implications on their expression of their humanity. To Mackey (2013), “The troubled representations of the troubling figure of the child soldier in these texts points to the importance of registering awareness that a much larger, multivalent understanding of community is necessary” (p. 119). In essence, empathy for the condition of these child soldiers is not enough. People should use exposure to the condition of the marginalized to engage in the betterment of our collective humanity. During the award season, in which Beasts of No Nation was honored by multiple nominations, Elba pushes Hollywood and America to look inward by making reference to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, while presenting clips from the movie at the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) awards. As he glanced at the audience, Elba joked “‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to diverse TV,’” as he stood “alongside his young Ghanaian co-star, Abraham Attah” (Jagannathan, “Idris Elba Mocks Oscars Diversity”). Perhaps, the Academy didn’t appreciate his cultural dis, while he was at another awards show because Beasts of No Nation was overlooked at the 2016 Oscars. Alyssa Sage noted (“Oscar Snubs: Idris Elba,” 2016) that Amobee Brand Intelligence analyzed
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the “digital content engagement” with regard to the “Oscar nomination upsets on Jan. 14,” the company determined: By assessing over 600,000 mobile, video, web and social sites to measure what people were seeing, reading, interacting and engaging with regarding the topic of Oscar snubs. Not only was Netflix’s “Beast of No Nation” the most-discussed snub, but the war drama’s lead actor Idris Elba topped the actor category. (“Oscar Snubs: Idris Elba,” 2016)
Not to mention, his charming sarcasm may have caused the overall message of his award speech to be lost by those who were offended by his candor: “‘We made a film about real people and real lives... and to be awarded for it is very special, because a lot of people were damaged,’” says Elba (Jagannathan, “Idris Elba Mocks Oscars Diversity”). Ultimately, Elba received two SAG awards for his performances in “Netflix’s ‘Beasts of No Nation’ and the BBC crime drama ‘Luther’” (Jagannathan, “Idris Elba Mocks Oscars Diversity”). Nevertheless, Elba was nominated as best supporting actor for the BAFTA, Golden Globes, Image Awards, and the entire cast was nominated for their performances at the SAG awards (“Beasts”). Both Elba and Attah won for the Film Independent Spirit Awards & Ghana Movie Awards including the director Fukunaga (“Beasts”). Based on, the number of awards the director, Elba and his co-star Attah were nominated for and the disgruntled digital response to Elba’s and The Beasts of No Nation Oscars snub, the movie had a huge impact on a wide range of diverse audiences.
Ava DuVernay’s 13th Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016) is an award-winning documentary on how mass incarceration is modern day slavery. The poignant “imagery, historical footage, and insight from notable speakers,” such as Michelle Alexander, Jelani Cobb, and Angela Davis, uncover how the Amendment legalizes slavery via the prison system and perpetuates “economic inequality through legislation such as minimum sentence laws” (Terry, 2017). DuVernay depicts how “Chaining black people benefited white people for a very long time. It still does. Only now, slavery exists under a different name: imprisonment” (Sukhera, 2017). In essence, to serve the country’s economic needs, the government and corporations create legislation that results in the mass imprisonment of African Americans and Latinos. Without fear of Hollywood retribution, DuVernay calls out White Americans for their complacency in failing to end racism (Terry, 2017). By
showing images of “publicized police brutality, the growth of Black Lives Matter, and the presidential election,” DuVernay validates her argument that the “racial conversation” must take place by confronting our “ancestral ghosts” (Terry, 2017). By taking the audience on a “150+ year journey from the 1865 Emancipation Proclamation on Capitol Hill to the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota,” DuVernay uses factual statistics and images to highlight this American problem (Sukhera, 2017). Perhaps, one of the most disturbing images is how “Emmett Till’s open casket funeral is contrasted with a KKK parade. Footage of a black man being shoved around at a Trump rally plays concurrent with archival footage of civil rights-era water hoses, attack dogs, and beatings. One era calls out to another” (Sukhera, 2017). By juxtaposing past and current images of racial oppression, DuVernay points out that despite various forms of social progress, we’re still dealing with demons from America’s racial past. Ramon Molina and Danny Mussie write in “Being Shocked Into Paying Attention” (2017) that DuVernay assists the audience in picturing black history in America: “Images of re-enslaved African-Americans from the 1870’s are coupled with images of incarcerated African-Americans in the present day.” The audience is visually forced to confront the images of racial oppressed human beings. Moreover, everyone must acknowledge the historical fact that the loss of free Black labor from the abolishment of slavery decimated the Southern economy: “Thus, a gross exploitation of law and sentiment towards African-Americans led to criminalization and marginalization” (Molina & Mussie, 2017). Painfully, we, as the audience are forced to wonder, “what if being black was the crime one was being convicted of?” (Molina & Mussie, 2017). As the documentary ends, Black bodies tumble to the ground as a fast “wave of bullets fly by,” while the audience witnesses “the light fade from their eyes” (Molina & Mussie, 2017). This twisted mixture of “race, ideology, and ulterior motives” is the continued reason for the condemnation of blackness (Molina & Mussie, 2017). Ultimately, the historical evidence proves that the powerful will suppress the efforts of African Americans, in their quest for equality (Molina & Mussie 2017). Vincent Stierman writes in “When the Hidden Injustices Are Brought to Light: A Review of 13th” (2017) that the “graphic imagery” made him “pause and collect” himself. DuVernay’s employment of “dark images and graphics” creates a “mysterious and ominous” tone (Stierman, 2017). In other words, there’s an unsettling sense of doom that mirrors the condition of unequal justice and mass incarceration. As DuVernay uses her camera lens to shine a light
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on the damaging effects of the 13th Amendment, interviewees hold nothing back. Dr. Jelani Cobb explains the motivation behind mass incarceration. According to Stierman (2017) “Perhaps the most convincing speaker in the show is Dr. Jelani Cobb. He introduces the idea that black people have oftentimes been viewed not as human beings but as economic resources.” Meaning, big businesses benefit from the leased labor when prisoners are forced by the prisons to build and/or make products. Truthfully, the audience must conclude that their complacency equates to acceptance of this institutional and systemic oppression of Black bodies “for personal gain” (Stierman, 2017). Impressively, DuVernay alternates her interviews primarily between two settings: an abandoned warehouse and individual offices. The activists and scholars interviewed in the abandoned warehouse are “intimately knowledgeable and involved with the struggle for equality” (Stierman, 2017). According to Stierman (2017), the Republicans and lobbyist “filmed in their offices seemed much more out of touch with the issues.” DuVernay highlights the differences, in lifestyle and privilege, with the use of imagery, for those affected by mass incarceration and those whose policies benefit from mass incarceration. As a skilled filmmaker, DuVernay navigates the camera to reveal hidden truths, such as mass incarceration and calls on us Americans to act. As a visionary, she discusses the transformative nature of film for an interview printed in Black Camera. DuVernay spoke earnestly about how film empowers her to share stories with other filmmakers around the world (Martin, 2014). Furthermore, she insists that film has the power to unify “an eclectic audience of races, cultures, and ages. And it’s the power of films that’s palpable and meaningful for” her, and that’s why people “congregate around these images” (Martin, 2014). DuVernay’s ability to capture graphic images of the Black experience and make her message have a cross over appeal led to an Academy Award nomination for her documentary in 2017. According to DuVernay, Netflix was the most supportive environment she’s experienced. Ramin Setoodeh (2017) writes in “Ava DuVernay on Why Netflix Understands Artists and Diversity” that when approached by Netflix, they encouraged her to realize her creative vision. DuVernay had never received an offer where she was both respected as an artist and told that her vision would be supported (Setoodeh, 2017). Netflix was “a safe, productive artist space” where she was given the freedom to express her creativity (Setoodeh, 2017). DuVernay credits Netflix’s CEO Ted Sarandos with their positive environment; she says that the executive notes are “not like studio notes. They are not prescriptive” (Setoodeh, 2017). Instead of receiving
demands on what to change, an executive asked if she wanted to do more with her documentary, and she recalls saying she didn’t have the funds for it. Netflix responded by offering her more money. Even though DuVernay thought that 13th would end up on the “back channels of Netflix and downloaded by some librarians” (Setoodeh, 2017), Netflix believed in the film so much they submitted it to the New York Film Festival. 13th was featured on their opening night “as their first documentary ever” (Setoodeh, 2017). Finally, DuVernay says that their vision for how 13th should be seen and “reach people was greater than” her own because they “launched the Oscar campaign” and “pushed it into theaters” (Setoodeh, 2017). The opportunity to reach larger audiences, as a “person of color and a woman” was thrilling. Moreover, she didn’t have to “go through the same five studios and three networks and hope that they recognize” and find value in what she was creating. Prior to Netflix, there wasn’t enough inclusion and now there are more options for filmmakers: “Inclusion is a necessity for survival” (Setoodeh, 2017). Since Netflix responds to the changing times and demographics present here in America, it makes them revolutionary in comparison to the other five major studios and three networks that are less willing to take chances.
Luke Cage Marvel’s first African American superhero, Harlem’s Luke Cage, was created due to the popularity of 1970s Blaxploitation films (Tanz, 2016). For many audience members, Netflix’s Luke Cage will be their first encounter with a Black superhero. Luke Cage never had the blockbuster success of other Marvel superheroes, but he did have a loyal cult following (Tanz, 2016). Unlike some of Marvel’s other superheroes, he doesn’t have a fancy suit, but his superpower is his bulletproof skin (Tanz, 2016). He is an ex-convict that the audience relates to because he’s a hardworking man who loves and supports his community. Therefore, he’s committed to “accept his responsibility to help defend Harlem from the many forces that threaten it” (Tanz, 2016). Creator, producer, and writer Cheo Hodari Coker “was inspired to serve as showrunner when he realized the ramifications of a series about a black man with impenetrable skin and how that might empower him to take on both criminals and crooked authority figures” (Tanz, 2016). In essence, how does literal unbreakable skin make a superhero braver, more daunting, and fearless when he encounters dangerous people who seek to destroy the Harlem Luke Cage knows and loves.
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There have been African A merican superheroes on our screens before—such as Wesley Snipes’ titular turn in Blade—but Luke Cage is the first to be surrounded by an almost completely black cast and writing team and whose powers and challenges are so explicitly linked to the black experience in America. “I pretty much made the blackest show in the history of TV,” Coker says, laughing. (Tanz, 2016)
By intentionally making African Americans visible, behind the scenes and onscreen, Coker’s creative strategy won over audiences. African Americans saw a cast of characters, good, evil, and complex that reflect the multiplicity of the Black cultural experience. Even before Luke Cage premiered, the media buzz alone had African Americans talking. Colter says that “people began stopping him on the street to tell him how important Cage was to them. ‘They didn’t have any other character they could relate to, an A merican black guy from the streets,’ Colter says. ‘That became important to me’” (Tanz, 2016). Nevertheless, where there’s a hero there must be a least one villain to prove the heroism of a superhero. Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) is one evil man who’s determined to exploit both Harlem’s resources and people. Despite Cottonmouth’s criminal behavior, Ali was able to bring his humanity to the surface because he understood the motivations of his character. Ali “sympathized with the villain who wanted to be king” (Li, 2016). To Ali, Cottonmouth was a product of his environment and “the result of having to react to his circumstances” (Li, 2016). But, in the process of trying to control his own circumstances, “he became a person he didn’t intend to become” (Li, 2016). Consequently, despite the fact that Cottonmouth succumbed to his evil side, the audience can relate to the feeling of having to access one’s humanity in order to avoid making the wrong choices.
Conclusion With Netflix’s streaming service, in the comfort of one’s home, individuals can expand their cultural perceptions and increase their engagement with Black content via their digital platform. In other words, Netflix streaming service distributes culturally diverse content, which may not have received a platform on mainstream channels, such as ABC, NBC, CBS and premium cable channels, such as Showtime, HBO, and The Movie Channel. This equity of access promotes marginalized texts in a manner that makes African Americans more visible and culturally acceptable to mainstream audiences.
For individuals with limited access to marginalized people, the rhetorical expression of diverse cultures may have less meaning. By viewing diverse images via Netflix Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015), Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016), and Marvel’s Luke Cage (2016), the exposure and consumption of Black digital content increases, which consequently decreases the distance between mainstream and Black culture. Thus, the message of African American humanity becomes more meaningful and valuable as opposed to more arbitrary and distant. Reason being, audiences develop a closer relationship with African American culture due to their viewing choices. In effect, by offering a broader view of Black content, than competing media channels, the visual rhetoric and images are more comprehensive and inclusive with Netflix, due to the presence of Blacks behind the scenes and onscreen. Consequently, with regard to Black images and public discourse, the interpretation of those culturally diverse images, due to Netflix’s cultural influence, transforms representations from a monolithic interpretation into a multifaceted rhetoric of a marginalized people, resulting in an authentic communication of African American humanity.
References A brief history of Netflix. (2014, July 21). CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/ 07/21/showbiz/gallery/netflix-history/index.html Beasts of No Nation. (2015, October 26). New Yorker, p. 14. Beasts of No Nation: Awards. (2015). IMDb. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/title/ tt1365050/awards Boboltz, S., & Williams, B. (2016, February 26). If you want to see diversity onscreen, watch Netflix. Huffpost. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/streaming-sitesdiversity_us_56c61240e4b0b40245c96783 Bogle, D. (2013). Toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, & bucks: An interpretive history of blacks in American films (4th ed.). London, UK: Bloomsbury. Ellison, R. (1964/1995). Shadow and act. New York, NY: Vintage. Fain, K. (2015). Black Hollywood: From butlers to superheroes, the changing role of African American men in the movies. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. Fiegerman, S. (2017, April 17). Netflix nears 100 million subscribers. CNN. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2017/04/17/technology/netflix-subscribers/index.html Haskell, M. (2009, December 15). Gone with the wind still raises a fuss after 70 years. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2009/OPINION/12/15/haskell.gone.with.the.wind/ index.html Hill, C. A., & Helmers, M. H. (Eds.). (2004). Defining visual rhetorics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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Jagannathan, M. (2016, January 30). Idris Elba mocks Oscars diversity controversy at SAG awards: “Welcome to diverse TV.” Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews. com/entertainment/movies/idris-elba-nabs-2-early-sag-awards-beasts-luther-article1.2515167 Kwate, N. A., & Threadcraft, S. (2015). Perceiving the Black female body: Race and gender in police constructions of body weight. Race and Social Problems, 7(3), 213–226. doi:10.1007/ s12552-015-9152-7 Li, S. (2016, October 2). Luke Cage postmortem: Mahershala Ali talks Cottonmouth. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from http://ew.com/article/2016/10/02/luke-cage-mahershalaali-cottonmouth-postmortem/ Loudenback, T. (2015, September 6). Meet Reed Hastings, the man who built Netflix. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/reed-hastings-netflix-bio-20158/#reed-hastings-was-born-in-boston-massachusetts-on-october-8-1960-to-joan-and-wilmot-hastings-his-father-was-a-lawyer-who-later-worked-for-the-nixon-administration-1 Mackey A. (2013). Troubling humanitarian consumption: Reframing relationality in African soldier narratives. Research in African Literatures, 44(4), 99–122. Retrieved from https:// www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/reseafrilite.44.4.99#metadata_info_tab_contents Martin, M. T. (2014). Conversations with Ava DuVernay—“A Call to Action”: Organizing principles of an activist cinematic practice. Black Camera, 6(1), 57–91. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/blackcamera.6.1.57 Molina, R., & Mussie D. (2017). Being shocked into paying attention. Tapestries: Interwoven Voices of Local and Global Identities, 6(1), (Article 14). Retrieved from http:// digitalcommons.macalester.edu/tapestries/vol6/iss1/14 Pérez, J. M. (2011). Restless travellers. Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Rogin, M. (1992). Making America home: Racial masquerade and ethnic assimilation in the transition to talking pictures. The Journal of American History, 79, 1050–1077. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2080798 Sage, A. (2016, January 15). Oscar snubs: Idris Elba, beasts of no nation top digital discussion of missed nominations. Variety. Retrieved from http://variety.com/2016/data/news/ oscar-snubs-idris-elba-beasts-of-no-nation-data-1201680991/ Setoodeh R. (2017, August 15). Ava DuVernay on why Netflix understands artists and diversity. Variety. http://variety.com/2017/film/news/ava-duvernay-netflix-diversity-1202527100/ Smith, I. H., & Schneider, S. J. (Eds.). (2015). 1001 movies you must see before you die. (10th ed.). Hauppauge, NY: Quintessence Editions. Stierman, V. (2017). When the hidden injustices are brought to light: A review of 13th. Tapestries: Interwoven Voices of Local and Global Identities, 6(1), (Article 19). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/tapestries/vol6/iss1/19 Sukhera, S. A. (2017). 13th: One era calling to another. Tapestries: Interwove Voices of Local and Global Identities, 6(1), (Article 12). Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.macalester. edu/tapestries/vol6/iss1/12/ Tanz, J. (2016, August 16). Modern marvel why Netflix’s Luke Cage is the superhero we really need now. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2016/08/mike-colter-luke-cage/
Terry, E. (2017). Review of 13th: Narratives of the Current United States. Tapestries: Interwove Voices of Local and Global Identities, 6(1), (Article 20). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons. macalester.edu/tapestries/vol6/iss1/20 Viruet, P. (2017, February 24). Why Netflix has decided to make diversity a top priority. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/z4gmw5/why-netflix-has-decided-tomake-diversity-a-top-priority Vishnevetsky, I. (2015, February 6). At 100 years old, Birth of a Nation remains a troubling contradiction. Retrieved from https://film.avclub.com/at-100-years-old-birth-of-a-nationremains-a-troubling-1798276308 Wallace, M. F. (2003). The good lynching and “The Birth of a Nation”: Discourses and aesthetics of Jim Crow. Cinema Journal, 43(1), 85–104. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/ stable/1225932?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
·9· from viki to netflix Crossing Borders and Meshing Cultures Oranit Klein Shagrir
Broadcast TV is an essentially national activity. —Ellis (2002, p. 5)
Ellis’s assertion is still valid as far as broadcast TV goes. Nowadays, however, consuming televisual content can also be a global activity thanks to online fandom communities and international content streaming services (Lee, 2017), such as Netflix or ViKi, which cross national and cultural borders. At the same time, they transform TV viewing into an individualized activity as well. This chapter considers the series Dramaworld (2016) as a case study of a “streaming televisual form” and its analysis will make it possible to examine the transformations in the production, distribution, and consumption of televisual content as video streaming becomes globally and commercially prevalent. The discussion will reveal the crossing of cultural, national, lingual, and medial borders; the meshing of cultures and professional practices; and the changing role of the viewer in the digital age. Dramaworld is a comedy-drama set in Los Angeles and Seoul. It tells the story of Claire, an American student and avid fan of Korean dramas, who gets “transported” into her favorite show. The series was directed by Chris Martin and produced and streamed by the video-streaming provider ViKi, and
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later distributed internationally by Netflix. Although very popular in Asia, ViKi is less familiar to American and European audiences. It is owned by the Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten and claims to have more than one billion viewers in 195 countries. While the service is ad-supported and free to viewers, it also offers a paid, ad-free subscription option. ViKi’s emphasis is on Asian content, especially from China, Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan, and it makes use of a large number of volunteers who produce subtitles in 200 languages (Cunnigham, 2017). Streaming services such as ViKi, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and the like are becoming ever more salient and influential players in the rapidly changing mediascape. The underlying assumption of this chapter is that as the media environment transforms due to technological, cultural and commercial developments, numerous long-standing traditional lines are becoming blurred, borders are being crossed, and previously defined dichotomies are crumbling.
The Changing Mediascape In recent decades, the media environment has been undergoing a series of fundamental changes, with “old” mass media meant for “passive” consumption being joined by numerous “new” media that afford interactive communication (McQuail, 2010). Web 2.0 and an increase in time-shifted and on-demand content across devices are reshaping the ways in which viewers access, consume, and interact with audiovisual content, and technological developments are enabling them to become producers of media messages. Thus, the line between the roles of producers and receivers of media messages has been blurred, and consequently, the boundaries between the traditional spheres of media production and consumption are less clearly drawn (Rice, 1999; Roig, San Cornelio, Ardèvol, Pau & Pagès, 2009). Some scholars claim that in the wake of this transformation, the reference to old and new media is no longer warranted, since what we have now is simply a variety of platforms and screens on which content can be consumed (Boyle, 2014). Contrary to Ellis’s assertion at the top of this chapter, for many people, the act of television viewing is now less national and more personal and individually determined, thanks to the new technologies (Groshek & Krongard, 2016). This state of affairs has undermined the old logic of multichannel television, creating new media forms that allow for a varied and global selection of content and a unique individualized viewing experience.
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Crossing National and Cultural Borders The technological changes in the mediascape enable national and cultural borders to be crossed more easily. As the global market for televisual content grows, international fan communities are flourishing, as are the opportunities for joint international production ventures. International streaming services have given rise to unexpected cultural trends, such as the popularity of Turkish dramas in Croatia, South Korean movies in Saudi Arabia, and Colombian telenovelas in the Philippines (Park, 2014). This crossing of borders is reflected in both the production and the narrative of Dramaworld. First, the series is the product of international cooperation. It was produced by Japanese-owned video-streaming platform Viki in a joint venture with Chinese, Korean, and American media companies, and it was streamed internationally first by ViKi and then by Netflix. ViKi’s corporate structure is itself multicultural, with offices in San Francisco, Singapore, Seoul, and Tokyo. Moreover, both the production team and the actors in Dramaworld are multinational and multilingual, and the episodes were shot in Los Angeles and Seoul. In addition to the global nature of the commercial architecture of video streaming services such as Netflix and ViKi, the content they offer is also culturally varied. Streaming services generally rely on televisual content that can travel across cultures. In the words of former ViKi CEO, Razmig Hovaghimian: “Really good story lines are universal … There’s a reason why Colombian drama travels well to the Philippines … When it travels, it travels with its nuances, its culture and its beauty” (Park, 2014). Traveling across cultural borders is easier when audiences are acquainted with the culture portrayed and the genre of the content. Dramaworld was conceived by its producers as an introduction to Korean culture, or more accurately, to the culture and norms of Korean drama (popularly known as K-Drama), intended for viewers who are unfamiliar with the genre. As ViKi’s CEO, Tammy H. Nam, explains: It’s going to include a lot of K-drama and Asian drama tropes that are going to be immediately recognizable … but at the same time it’s going to be very acceptable to a broad consumer mainstream audience. So if someone who’s completely new to Asian drama watches the show, I think that it would be a really great introduction to the genre for them. (“Why ViKi is getting …,” 2015)
When Claire enters Dramaworld, she acts as a guide, or translator, of the culture of K-drama, which is foreign to non-fans. She explains the various
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character types, the plot devices, and the rules and conventions of the genre as spelled out in the Dramaworld Handbook: Law number 1: A drama ends with true love’s kiss. True love’s kiss is defined as occurring between the leading man and leading lady. Law number 2: The leading man must always embody the traits of a leading man. Confident, handsome, slightly arrogant, but always with the leading lady’s interest at heart. Everything is for her. Law number 3: The leading man will take a hot steamy shower. Law number 4: There can be bumps and detours, but every twist is actually leading towards true love. Law number 5: Upon true love being achieved, the drama will be reset. Characters’ memories will be wiped clean in preparation for their next drama so that they can fall in love for the first time again, and again, and again. (Episode 2)
As a result, the series might be seen as a “Rosetta Stone” for K-drama, enabling viewers who are unfamiliar with its codes to understand and enjoy it. They are symbolically represented by the brief appearance of the director, Chris Martin, as an innocent and uninterested customer in the diner where Claire works. After ordering a sandwich, he gets a detailed explanation about the nature of K-Drama, which he does not really appreciate: Claire:
Customer: Claire: Customer:
You’ve got to understand, in Korean drama that first kiss is everything. It means they’re in love! It’s not like American shows where a kiss means nothing. In K-drama, when a guy kisses a girl, that’s it! That’s true love forever. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Taste of Love is the most popular drama on Korean television. Nobody freaking cares. Just make the sandwich! (Episode 1)
While the international popularity of Anime and Manga is attributed to being “culturally odorless” (Iwabuchi, 2002), Korean TV is culturally distinctive. Nevertheless, it has gained popularity around the world through international streaming services (Jin & Yoon, 2016; Lee, 2017). Dramaworld is a cultural hybrid—that is, a union of “two hitherto relatively distinct forms, styles, or identities … which often occurs across national borders as well as across cultural boundaries” (Kraidy, 2005, p. 5). This hybridity highlights the uniqueness of each cultural identity, Korean and American, on the one hand, and the universality of the human experience on the other. Thus, the multicultural production process and commercial cooperation resulted in a series
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whose narrative also reflects two different cultural points of view, and even two languages.
Crossing Lingual Borders Seth:
Everything here is subtitled, so after a while you won’t even notice it. It will be like you’re speaking Korean. Claire: I speak Korean? [Funny colorful Korean subtitles on screen] … Claire: Wait, do you speak English? Joon Park: Of course. English, Français, Español, Nihongo and a few words of Malagasy. (Episode 2)
Miraculously, the characters in Dramaworld can understand both Korean and English, enabling the narrative and characters, as well as the viewers, to cross the lingual barrier that often hinders televisual content from travelling internationally. In Dramaworld, Claire celebrates the crossing of this border enthusiastically. When she realizes that a local taxi driver can understand English, she asks him in amazement: “Can you understand what I am saying?” and in response to his positive reply, she exclaims happily: “I can speak Korean!” (Episode 2). Obviously, she can neither speak nor understand Korean. However, as a character in the series she effortlessly crosses the lingual barrier and becomes part of the drama. This scene can be seen as an allegory of the experience of consumers of international streaming services, who can leap over the lingual barrier thanks to the platforms’ efforts to translate the streamed content into as many languages as possible. Netflix currently supports more than 20 languages and is seeking to expand its subtitle offerings in order to widen its international appeal. Expressing a desire “to delight members in ‘their’ language,” the company declares it is looking for “top-notch translators” (Musil, 2017) in order to ensure the quality of its subtitles and has even introduced an online tool to test the translation skills of candidates. While Netflix relies on paid professionals, ViKi relies on crowdsourced subtitles, that is, on its viewers’ free labor. It claims to have more than one billion viewers in 195 countries thanks to an army of volunteer viewers who produce subtitles in 200 languages (Cunningham, 2017). Indeed, the Asian-based streaming provider portrays itself as viewer-oriented, enabling fans to add real-time comments on its site that pop up throughout the show, or to request certain content they would like the company to acquire and stream. Its most popular shows, coupled with fan-powered subtitles, are also distributed to Netflix and Hulu (Park, 2014).
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In addition, ViKi released a Learn Mode designed to help viewers build foreign language skills by allowing them to interact with the subtitles of streamed content (Chong, 2017). Thus, the Dramaworld environment in which cultural and lingual borders are easily crossed is the very same environment that international streaming providers invest considerable effort in creating for their viewers worldwide.
Blurring the Lines of Professional Practice Depicting itself as “a community-powered or ‘crowdsourced’ Internet platform,” ViKi’s method of using crowdsourcing and collective intelligence to translate content is traditionally associated with piracy or illegal platforms (Dwyer, 2012). Taking advantage of the platform’s technological affordances, it utilizes volunteers to produce what are called “fansubs” in numerous languages, thereby contributing to the expansion of televisual content worldwide (González, 2007). ViKi therefore marries professional and nonprofessional practices (Dwyer, 2012), crossing the line between piracy translations and legitimate subtitling practices, and giving free rein to fans’ creativity (Denison, 2011). “Fansubbers” are allowed to challenge the norms of subtitling by using different fonts and colors, and they can often add their own notes and impressions to the content in a designated space in the frame referred to as “headnotes” (Eunjae, 2016). These practices break the traditional rule of the minimum presence of the translator in the translated text (Dwyer, 2012) and open a new avenue of interaction between viewers and translators “formerly known as viewers,” to paraphrase Rosen’s famous distinction (2006). The use of fansubs demonstrates how piracy practices can be co-opted by a commercial streaming service, and it is identified with a general move towards viewer empowerment and the active modes of consumption evolving in the digital mediascape (González, 2006 in Dwyer, 2012). Viki proudly differentiates itself from other streaming services by offering an engaging, community-oriented, lean-forward approach: “Unlike the solitary ‘lean back’ experience offered by Netflix … [Viki encourages] subscribers to interact with the programs it offers, and with each other” (Cain, 2017). ViKi’s model involves buying copyright licenses from content providers with whom it shares advertising revenue and establishing partnerships with online video services like Hulu and YouTube (Kim, 2010 in Dwyer, 2012) as well as licensing its subtitled content to Netflix and Hulu.
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However, when Dramaworld was streamed on Netflix it was impossible to tell that the translation subtitles were actually crowdsourced “fansubs,” and there was no sign of viewers’ “timed comments” originally embedded in the content on Viki. Compared with the engagement Viki offers its viewers, it is fair to say that the Netflix’s viewing experience, although personalized, is less active and engaging. The invitation to become an active viewer—a “prosumer” (Bruns, 2009)—is epitomized in Dramaworld by Claire, who crosses the line into the drama and goes from being a passive fan to an active participant.
Transforming the Fan When Claire is magically transported into the world of her favorite Korean TV drama, Taste of Love, she metaphorically crosses the line separating the viewers’ world from the world of television (Couldry, 2002). At the same time, two additional symbolic lines are crossed: the line between viewers and characters in the series, and the line between the on-screen narrative and the production process behind the scenes. Claire’s story is a contemporary version of the fantasy beautifully portrayed in Woody Allen’s film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). In the movie, the line between the viewers’ world and the “movie world” is crossed twice: first when one of the characters in the film comes out of the screen and into the movie theatre, and again when he goes back into the film, taking with him Cecilia, a lonely fan who has seen the movie numerous times. When she crosses over into the film, she is amazed to come face to face with the characters. However, she is still a stranger in their world and does not become one of them. Instead, she remains a viewer who accidently finds herself in the wrong environment. In Dramaworld, Claire enters the TV world through her smartphone, and even though it is apparent that she is a “foreigner” in this environment, she immediately becomes a player in it, literally standing between the two leading characters as they lean in to kiss each other and wind up kissing her, to their astonishment. This is the moment that marks her transformation: she is a fan, a viewer, but she can now also participate as a character in the story. Soon afterward, she discovers that she has been brought to Dramaworld as a “facilitator,” a person from the real world whose job it is to help keep the narrative on track. Unlike Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Claire is not passive. She is given significant power over the plot and characters, and she has permission to impact their actions.
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According to the traditional dramaturgic arrangement (Goffman, 1974), there are two different “information states”: that of the actors and production staff who are familiar with the narrative and that of the audience who has less information about the unfolding story. This distinction is overturned in Dramaworld. Contrary to the traditional arrangement, Claire, a “former member of the audience” (Rosen, 2006), knows more than the characters. They are not even aware that they are playing a role in a televisual drama, and Claire is warned not to enlighten them. As her guide, Seth, explains: “These characters cannot know they are in a drama. If there are any secrets that you know that they don’t, you cannot tell them.” (Episode 3). Another line is blurred in Dramaworld when Claire is told to cease being a viewer altogether. Rule number three of facilitation is: “Do not watch the drama.” Once again, Seth supplies the reasoning behind this rule: “This is not a TV show for them. How would you like it if some creeper started staring at your intimate moments?” (Episode 3). This warning completely voids Goffman’s concept of “performance frame” (1974), whereby stage actors are positioned in a place and situation that allows other people to watch them intently for an extended period of time without being perceived to violate their privacy. In Dramaworld, the characters in the drama are no longer treated as performers but as real people, while the real people in the audience, like Claire, can be transformed into performers, thus blurring the traditional Goffmanian framing. This role exchange, like the inversion between the two “information states,” echoes the transformation of the role of the media audience in the digital world. In recent years we have been seeing more “ordinary people” on screen, as viewers are invited to participate in TV shows, to impact them in various ways and to interact with the producers and other viewers on-line (Enli, 2009; Klein-Shagrir, 2017, Lunt, 2004; Turner 2010). Whereas in the past, TV producers set the viewers apart from the show unless they were members of the studio audience, yet they are now inviting viewers to cross the line and become part of the program (Jermyn & Holmes, 2006). Thus, in the contemporary mediascape, the line between consumers and producers of media content is often blurred, and viewers can become participants and even produce their own content and distribute it worldwide from their own homes. These circumstances, known as participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006), are reflected in the slogan promoting Dramaworld: “What would you do if you fell into your favorite K-drama?” It depicts Claire as a representative of all viewers, and it invites them to imagine themselves entering the TV world and
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even participating in it. Dramaworld demonstrates this crossing of the line in a creative fantasy inspired by participatory culture and the promised change in power relations between producers and consumers of media content. Furthermore, Claire represents the development of female audiences as described by media researchers over the past few decades (Liebes, 2003). She goes from being a passive starry-eyed fan who escapes her own reality by immersing herself in an endless string of dramatic content, to an active participant who becomes part of the story and makes an impact on it. In the first episode, she is depicted as a devoted fan of K-dramas who raptly watches one series after the other on her mobile phone. The camera zooms out from Claire’s face and we see her sitting on the toilet with her eyes glued to her smartphone when her father’s voice jolts her: “We’ve got customers!” Looking embarrassed, she refuses to face the reality of her life and goes back to the drama unfolding on the screen of her phone. Later in the episode, she explains her fascination with K-dramas and is reprimanded by her father for her escapism: Claire:
In here life is exciting, and people are beautiful, and they fall hopelessly, madly in love. The leading man and the girl no one ever looked at before. They kiss and there’s a happy ending. Look at the door! That’s real-life Claire. That stuff doesn’t happen.
Claire’s manifest escapism is reminiscent of the radiophonic soap opera fans studied by Herzog (1941). The women listened to as many as twelve episodes a day of their favorite radio series and were characterized as lonely, with low self-esteem, and seeking to escape from their own dreary reality by living on a “borrowed experience.” Claire is also lonely and insecure. As she herself says: “I am not even a main character in my own life” (Episode 2). K-Dramas, described by fans as an escapist experience that “takes you away from your life and world” (Lee, 2017, p. 7), serve her as “borrowed experiences” in place of her own boring life. The more engrossed Claire becomes in the romantic fantasy of the series she is watching, the more alarmed she is that the narrative is not proceeding toward the anticipated happy ending. Much like Radway’s romance readers (1985), she finds it hard to contend with the unknown when she suspects that the essential “true love’s kiss” might not happen. The turning point comes when Claire is plunged into Dramaworld and becomes a participant in the narrative in an allegory of the participatory culture characteristic of the digital age. Once she is inside the TV world, she acts
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not only as a “facilitator” for the narrative, but also as a guide for the viewers to the drama’s back stage and production process. She explains production procedures and reads to the viewers extensive excerpts from the series’ production manual, or “bible.” Unveiling the production apparatus and behind the scenes activity of media production is a prevalent practice in contemporary TV, reflecting producers’ perception of viewers as media-savvy consumers who expect to be involved in, or at least informed about, the production process behind the content they watch (Duffy, Liss-Mariño, & Sender, 2011). Research has shown that producers strongly believe that viewers wish to engage with media texts (Enli, 2009; Sundet & Ytreberg, 2009) and want to be included in the production process itself (Klein Shagrir, 2017). The backstage that is revealed, however, is not always the actual backstage of the production, but rather a staged backstage created order to give viewers a sense of involvement in the production and closeness to the production team (Klein Shagrir, 2015). Dramaworld’s backstage is similarly staged: there are no production crew members, cameras, or sound crew in sight. Nevertheless, the series replicates the process whereby viewers are transformed from passive members of the audience to empowered players who can design their own experience, participate in the action, and even witness parts of the production process.
Crossing Medial Borders Streaming services like Netflix represent the disruption of distinctions between film, television, and online platforms such as Vimeo or YouTube (Jenner, 2016). It is not surprising, therefore, that the lines between a TV series and a web series are often blurred as well. While Netflix primarily streams content which conforms to televisual formats, Viki produced the series Dramaworld which crosses the line between media time and again. On the one hand, unlike the episodes of a TV series, the episodes of Dramaworld are extremely short (10–15 minutes). On the other hand, the narrative takes place in the world of TV, specifically the world of K-dramas originally produced for and broadcast on Korean TV channels. Moreover, this content is now consumed in many countries not through TV, but online. The short, bite-sized episodes are particularly suited to contemporary viewing habits. Viewers can easily watch an episode or two on their phones during their lunch break or their commute to work, or binge watch the whole series in a little over two hours. As many scholars and producers are questioning the very definition of TV as a medium in light of technological and
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cultural changes, we might ask whether TV is defined by its technology, i.e., the broadcasting of analogical or digital signals, or by a combination of components such as its text, form, organization and industry. This question is even more intriguing in light of the audiovisual content on streaming services. Dramaworld is a hybrid, a “streaming televisual form” that constantly blurs the media line between TV and the web, not only technologically, but in form and narrative as well.
Conclusion With the mediascape changing literally before our eyes, content streaming providers such as Netflix and ViKi are impacting the ways media content is produced, distributed, and consumed. Some claim that Netflix represents the future of television: choice, freedom, and democracy (Yale, 2016). Whether these aims can indeed be attained is highly debatable. Moreover, although streaming services are considered global, their catalogs are differentiated both temporally and geographically. In other words, at any given time, users in different countries have different content to choose from. Thus, while streaming providers may be conceptually global, they can also be seen as an array of national services linked to one common platform (Lobato, 2017). That said, in this chapter I have tried to show that they do, in fact, cross borders, mesh cultures, and blur traditional distinctions, and as such, they may represent one possible trajectory of TV in the digital age. The analysis of Dramaworld, a series produced by one streaming service (ViKi) and distributed by another (Netflix), reveals a contemporary form that incorporates the cultural, technological, industrial, commercial, and aesthetic transformations of televisual content that can now be seen in the mediascape. The series demonstrates not only the impact of new platforms for production and distribution of content, but also the changing role of the media consumer and shifts in viewing habits. Dramaworld illustrates the transformation of the traditional media fan into the new empowered viewer who can select the content she wants and watch it whenever and wherever she wants. Furthermore, the series portrays a new version of fan who becomes a participant in the series as well, a “fansubber” as it were, who adds not only subtitles, but also commentary, to the narrative. The series also throws a spotlight on other changes in the media world today: the growing global fandom of televisual content; the developing market for international content and formats; international joint production
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projects; and the conversion of illegal practices, such as crowdsourced subtitles, into professional procedures. While Viki aspires to become the “Netflix of the world,” (Russel, 2013) it distinguishes itself from Netflix not only by focusing on Asian content but also by creating a more socially and globally engaging experience for its community of viewers. As described by the company’s CEO: “Our subscribers become superfans. They want to learn about the language, to learn about the culture … we are really about embracing the true love and passion our fans have and their desire to share that with other people in our community.” (Cain, 2017) Thus, Dramaworld, which I have dubbed a “streaming televisual form,” demonstrates how content today can travel across borders, cultures, languages, and media, and at the same time transform viewers into participants and prosumers.
References Boyle, R. (2014). Television sport in the age of screens and content. Television & New Media, 15(8), 746–751. Bruns, A. (2009, September 3–4). From prosumer to produser: Understanding user-led content creation. Paper presented at Transforming Audiences, London. Cain, R. (2017, October 24). Viki.com is the most innovative streaming video service you haven’t heard about. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/robcain/2017/10/24/viki-com-is-the-most-innovative-streaming-video-service-you-haventheard-about/#28457c652ff9 Chong, Z. (2017, April 13). Viki video streaming seeks to teach aspiring multi-linguists. C|net. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/news/viki-rolls-out-new-feature-for-aspiring-multilinguists/ Couldry, N. (2002). The place of media power: Pilgrims and witnesses of the media age. London & New York: Routledge. Cunningham, S. (2017, March 1). Iflix, Hooq, Viu, Netflix, Viki, Catchplay and more: It’s a crowded video-on-demand world. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ susancunningham/2017/03/01/iflix-hooq-viu-netflix-viki-catchplay-and-more-its-acrowded-video-on-demand-world/#33c089787457 Denison, R. (2011). Anime fandom and the liminal spaces between fan creativity and piracy. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 14(5), 449–466. Duffy, B. E., Liss-Mariño, T., & Sender, K. (2011). Reflexivity in television depictions of media industries: Peeking behind the gilt curtain. Communication, Culture & Critique, 4(3), 296–313. Dwyer, T. (2012). Fansub dreaming on ViKi: “Don’t just watch but help when you are free.” The Translator, 18(2), 217–243.
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Ellis, J. (2002). Visible fictions: Cinema: television: video. London & New York: Routledge. Enli, G. S. (2009). Mass communication tapping into participatory culture: Exploring strictly come dancing and Britain’s got talent. European Journal of Communication, 24(4), 481–493. Eunjae, L. E. (2016). International audience’s timed comment use on Viki: Talking about a K-Drama while still watching it. PhD diss., Seoul National University. http://s-space.snu. ac.kr/handle/10371/134308. Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. González, L. P. (2007). Fansubbing anime: Insights into the “butterfly effect” of globalisation on audiovisual translation. Perspectives, 14(4), 260–277. Groshek, J., & Krongard, S. (2016). Netflix and engage? Implications for streaming television on political participation during the 2016 us presidential campaign. Social Sciences, 5(4), 65. Herzog, H. (1941). On borrowed experience: An analysis of listening to daytime sketches. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, 9(1), 65–95. Iwabuchi, K. (2002). “Soft” nationalism and narcissism: Japanese popular culture goes global. Asian Studies Review, 26(4), 447–469. Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York, NY: New York University Press. Jenner, M. (2016). Is this TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and binge-watching. New Media & Society, 18(2), 257–273. Jermyn, D., & Holmes, S. (2006). The audience is dead; long live the audience! Interactivity, “telephilia” and the contemporary television audience. Critical Studies in Television, 1(1), 49–57. Jin, D. Y., & Yoon, K. (2016). The social mediascape of transnational Korean pop culture: Hallyu 2.0 as spreadable media practice. New Media & Society, 18(7), 1277–1292. Klein Shagrir, O. (2015). Unveiling television’s apparatus on screen as a “para-interactive” strategy. Media, Culture & Society, 37(5), 737–752. Klein Shagrir, O. (2017). Para-interactivity and the appeal of television in the digital age. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Kraidy, M. (2005). Hybridity, or the cultural logic of globalization. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. Lee, H. (2017). A “Real” fantasy: Hybridity, Korean drama, and pop cosmopolitans. Media, Culture & Society, 40(3), 365–380. https://doi.org/10.117/ 0163443717718926 Liebes, T. (2003). Herzog’s “On Borrowed Experience”: Its place in the debate over the active audience. In E. Katx, J. D. Peters, T. Liebes, & A. Orloff (Eds.), Canonic texts in media research: Are there any? should there be? how about these? (pp. 39–53). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. Lobato, R. (2017). Rethinking international TV flows research in the age of Netflix. Television & New Media, 19(3), 241–256. https//doi.org/10.1177/1527476417708245 Lunt, P. (2004). Liveness in reality television and factual broadcasting. The Communication Review, 7(4), 329–335. McQuail, D. (2010). McQuail’s mass communication theory. (6th ed.). London: Sage Publications.
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Musil, S. (2017, March 30). Netflix seeks the world’s best translators. C|net. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/news/netflix-seeks-worlds-best-translators/ Park, M. (2014, June 10). Can fans unravel the Babel of the world’s TV dramas? CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/09/world/asia/international-dramas-viki/ index.html?hpt=hp_c4 Radway, J. (1985). Interpretive communities and variable literacies: The functions of romance reading. Mass Communication Review Yearbook, 5, 337–361. Rice, R. E. (1999). Artifacts and paradoxes in new media. New Media & Society, 1(1), 24–32. Roig, A., San Cornelio, G., Ardèvol, E., Pau, A., & Pagès, R. (2009). Videogame as media practice: An exploration of the intersections between play and audiovisual culture. Convergence, 15(1), 89–103. Rosen, J. (2006, June 27). The people formerly known as the audience. PressThink. http:// archive.pressthink.org/2006/06/27/ppl_frmr.html Russel, J. (2013, July 23). Viki adds Blake Krikorian and Dave Goldberg as strategic investors to help fulfill its “Netflix of the world” ambition. MEDIA. Retrieved from https:// thenextweb.com/media/2013/07/24/viki-global-netflix-ambition/ Sundet, V. S., & Ytreberg, E. (2009). Working notions of active audiences: Further research on the active participant in convergent media industries. Convergence, 15(4), 383–390. Turner, G. (2010). Ordinary people and the media: The demotic turn. London: Sage Publications. Yale, C. (2016). Commercial-free TV?: Examining the commodity flow of Netflix. AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research, 5. Retrieved from https://spir.aoir.org/index.php/spir/ article/view/1176/827 Why ViKi is getting into originals with K-drama hybrid series Dramaworld. (2015, September 18). Videolink. Retrieved from https://www.thevideoink.com/2015/09/18/ why-viki-is-getting-into-originals-with-k-drama-hybrid-series-dramaworld/.
·10· transforming media production in an era of
“ binge - watching ”
Netflix’s Cinematic Long-Form Serial Programming and Reception Sheri Chinen Biesen
Over the last decade, Netflix has been heralded and critiqued for its capacity to revolutionize the way we watch cinema and television and for fostering a new, changing media production, distribution, and reception climate that has dramatically transformed in an era of “video on demand” (VOD) media streaming and “binge watching” home viewership. Netflix executives have insisted, and the company has shown, it has changed the nature of what a television program is and the very nature of media viewing itself. Netflix has transformed media reception and distribution practices in the U.S. and abroad, and provided an ideal global media platform for encouraging “binge watching” and considering how traditional and new media “converge” at home. Netflix has also produced an array of original program content which has prompted other major media companies to adapt and respond with competing media production, distribution and reception strategies. This chapter investigates how Netflix transforms media programs and programming content to maximize serial long-form “binge watching” viewing of media and reimagine traditional cinematic and televisual reception. In particular, this chapter will focus on Netflix programs and programming content in the context of its platform and viewing reception practices to examine how the nature of Netflix media programs, overall programming (content), media platform, and its “binge watching” reception climate (viewer practices) affect the intrinsic way in which we see and experience cinema and television.
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Netflix programs and programming content epitomizes what media scholar Henry Jenkins describes as “convergence culture” and “transmedia storytelling” with a “whole new vision of synergy” in the “flow of content across multiple media platforms” to create an industrial, technological, social, and cultural context where “the art of story-telling has become the art of world-building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 114). While Netflix began as a way to rent movies by mail, it is often compared to television. Netflix cofounder and CEO Reed Hastings calls it a “web-based” internet TV “network” (Wu, 2013). Media scholar Chuck Tryon and industry analyst Tim Wu compare Netflix to HBO (like Netflix suggesting cinema viewing in its moniker, “Home Box Office”) with a “premium” subscriber (rather than conventional commercial advertising) base. Like HBO, Netflix also shifted from screening films to original high quality dramatic programming. The Economist observed that “If Netflix were a cable channel, its subscriber revenues in 2013 would put it third in America behind ESPN and HBO” (“Thinking Outside,” 2013, p. 69). Netflix has become a benchmark for media companies. Responding to Netflix’s success and effect on media, Disney, HBO, CBS, Amazon (expanding from online retailer to emulate a film studio), and others are offering streaming services, competing with Netflix and heralding a “new era of à la carte television” and promising it will “look a lot like Netflix” (Steel, 2014). Tryon observes in an age of cord cutting amid the growth of Netflix and media streaming options, “digital distribution raises new questions about how, when, and where we access movies and what this model means for entertainment culture.” Ironically, while digital media “seem to promise that media texts circulate faster, more cheaply, and more broadly than ever before,” Tryon suggests that despite the “promises of ubiquitous and immediate access to a wide range of media content, digital delivery has largely involved the continued efforts of major media conglomerates to develop better mechanisms for controlling when, where, and how content is circulated” (Tryon, 2013, pp. 3–4). Netflix has certainly transformed media viewing. As a result of the popularity of Netflix, other major media companies (e.g., TV networks [HBO, Showtime], film studios, Amazon Films, Hulu, Apple, Google, WarnerInstant, FilmStruck, Google/YouTube) have recognized its influence as Netflix produces original content and produces/streams increasingly serialized cinematic long-form dramas, and tried to simulate or compete with Netflix in response to its success. Yet the “transformation” of these media companies would be
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“impossible,” Wu (2013) argues, “without the path blazed by premium cable. HBO pioneered the subscription-fee model” and its “success made possible the specialized programming on other premium networks, like AMC and the rest.” He explains that: “The DVD box set gave hard-core enthusiasts the first taste of the binge-viewing that is a Netflix trademark. The company’s achievement is to bring it all together and target the entire TV-watching population—not just a few selected die-hards, but every individual based on his or her own interests and obsessions.” Thus, Wu projects that “nearly all scripted shows” will “become streaming shows, whether they are produced or aggregated by Netflix or Amazon, CBS or a (finally unbundled) HBO.” Yet, premium subscriber cable channels (HBO, AMC, originally known as “American Movie Classics,” and satellite television companies like DirectTV) are marketed not as conventional television, but rather as something closer to cinema providing a quality, high caliber cinematic viewing experience. Not only are Netflix (original) programs and programming influential. It is fascinating how a television series can be originally conceived and produced to be aired on a conventional broadcast or cable channel for an hour once a week at a certain time with commercial interruptions, yet viewers may never even watch it on conventional TV. However, viewers then discover and “binge watch” entire seasons in sequence without commercial interruptions on Netflix (at home, while traveling, on a mobile device) and subsequently become dedicated viewers and fans of a series. This is especially the case in an era of “cord-cutting.” For instance, consider the increasingly serialized nature and cross-promotion of the CW network’s The Flash and Arrow, or AMC’s Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul. These series reference and promote each other across and between different yet related programs, and enjoyed greater popularity by being “binge watched” by viewers streaming the television shows on Netflix. Moreover, Netflix’s original Marvel series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders reference each other and have characters starring in each other’s shows, moving across and between programs to create a long-form serialized “meta” narrative. Such long-form serial programming encourages and furthers binge watching on Netflix. Netflix’s serialized “meta” narrative is encouraged as original series Glow stars recognizable actors (Alison Brie, Rich Sommer) from AMC’s Mad Men. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and Better Call Saul feature actors/characters (Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman) from Breaking Bad. Daredevil actor Charlie Cox starred in HBO’s Martin Scorsese production Boardwalk Empire. Narcos star Pedro Pascal was in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Not only are Netflix
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originals House of Cards, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Crown, Glow, and Narcos popular. AMC’s Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and prequel Better Call Saul became highly viewed by being binge watched on Netflix. Moreover, Netflix promoted serial binge viewing of Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and The Crown in high definition 4K Ultra HD, for better quality cinematic images not always available on cable or satellite. In terms of Netflix programs and programming content on its media platform, for example, even series created for conventional viewing on regular TV with commercials once a week cross-promoting other shows, such as the CW network’s The Flash and Arrow, are better when viewed in immersive commercial-free long-form binge watching sessions on Netflix rather than when aired on the conventional broadcast networks they were created and produced for with commercial interruptions that disrupt the flow of the meta narrative. However, television shows which are not specifically created to be binge watched, but rather cross-promoted between different series across alternating “shared” episodes in a once a week format, such as Arrow and The Flash, often disrupt the sequence and flow of the binge viewing experience of individual series where missing episodes are in a separate series. This type of broadcast cross-promotion specifically intended for a once a week airing of a show creates new problems which interfere with televisual binge viewing via media streaming. Such issues also reveal conventional networks’ lack of understanding about the nature of binge watching itself in the inherent inception of the television series’ creation, production, and media platform. As networks (CBS, CW, NBC, FOX, ABC) respond to Netflix and add/ create their own media streaming service for shows, they interrupt programming content with commercials and charge more for less content. Even PBS’ streaming service previously interrupted shows with commercials not shown when originally aired (they later eliminated commercials during the programs). Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, Starz, and Disney offer streaming services with user interfaces, sound and image quality not as good as Netflix. Thus, serialized long-form television dramatic series are more ideally viewed on Netflix. For example, when Hulu struck a deal with Criterion, pulling Criterion art cinema from Netflix, Hulu streamed Criterion’s international art cinema classics, such as Akira Kurosawa masterwork Ran, interrupted by commercials. (Criterion later made a deal to stream art cinema on FilmStruck.) The serialized nature of Netflix’s long-form dramatic programs and programming platform for its media content has been encouraged by other media conglomerate competitors ending their deals with Netflix and pulling their
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media content (such as classic film titles) from its delivery platform for media streaming distribution. In response to Netflix’s popularity, even media conglomerate companies and channels which previously had joint partnership deals with Netflix, such as Starz and Disney, increasingly view Netflix as a rival competitor and ended their agreements, opting instead to pull their film libraries and remove media content from Netflix and offer their own proprietary media streaming services to show films/programs to compete with Netflix. Other serial programs such as Jane Campion’s 2013 neo-noir detective crime drama series Top of the Lake, starring Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss, which enjoyed popularity on Netflix, later moved to competitor media streaming service Hulu. In an ever-evolving streaming media production, distribution and binge viewing climate, the very nature of Netflix and its cinematic televisual programs and media platform content has dramatically changed in intrinsic ways which foster greater long-form serialized binge watching. Netflix has transformed itself and its programs and programming content. James Surowiecki (2014) of The New Yorker recognizes Netflix’s influential history of innovation and argues that the media company has “created two markets practically from scratch—online DVD rental, then video streaming. In the process, it has reinvented itself” from a “traditional pay-per-rental company, turned itself into a subscription rental service, went into streaming, and then moved into original content.” Netflix programs and programming has changed as it previously had less original content and a much bigger catalogue of licensed content than HBO and Showtime “pay-TV” services. “But the differences are diminishing,” he explains: “Streaming matters more to pay-TV networks now, while Netflix is adding more original shows and movies. Toss in Amazon’s streaming service—which has been licensing lots of TV shows and films and has also begun producing its own shows—and you’re looking at a crowded marketplace” (Surowiecki, 2014). In recent years, as Netflix became a popular successful film/television “aggregated” media distribution outlet, global media conglomerates (e.g., film production studios, distributors, television cable companies) viewed Netflix as a competitor rather than a supplemental means of making movies and programs available to viewers, especially with the exploding popularity of Netflix’s video on demand “VOD” streaming service which enhanced home viewing and “binge watching.” In contrast, early on, Hollywood motion picture studios, television media conglomerates, and cable companies (including pay channels such as Starz) underestimated the lucrative potential and
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popularity of video on demand streaming and were thus happy to make films and series available on Netflix. In the emergent days of streaming, what set Netflix apart was that it had “far more—and far better—content than anyone else. It was able to build up a sizable catalogue of movies cheaply, because the streaming market was still small and Hollywood was happy to get the extra revenue,” Surowiecki argues. As an example, Netflix initially made a deal to license/stream hundreds of films from pay TV cable channel Starz for $25 million a year. However, after this original arrangement, in later years, “Once content providers saw how popular streaming was becoming,” he explains, “they jacked up the price of their content. Netflix’s success also attracted new competitors to the market (like Amazon), and encouraged existing competitors (like HBO) to invest more in streaming” (Surowiecki, 2014). Jeffrey Ulin, who ran distribution at Lucasfilm, observes that because there is now intense competition for streaming viewers from media companies responding to Netflix, it’s now “harder to get content. And the content you do get costs more.” After the Netflix-Starz agreement ended in 2012, “In the past few years, Netflix has lost thousands of movies as licensing deals expired,” and two years later in 2014 it paid at least $3 billion for content. Surowiecki insists, “Though Netflix still streams plenty of great films, no one really thinks of it as a dream video store in the sky anymore.” Thus, Netflix offers fewer classic films to be viewed via “video on demand” media streaming. As video stores and art cinemas disappear, these classic films will no longer be seen if they disappear from Netflix. Yet, media conglomerate competitors which terminate Netflix distribution deals and pull media content (such as classic films) from Netflix often later go on to complain that Netflix no longer offers this classic cinema to binge on its media programming platform. However, Netflix has moved aggressively and extensively into expanding their streaming service globally and making international production deals for original long-form serialized dramatic programs and programming content for its media platform while acquiring other programs from overseas for its diverse offering of Netflix originals. By February 2017, Mark Scott of the New York Times reported that Netflix’s media streaming company also expanded media partnerships into new corporate relationships: by cutting deals with international telecom conglomerates. In fact, conventional broadcast television channels frequently run ads for mobile device cell phone companies such as T-Mobile which show Netflix original programs and media programming content, such as House of Cards and Narcos, to advertise that the telecom company will offer new customers
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free Netflix membership if they sign up with T-Mobile. Netflix advertises cinematic long-form quality dramatic original serial programs and programming content (House of Cards, The Crown, Narcos, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and $90 million scripted drama series Marco Polo, globally shot on location across continents in Italy, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia in 2014–2016), during televised cinema and Academy Awards broadcasts. Such promotional meta narratives suggest the connection of Netflix original serialized media programs and programming content on its streaming media platform to prestigious high-quality art cinema now also made available to view and stream across an array of mobile devices, thus expanding and redefining the “binge watching” viewing experience. As viewers find new ways to experience televisual programs and create new meanings by engaging in different platforms and media contexts, chief technology product officer Neil Hunt praised Netflix for breaking free and transcending the limitations of conventional television’s weekly half-hour and hour formats and the need to hook a viewer in a particular time frame. Thus, he insists viewers might not even “recognize” TV shows, as programs “can be as long or as short as you want, and it doesn’t have to tease you into the next episode because you can binge right into the next episode … stories we watch today are not your parents’ TV” (Lapowsky, 2014). These developments regarding Netflix and the evolution of convergent media are certainly more complex and less simplistic than some conceptions suggest in considering Netflix or traditional cinema shifting to conventional models of television. Netflix has already proved Hunt to be correct: what we previously thought and conceived of television itself is being reimagined entirely. Netflix has transformed the television home media viewing experience, the reception and distribution context of cinema-going (binge watching at home rather than in the theater), and created its own personalized cinematic experience for films and quality dramatic TV series reformulated in the image of cinema and made more widely available. In short, television may look more like cinema in a serialized long form dramatic format binge watched in a home viewing reception environment. Netflix promotes its original productions (e.g., Golden Globe and Emmy award winning neo-noir House of Cards [based on the 1990 BBC series], The Crown, Narcos, Jessica Jones, and Marco Polo) in theaters, during televised movies and motion picture award shows (e.g., Oscars, Golden Globes) to simulate the communal cinematic experience in a new reception context. Netflix’s move into producing original programming has inspired other competitors, including new media
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technology companies Amazon Films and premium channel Starz, to replicate studios as entities producing and distributing films, television, and online media content. In this changing media production and distribution climate, Netflix is increasingly producing and offering programs and programming that traditionally other major media companies would produce to be viewed, binge watched and consumed in a way in which Netflix has made more popular and pervasive. For instance, Netflix streamed and made available Billy W ilder’s classic 1944 film noir Double Indemnity, which then disappeared from Netflix programming content. However, the original neo-noir Netflix series House of Cards showed a portion of the film in the fifth season and the actors recited the dialogue to each other as the film projected on the big screen in the background. Such original Netflix series as House of Cards, Narcos, The Crown, Glow, and Five Came Back are innovative quality long-form programming that would typically air on other conventional broadcast or premium cable channels such as HBO or the BBC. In fact, the BBC lamented that it could not compete when Netflix produced The Crown (without BBC involvement), and Netflix’s Steven Spielberg serial filmed adaptation of Mark Harris’ Five Came Back is a quality long-form dramatic documentary that would typically be an HBO miniseries, however, it is shown in a way ideally suited for binge watching on Netflix, and is also accompanied by other related programs (the original World War II documentaries discussed in the Netflix original program) available to view on Netflix, shown in a way in which it would not have been seen on conventional television. For example, Netflix released its acclaimed original dramatic biopic series The Crown, sumptuously filmed on location in 4K Ultra HD and co-produced with Left Bank Pictures and Sony Pictures Television, on N ovember 4, 2016, with a second season airing December 4, 2017. However, as early as August 2015, John Plunkett of The Guardian reported that BBC Television chief Danny Cohen “warns of US threat after big-money Amazon deals” and insisted BBC “cannot compete” and was “rebuffed” when it “asked to co-produce” the lavish Netflix long-form dramatic series The Crown. “One of the BBC’s most senior executives has warned of the threat posed by its US on-demand rivals,” Plunkett observed, after “Netflix rebuffed the corporation’s approach to co-produce its £50m royal epic The Crown” (and, further, Amazon spent £160m to sign Jeremy Clarkson). Plunkett noted that BBC director of television Cohen recognized that the Netflix original program The
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Crown, starring Claire Foy as Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, written and produced by Peter Morgan (inspired by Morgan’s Oscar winning 2006 film, The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, and based on his play The Audience), co-produced and directed by Stephen Daldry and Philip Martin, was a “classic BBC subject.” Yet Cohen explained that “at a time when the BBC’s spending power is being cut … we just couldn’t compete with the amount of money that Netflix were prepared to pay for that production even though we would have loved to have been a co-producer with Netflix on it.” Cohen maintained that the BBC had “tried to work with the US firm on the drama, intended to be a 50-part series about the ‘inside story of two of the most famous addresses in the world, Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street,’ but Netflix wanted to go it alone” (Plunkett, 2015). Significantly, in an increasingly international media viewing environment and a changing reception context with greater demand for streaming media and binge watching of long-form dramatic programs, Cohen admitted that for Netflix, “Their model is built on having global rights and we have got to respect that. They are a very smart, impressive bunch of people.” This rapidly growing overseas market for viewing Netflix steaming media is greatly expanded from a more traditional national “domestic” audience viewing model of live broadcast programming previously and historically that typically targeted by the BBC in airing series at a specific time. He added, “The key thing we look at more and more is the impact of global competition rather than just in the UK where very big companies can distribute their content around the world. That is a very big challenge.” The BBC’s Cohen praised Netflix and House of Cards, yet criticized some other content which was “not quite so good,” and declared, “if that had been on BBC1 you’d have crucified us.” However, the fact that the BBC felt compelled to compete with Netflix and other streaming services such as Amazon for quality productions and programming is in itself a major milestone which would not have even been considered just a few years ago. As the popularity of Netflix and streaming becomes ever more prevalent, Cohen recognized the increasing trend, especially with younger demographic viewers to watch exclusively on-demand which “posed big questions for the BBC.” Cohen insisted, “That trend is going to seriously impact our finances” (Plunkett, 2015). House of Cards star and co-producer Kevin Spacey commended Netflix for its quality “prestige” programming (e.g., House of Cards written and co- produced by Andrew Davies) on par with British television productions, as in celebrated long-form BBC series (e.g., the 1995 BBC miniseries written
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by Davies adapting Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), and international art cinema productions. However, ironically, while Netflix is increasingly producing high quality cinematic long-form original dramatic programming such as House of Cards and The Crown, which foster and create an ideal “serialized” viewing climate for binge watching, similar to the quality programming BBC had previously been known and acclaimed for, more recently the financially strapped BBC has also turned to showing cheaper reality shows. Defending the less expensive yet highly criticized “lightning rod” imported Dutch reality show The Voice airing on the BBC, Cohen complained, “I don’t know why entertainment has suddenly become a dirty word in the context of the BBC.” Netflix original programming such as The Crown, House of Cards, Narcos, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Glow, and Five Came Back rival and are better than several highly promoted but less impressive BBC, ITV or PBS series such as Poldark, Victoria, or even some HBO “Home Box Office” programming, previously considered the gold standard of quality cinematic long-form television programming. Like HBO, Netflix has promoted itself as being better than ordinary television: specifically, a more cinematic quality long-form commercial free alternative to previous regular TV shows airing interrupted with ads for a specific duration at a certain time. Netflix executives have heralded, and media scholars and binge viewers acknowledge, that Netflix has transformed the very nature of television, its programs and programming content, what a TV show is, and changed the way we watch and experience media. As the nature of what constitutes television programs changes and evolves, Tryon (2015) suggests the “redefinition” of television which is rapidly occurring “takes place as TV itself becomes increasingly difficult to define.” By September 22, 2017, Jeremy Kay of Screen Daily reported that a recent study from January 1 to August 31, 2017 revealed that, perhaps not surprisingly, Netflix dramas dominate streaming originals demand in North A merica, despite fierce competition by other major media conglomerates adding their own proprietary streaming services to the media viewing market. For instance, even a major broadcast channel CBS, which includes commercial ads interrupting its programming and is available to watch for free, has brought back and rebooted a new Star Trek: Discovery series which only aired the first episode once, then encouraged viewers to pay (nearly as much as Netflix) every month to watch the rest of the episodes of the series with commercial interruptions on CBS’s “All Access” streaming service. Not surprisingly, this new paid programming incentive was widely panned on social media. After the new Star Trek: Discovery show’s premiere, some television viewers went so far
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as to complain on twitter and post online rants about their grievances, declaring: “I will pay $6 a month if I can watch Star Trek without ads for other CBS shows. This channel is an absolute wasteland.” In other words, after increasingly viewing Netflix as a competitor in recent years, in an effort to cash in on the popularity of video on demand streaming of televisual (and cinematic) media programming content, other major media conglomerates seem to miss the point as to the nature of Netflix’s popularity: that is, such offerings are too little too late and are realistically not very competitive with Netflix. Seeking to emulate Netflix’ success, Amazon, HBO, CBS and others offer streaming services (in the case of HBO, a stand-alone VOD service that will not require a traditional cable television subscription). This significant development grew out of the tremendous influence of Netflix. Reuters’ Jennifer Saba (2014) concluded, “The move to take HBO ‘over-thetop’—media jargon that means consumers can watch the channel with only a broadband connection—is a significant milestone for a channel long dependent on cable distributors. It could be a further catalyst spurring more people to dump their cable subscriptions by cutting the cord. It could also prompt other media companies to follow HBO’s lead.” CBS unveiled their streaming service the day after HBO’s heralded streaming announcement in October 2014; Amazon formed Amazon Films and announced an ambitious schedule of original productions. Amazon, Disney, HBO, and CBS compare their media steaming to Netflix. New York Times reported HBO’s plans for a new streaming service with an “eye on cord cutters” in a “move that intensifies the premium cable network’s growing rivalry with Netflix.” Emily Steel explained, “The two companies are battling for a new generation of viewers who increasingly pay only for Internet access. Instead of subscribing to cable or satellite television, this growing audience watches television shows and movies via streaming options like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube … HBO.” Hastings admitted Netflix considered HBO its “primary long-term competitor, especially for content” since 2011 and thought it was “inevitable” and “sensible” that HBO offer a “stand alone” streaming service. “The industry is definitely moving to Internet video, so it is a big mark when HBO moves over. They have a great opportunity. We have a great opportunity. We can both prosper.” He acknowledged, “We are Internet disrupters, through and through. We are continuing to push that edge” (Saba, 2014; Steel 2014). Netflix’s relatively low cost has contributed to its success by providing more “bang for the buck” with better graphical user interface for binge viewers than competitors. As companies like Disney, HBO, CBS,
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Showtime, Starz, TCM/FilmStruck enter the market it will be intriguing to see how successful they are if they are more expensive (or offer less effective or appealing streaming products) than Netflix. Netflix original programs, even interactive narratives like Puss in Book, offer new ways for viewers to engage with media, determine story narratives and endings, and construct meaning via the serialized long-form flow of a meta narrative to be binge watched. Yet, the popularity of viewers binge watching Netflix original programming frequently occurs “beneath the radar” because these series are not aired and tweeted live on social media as are live broadcasts of TCM classic movies, sports, theater, music or political events, and Netflix does not release viewing data or ratings of programs. Further, even traditional quantitative metrics for measuring televisual viewing habits and the popularity of TV shows and network programming—for example, via Nielsen ratings—also do not apply to Netflix in the way programs are aired, viewed and typically assessed on conventional broadcast network or cable television in the absence of Netflix viewer metrics for television shows, films, and programming content. In an era of cord cutting, Netflix is rapidly becoming the preferred television “network” of choice as well as streaming media preference for many viewers, especially younger viewers. However, when a Nielsen family household selected Netflix as their favorite television network on the Nielsen questionnaire, that household was not selected to rate television shows for Nielsen (Nielson Research Correspondence, 2017). Nielson opting not to receive viewer responses related to Netflix reveals how the popularity of Netflix is underreported by conventional televisual media-viewing ratings metrics. Netflix’s own programming content rating system on its media platform has recently changed from a one to five star rating system to a more simplistic thumbs up or thumbs down for Netflix programs and movies. Moreover, new Netflix content viewing features on its programming platform encourage binge watching of long-form media content by allowing spectators to automatically play/watch and skip the opening title credit sequences to create a more seamless, immersive “fluid” cinematic flow of sequential serial content. Ultimately, the nature of Netflix media programs, overall programming (content), media platform, and user interface affects and transforms the intrinsic way in which we see and experience cinema and television to encourage and maximize serial long-form “binge watching” viewing practices of media and reimagine a traditional cinematic and televisual reception
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climate. Despite other media conglomerates increasingly endeavoring to compete with Netflix by offering their own streaming options (e.g., Disney, CBS, HBO, Showtime, Starz, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, Google, WarnerInstant, FilmStruck, TCM, YouTube), Netflix still offers the best streaming quality and experience for binging media programs and dominates the market, and is certainly not going away by any means. As evident in Disney ending its Netflix deal, pulling content from Netflix, and acquiring Major League Baseball Advanced Media (BamTech) streaming technology company to develop its own streaming service to rival Netflix (Barnes & Koblin, 2017), the fact that all the major media conglomerates are now more than ever trying to do what Netflix does (become a media streaming company producing and distributing serial long-form media programs and programming content to “binge watch” on a streaming media platform) in order to compete with Netflix is indeed remarkable, and is in itself a testament to the tremendous influence of Netflix on media production, distribution, and serialized televisual “binge watching” viewing reception.
References Anderson, C. (2006). The long tail. New York, NY: Hyperion. Acland, C. (2008). Theatrical exhibition: Accelerated cinema. In P. McDonald & J. Wasko (Eds.), The contemporary Hollywood film industry (pp. 83–105). Malden, MA: Blackwell. Auletta, K. (2014, February 3). Outside the box: Netflix and the future of television. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/02/03/outside-the-box-2 Barnes, B., & Koblin, J. (2017, October 8). Disney’s big bet on streaming relies on little-known tech company. New York Times. Biesen, S. C. (2016). Binge watching “Noir” at home: Reimagining cinematic reception and distribution via Netflix. In K. McDonald & D. Smith-Rowsey (Eds.), The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st century. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing. Carr, D. (2014, October 19). The stream finally cracks the dam of cable TV. New York Times. Croteau, D., & Hoynes, W. (2014). Media/Society: Industries, images, and audiences. Los Angeles, CA: Sage. Faughnder, R., & Villarreal, Y. (2014, October 4). Film deals reflect Netflix’s growing clout. Los Angeles Times. Hunt, A. (2014, August 24). For millions of cord cutters, cable TV fades to black. USA Today. Innocenti, V., & Pescatore, G. (2015). Changing series: Narrative models and the role of the viewer in contemporary television seriality. Between, 4(8). Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York, NY: New York University Press.
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Jenner, M. (2014). Is This TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and binge-watching. New Media & Society, 18(2), 257–273. Kay, J. (2017, September 22). Study: Netflix, dramas dominate streaming originals demand in North America. Screen Daily. https://www.screendaily.com/news/study-netflix-dramasdominate-streaming-originals-demand-in-north-america-exclusive/5122609.article Koblin, J., & Steel, E. (2015, April 13). Television’s kingmakers. New York Times. B1. Lapowsky, I. (2014, May 19). What television will look like in 2025, according to Netflix. Wired. https://www.wired.com/2014/05/neil-hunt/ Matrix, S. (2014). The Netflix effect: Teens, binge watching, and on-demand digital media trends. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, 6(1), 119–138. McCracken, G. (May, 2014). TV got better. Wired. McDonald, K. P. (2013). Digital dreams in a material world: The rise of Netflix and its impact on changing distribution and exhibition patterns. Jump Cut, 55. http://ejumpcut.org/ archive/jc55.2013/McDonaldNetflix/index.html McDonald, K. P., & Smith-Rowsey, D. (2016). The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st century. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing. Plunkett, J. (2015, August 25). BBC TV chief warns of US threat after big-money Amazon deals. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/aug/26/bbc-tv-chief-amazondanny-cohen-jeremy-clarkson Pomerantz, D. (2014, September 10). Viacom Sony deal will make cord cutting even easier. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/dorothypomerantz/2014/09/10/viacom-sonydeal-will-make-cord-cutting-even-easier/#10e72e6d1b14 Saba, J. (2014, October 15). Time Warner to launch HBO as streaming broadband service. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-time-warner-investors/time-warner-to-launchhbo-as-streaming-broadband-service-idUSKCN0I41Q020141015 Scott, M. (2017, February 26). In global expansion, Netflix makes friends with carriers. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/26/technology/netflix-streaming- expansion-mwc.html Steel, E. (2014, October 16). Cord-cutters rejoice. New York Times. https://www.nytimes. com/2014/10/17/business/cbs-to-offer-web-subscription-service.html Strangelove, M. (2015). Post-TV: Piracy, cord-cutting, and the future of television. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Surowiecki, J. (2014, October 20). What’s next for Netflix? The New Yorker. https://www. newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/20/content-discontents Tryon, C. (2011). Digital distribution, participatory culture, and the transmedia documentary. Jump Cut, 53. https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc53.2011/TryonWebDoc/index.html Tryon, C. (2013). On-demand culture: Digital delivery and the future of movies. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Tryon, C. (2015). TV got better: Netflix’s original programming strategies and binge viewing. Media Industries Journal, 2(2), 104–116. Thinking outside the set-top box. (2013, December 13). The Economist. https://www.economist. com/business/2013/12/13/thinking-outside-the-set-top-box
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Ulin, J. C. (2013). The business of media distribution: Monetizing film, TV, and video content in an online world. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Focal. Wallenstein, A. (2013, August 12). Netflix flexes new muscle with “Breaking Bad” ratings boom. Variety. https://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-flexes-new-muscle-with-breaking-badratings-boom-1200577029/ Wu, Tim. (2013, December 5). Netflix’s war on mass culture: Binge-viewing was just the beginning. New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/115687/netflixs-war-mass-culture
·11· binge - watching the algorithmic catalog Making Sense of Netflix in the Aftermath of the Italian Launch Fabio Giglietto, Chiara Checcaglini, Giada Marino, and Lella Mazzoli
Following the end of September announcement, the on-demand streaming service Netflix was officially launched in Italy on October 22, 2015. Long-awaited by local fans and enthusiasts of TV series, the platform’s launch in the Italian market expanded the existing offerings of TV content providers. The main players in the pre-Netflix Italian television landscape were: free-to-air digital terrestrial television/DTT (Rai and Mediaset channels, La7), digital satellite subscription channels (Sky), and SVOD platforms (Infinity by Mediaset, Chili TV, Sky Online). Beside official providers, illegal consumption of digital content was, and still is, a widespread phenomenon in Italy. According to a recent study, 39% of consumers illegally watched films, TV series, or television and entertainment programs at least once in 2016 (FAPAV-IPSOS, 2017). While entering a rich market (Murschetz, 2016) of existing established players and practices, Netflix allowed the Italian audience to experiment for the first time with some of the exclusive features that made the service popular worldwide. On the one hand, Netflix makes binge-watching easier (Jenner, 2015; Matrix, 2014; Pittman & Sheehan, 2015) by advancing to the next episode. On the other hand, it delivers a radically new metaphor for finding and discovering contents based on the algorithmic analysis of viewer’s preferences and tastes (Cohn, 2016; Gillespie, 2014; Gomez-Uribe & Hunt, 2015; Hallinan & Striphas, 2016).
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While a constantly growing amount of literature is dedicated to both these aspects, the launch of Netflix Italia provided an opportunity to study the ways viewers expected, reacted, consumed and made sense of these innovative features in the aftermath of the launch. More specifically, our study addresses the following research questions: RQ1. How did Italian audiences restructure their daily routine, in terms of time and space, to make place for Netflix? RQ2. What were the first reactions to the algorithmic catalog in a population mainly accustomed to browse contents by genres? Framed in the existing literature on binge-watching and algorithms, this study presents the results of a multimethod and multi-staged research effort that combines a quanti-qualitative content analysis of Twitter’s conversations sparked by the launch of Netflix Italia, and a qualitative analysis of 15 in-depth interviews with younger and older Italian Netflix users after one year from its launch. The research processes and findings are presented through each methodological step in order to provide readers with an easier navigation. To be more specific, we will first outline our theoretical framework, which draws on wellgrounded studies on TV consumption in the domestic space and more recent literature on binge-watching and algorithmic catalogs. Next, we will present the outcomes of our analysis step-by-step, starting from a content analysis of tweets, describing the innovative recruiting procedure employed, and the results from in-depth interviews. We then conclude by synthesizing the findings and highlighting implications for future research in the field.
Television Consumption in Domestic Spaces Television consumption has always been an issue of domestic practices confined to a private space (Hirsch & Silverstone, 2003), but not necessarily an individual experience. According to Roger Silverstone (1990), watching television is a practice that is “vulnerable to the exigencies, the social structuring, the conflicts and the rituals of domestic daily life” (p. 179). Domestic space is in fact peculiar. Television, as a preferential technology for domestic use, could be considered—provocatively—as an additional member of the family (Gunter & Svennevig, 1987). Actually, television is concretely linked to family everyday life because it is the hub of “domestic social relation” (Silverstone, 2007): its role changes along with transformations in family dynamics (e.g., the children growing up), and it is a crucial medium due to its relational uses (Lull, 1980), facilitating communication within the family
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members, determining power, social inclusion, or exclusion dynamics, and activating socialization processes (Lull, 1980). The process of screen multiplication, starting with the ownership of multiple TV sets in a family and accelerated by the increasing number of screens that include digital mobile and often personal devices (D’heer, Courtois, & Paulussen, 2012; Marinelli & Celata, 2012), profoundly affected the dynamics observed by these classic studies. At the same time, diversity of program offerings, sometimes tailored to specific targets and niche audiences, greatly expanded during the last few years. The combination of these two factors influenced TV watching practices, opening the way for more individual and segmented television viewing habits. The social uses of television (Lull, 1980, p. 71) are thus increasingly characterized by a shift away from a traditional collective vision happening inside the same room—typically the living room (D’heer et al., 2012). This shift in turn affects the power dynamics: most often, each member of a family is now metaphorically holding their own remote control, once considered a symbol of power, for their personal mobile screen (D’heer et al., 2012). Building on this context of increasingly fragmented (both in terms of time and space) (Marinelli & Celata, 2012) TV consumption and on this theoretical framework, we specifically analyzed the emerging practices of binge- watching and the changing process of choosing and then consuming content from large, on-demand repositories through an algorithmic catalog.
Binge-watching Historically, the practice of binge-watching is tightly associated to the consumption of serialized content. Binge-watching can be defined as “the experience of watching multiple episodes of a program in a single sitting” (Pittman & Sheehan, 2015). However, scholars have pointed out the difficulty of drawing precise boundaries around the practice, thus identifying the exact threshold of continuative time and/or number of episodes to fit the “binge” requisites. Jenner (2014) reported a survey commissioned by Netflix in which a “binge” was defined as 2–3 episodes in a row, and yet she underlined the personal component of such viewing habits. As a clearly individualized practice, bingewatching shapes the identity of the viewer as a consumer (Jenner, 2015). Writing about her own experience, scholar Debra Ramsay (2013) highlighted the suggestion of a “shameful indulgence” or “a vague distaste for the medium” implied in the term “binge.” She also underlined the sense of
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pleasure involved in excessive, “forbidden” habits, and she attributed this negative connotation to the persistence of cultural hierarchies when television is compared to other media. Actually, the rise of binge-watching stresses a strong connection to serial narratives’ quality shift which took place in the 2000s, lending complex, daring TV series a much higher cultural value. As Lotz (2014) and Brunsdon (2010) pointed out, binge-watching emerged with the rise of “TV-on-DVD box sets” (Mittell, 2010) in early 2000s (Kompare, 2006), as a viewing modality typically practiced by fans and particularly committed viewers. The practice of binge-watching stabilized with the development of VOD platforms; Jenner observed that it had gained relevance in the contemporary audiovisual industry, where viewing patterns, branding strategies, and industrial structures shifted away from the television set (Jenner, 2014, p. 240). VOD services like Netflix and Amazon use binge-watching to distinguish themselves from traditional scheduled television, making it the perfectly distinctive characteristic of their brands. The increasing consideration earned by serialized texts, the spread of seasons’ box sets, and intensifying viewer engagement are all effects of the above mentioned quality shift in serialized television that occurred thanks to shows produced firstly by HBO, then by other cable channels (Brunsdon, 2010). The enduring connection between prestige TV series, cultural acclaim, and binge-watching (first through DVD and then through VOD) has endorsed binge as a form of legitimation: according to Jenner, “[b]inge watching serves the interests of the emerging VOD industry” because “supposedly ‘bingeable’ texts also legitimize the viewing practice, and thus the medium” (Jenner, 2015, p. 2). Jenner thus underlined that binge-watching has a strong strategic value for VOD industries, because it intensifies the relationship between the text and the viewers, who appreciate the absence of advertising and scheduling rules. To Netflix commercial purposes it is crucial to have satisfied, engaged subscribers who enjoy the advantages of a free-of-ads service. Some TV scholars and critics have raised concerns about the effects of binge-watching both on viewers’ perceptions of the text and on the industry itself. Recalling the food compulsion analogy implied in the term “binge-watching,” Bassist (2013) referred to the practice as an unhealthy, addictive habit; Pagels (2012) asserted that it would compromise the integrity and the specificity of serialized texts and also prevent fans’ interactions and conversations based on synchronic consumption. Opposing these ideas, Ramsay observed that binging increases the awareness of complex narrative arcs,
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technique, and commitment to the series. In his study about the relationship between Gen Y-Z and binge-watching, Matrix argued that for the Facebook generation “the Netflix effect […] is […] also about connection and community” (Matrix, 2014, p. 120). His results showed that “[f]or many Netflixers, including members of its younger demographic, VOD and binge watching are not about social exile but about enabling and enhancing participation in social conversations” (Matrix, 2014, p. 127). As discussed later on, some Italian viewers share this sense of connection and participation to the collective conversation about Netflix and its contents.
Algorithmic Catalog The state of digital abundance (Keane & Moir, 1999) discussed above pertained to a television consumption scenario after the advent of the Internet, and it has produced, over time, a multiplication of content also made more spreadable by the medium (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013). This ever- changing scenario revealed the necessity for content aggregators to categorize their items in order to make them searchable. The algorithmic catalog was thus created in response to the need for easier content searching. In order to provide a more efficient user experience aimed at browsing the set of possible records of an archive (Bowker, 2005), invisibility emerged as a relevant issue to determine which “pattern of inclusion” (Gillespie, 2014) could provide the audience with the most appealing collection of content and what else, instead, should be left invisible. Most of the recommendation systems, such as Amazon’s, are implemented in a semantic direction: a set of different intrinsic attributes (some keywords about the items) is linked to specific content (Szomszor, Cattuto, Alani, & O’Hara, 2007). Also personalization becomes a relevant issue, because the user is able to create one’s own personal profile, which represents a part of her/ his interests (Szomszor et al., 2007). Exactly for this reason, on one side content organization depends on matching attributes with the user’s interests, tastes and preferences; on the other side, it means that the algorithm is able to constantly trace the user’s behaviors inside the platform. This feature opens a debate about individual privacy and about the necessity of finding a balance between its preservation and the creation of the most personalized (free or low-cost) browsing experience. The ongoing shifting focus from a human selection of cultural items to a machine-driven one, as described by Hallinan and Striphas, could probably
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influence the interpretation of the meaning of culture itself (2016). The so-called “algorithmic culture” (Hallinan & Striphas, 2016, p. 119) phenomenon doesn’t aim only at using computational processes to order people, places, objects, and ideas (Hallinan & Striphas, 2016, p. 119), but also at shaping habits of thought that arise in relationship to those processes (Hallinan & Striphas, 2016, p. 119). Compared to linear broadcasting services, both cable and free-to-air, Internet TV includes choices that the audience should take by itself (GomezUribe & Hunt, 2015). In a catalog with thousands of options, such as Netflix, it is essential to help subscribers to find new content quickly and easily; in fact, according to Netflix consumer research, subscribers tend to lose their interest in choosing which content to watch in 60–90 seconds and scrolling among 10 to 20 titles (Gomez-Uribe & Hunt, 2015). Then they leave the web page or the application. Unlike traditional Internet VOD platforms that tend to organize their content by browsable genres, Netflix employs an innovative algorithm to analyze users’ tastes in order to recommend content specifically tailored to them. To improve the efficiency of its recommendation system, in 2006, Netflix launched a public contest aimed to improve their existing recommendation engine. Furthermore, to make the user experience even more engaging and to simplify the binge-watching practice, Netflix engineers built the recommendation system as a set of different algorithms. Each algorithm is qualified for a single action: for instance, top-N video ranker aims at ranking content personalized for each member; continue watching ranker sorts the videos in the Continue Watching row; trending now is based on the latest viewing trends, both monthly and yearly; video-video similarity aims at suggesting videos by referring to set up lists of similar content; and so on (Gomez-Uribe & Hunt, 2015).
Content Analysis In order to study these emerging TV consumption practices in the Italian context, we have designed a two-step mixed methodology that combines an analysis of the Twitter conversation sparked by the launch of Netflix Italia with in-depth interviews of Italian Netflix users. More specifically, results from the content analysis were used to develop the interview protocol, the main code items and to recruit our subjects. We started by analyzing a dataset of 36,976 tweets created by 22,635 unique contributors between 10/20/2015 and 10/24/2015 containing the official hashtag #ciaoNetflix, a mention to the official Twitter account of Netflix
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Italia (@NetflixIT) or the generic term Netflix in tweets written in the Italian language. Purchased on February 23, 2016 from Gnip through DiscoverText, the dataset contains a complete set of tweets matching our filtering rules. We initially performed a content analysis on a subset of the dataset containing the official launch hashtag #ciaoNetflix (N = 4,621 created by 3,083 unique contributors). The content analysis was performed individually by two coders (both co-authors of this paper) after four rounds of training, resulting in an acceptable level of intercoder agreement (Krippendorff’s Alpha = 0.73). Designed to address the two research questions, the codebook (Tab. 11.1) consisted of the following, non-mutually exclusive codes: Table 11.1. Codebook of tweets. Description
Time & Space
Readjusting the daily routine for binge-watching
– I think there’s no better thing than watching a good show on netflix at night #SmallPleasures – A whole week at home… spending time this way—Watching Narcos—Netflix
News and How-to
How to use Netflix, url, articles about Netflix and its functions
– Netflix in Italy, everything you need to know about it [url]
Opinions about the catalog
– Everyone talking about #Netflix lack of series, and what about the lack of movies? Ridiculous catalogue
Mentioning a competitor
– My favourite TV series: one on Infinity, one on Netflix, One on Sky. I think I’ll subscribe to Torrent
Mentioning specific content
– God bless Netflix. #Daredevil
Mentioning devices and technologies related to Netflix
– Enjoy Netflix with Sony consoles [url]
Personal points of view about Netflix: – emotional POV: uppercase, exclamation points, emphasis marks; – reports: anecdotes
– HALLELUJA! #ciaoNetflix – Pizza and #Netflix tonight
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The codebook was developed with the aim of describing the contents and its contributors in light of our research questions. More specifically, Time & Space and Device categories directly relate to the way users claimed to have modified their habits to make place for Netflix (RQ1). The Catalog, Aesthetic Objects, Competitors and Subjective Reactions categories aimed instead at isolating conversations dealing with the users’ reactions to Netflix’s algorithmic catalog (RQ2). The results of the content analysis is reported in Table 11.2. Table 11.2. Distribution of tweets in the dataset by codes. Tweets (%) N = 4,621
Contributors per category1
News and How-to
Time & Space
Non-codable Source: Authors.
The discourse around the launch of Netflix in Italy was strongly influenced by the marketing efforts effectively organized and carried out by the U.S.-based entertainment company through its digital channels and social media presence. Nevertheless, a qualitative analysis of the tweets in each category has pointed to a diffuse anxiety (often played out in terms of jokes synthesized by the hashtag #AddioVitaSociale3) on the way to accommodate the practice of watching Netflix in one’s existing daily routine. As GM, a female contributor, pointed out in her tweet “#CiaoNetflix your arrival in Italy makes me very happy. But you could have waited my graduation #goodbyegraduation #goodbyethesis #goodbyesociallife.” Tweets
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categorized as Time&Space often make explicit connections between Netflix and binge-watching. At the same time, a number of tweets coded as Competitors point out the “dumbness” of paying for something you can have for free. Most of the tweets seem to undervalue the “anytime, anywhere” nature of Netflix service, referring primarily to home spaces, couches, bedrooms as favorite places to use Netflix. References to the use of the service on the go (and therefore to make a better use of time while traveling) are practically absent. Also worthy of note was the polarization between the voiced disappointment of the scarcity of the catalog (missing specific movies and TV series) and the tendency—denoting a potential inclination to follow algorithmic suggestions—to start the exploration of the catalog and thus the online conversation from Netflix own productions that were very prominently presented in the user interface.
In-depth Interviews Evidence in the data pointing to the emergence of two different approaches to the exploration of the catalog helped in shaping the interview protocol and the next research phase of the study. The content analysis was in fact employed to classify contributors based on the category of tweets they created. This classification was applied to design and deploy an innovative strategy to recruit interviewees. The list of users who contributed tweets coded as Time & Space and Catalog (N = 732) has been used as a target for a Twitter advertising campaign aimed at promoting a message containing an invitation to join our study. Unlike the Facebook advertising platform, Twitter allows the advertiser to upload a list of usernames to be used as the target audience of an advertising campaign. This campaign lasted for 10 days, cost €50, and generated 15 leads (contacts of potential interviewees). After an initial screening, we interviewed 7 participants (5 males, 2 females all aged under 35). In order to reach older users, we completed our non-probabilistic sample by employing a snowball technique (using the original 7 interviewees as seeds) to recruit 8 additional Netflix users aged 35+ for a total of 15 subjects (10 males, 5 females). All the interviews (25 minutes long on average) were performed via Skype, recorded with the consent of the interviewees via a Skype plugin, and analyzed using Dedoose through the codeset detailed in Table 11.3.
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Table 11.3 Codeset for the analysis of the interviews. Description Time & Space
Where/when/how to watch contents
Which device is more used to watch contents
How Netflix influences leisure time
Opinions about the catalog and content organization through algorithm
How many accounts they have / Practices of account sharing
Italians and Binge-Watching Practices Regarding TV contents’ watching practices, interviewees tend to point out that they implement a set of different fruition practices to access their favorite media products without time, space and TV schedule constraints. The majority of interviewees reported that they use or have often used alternative means, both legal (Sky on demand, DVD, etc.) and illegal (offline, peer-to-peer downloads or pirate streaming platforms). For instance, VG, a 51-years-old male, stated that he usually uses a set of different platforms and practices, in addition to Netflix, to watch content he loves, such as “downloaded [episodes] also from the Internet,” but also Sky, DVD, Blu-ray, etc. The interviewee also claimed that he used to watch many episodes consecutively even before the Netflix release. A strong and unifying element emerged from the interviews analysis: most interviewees admit that Netflix facilitates binge-watching. The use of the platform has implemented this specific viewing habit or it has encouraged the viewer to start binge-watching because of its “convenience,” that is to say the high quality of the viewing experience and interface usability. Most interviewees report that before the Netflix release, the binge-watching practice was “uncomfortable,” especially because illegal streaming portals produce a lot of pop-up windows and ads, and the technical quality of this kind of viewing experience is often considered inadequate. AS, a 31-years-old female, even claimed she was too lazy to binge-watch before having a Netflix account. During her interview, she also highlighted the concrete, technical difficulties in watching content through illegal streaming platforms, generally due to “the power on the computer, the content doesn’t load, or the connection doesn’t work.”
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Netflix probably satisfies the need of a certain part of the Italian audience to watch two or more episodes consecutively (in the past fulfilled by another set of platforms), with the advantage of providing the viewer an improved binge-viewing experience. From the interviews, two different kind of behaviors emerge. Early adopters (those interviewees who used Netflix or somehow knew Netflix before the Italian release) tend to have a closer relationship with binge-watching practice; late adopter interviewees are instead not so interested in binge-viewing. They are usually more attached to a somewhat more traditional TV schedule mindset, so they tend to watch only one or two episodes of a series per week. Despite the prevalent use of Netflix, the media content viewing experience remained cross-platform, especially for the first group of interviewees. VA, 28-years-old male, used to use a set of different platforms to binge-watch, but he also said that Netflix “is holding you on the couch to watch more,” thanks to the “continue watching” algorithm; this appears to be the main reason why the user experience is perceived as better than on other platforms, because the user doesn’t have to “get out of the platform and to go to watch another content on another webpage.”
Netflix and the Italian Leisure Time: Time, Space, and Cultural Consumptions The television set is the most used device for the Italian audience (Andò & Marinelli, 2017) and from our interview analysis, this preference has also emerged regarding Netflix: generally, respondents tend to prefer a domestic and high-quality image on a Smart TV or a TV screen connected through a Chromecast4 device. For instance, ME, a 21-year-old male, claimed to enjoy the combination of Smart TV and optical fiber to get the highest possible quality viewing experience, at the same level of as a Blu-ray disc. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that the TV set is the only device used by Italian audiences. In fact, interviewees often use mobile devices; for example, the tablet works well for simultaneous viewing, and they use it as a screen to watch Netflix content while they are working on computers or doing housework. Night night. At night while I work. I have a screen here and mail here. (Male, 34)
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As we said above, respondents’ favorite place to use Netflix is generally their home. The living room is the preferred space of the house to watch Netflix content, as is the one where there is the TV screen. Also relevant is the example of family fragmentary watching habits: family members at home, usually enjoy different content simultaneously on different devices and through different Netflix profiles. For instance, VV, a 39-year-old female, liked to watch Netflix primarily on a TV screen, while her daughter watched cartoons on the iPad and through her “Kids” profile. Netflix functionality with mobile devices presents some issues, especially of infrastructural nature, such as slow connections and excessive use of mobile data.5 In any case, outside the house, interviewees tend to use Netflix when they are at work, usually during breaks or idle time. Definitely not when I am moving because of the gigabytes and a bit because, indeed, if the service, the network is not stable it does not allow you to watch videos on Netflix. (Male, 28)
Therefore, the Netflix viewing experience is primarily related to leisure time. Respondents tend to watch Netflix content especially at night, after dinner. It is a viewing experience tied to the television one, in which the traditional schedule is replaced by the one customized by the audience. The analysis has revealed that Netflix use probably takes the place of the TV viewing experience and sometimes will replace the television schedule in the interviewees’ leisure time. Netflix’s platform is also used as “background TV,” mainly on mobile devices, while working or doing housework. The interviewee AV, a 58-year-old female, claimed to save 45 minutes to watch Netflix during the evening, when she came back from work, and she was waiting for her husband. Furthermore, she stated that this time for Netflix viewing is the moment to “calm and relax from the day,” also because of the high quality of its watching experience. The analysis reveals that, contrary to the anxiety emerging from tweets, Netflix viewing practices did not seem to steal social time or from other activities and cultural consumption. According to what interviewees said about when and where using Netflix, we can assume that Netflix is replacing the traditional TV schedule in interviewees’ leisure time.
Italian Users and the Netflix Catalog When questioned about the composition and the usability of the Netflix catalog, many interviewees emphasized that they already watched TV series by
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the time Netflix arrived in Italy, and they approached Netflix already knowing that television was the main content category. When asked about what categories they use the most, the majority of interviewees’ answers concerned TV series. The most mentioned shows were Netflix original ones: Marvel’s block (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage), Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black, Narcos, British shows Black Mirror and The Crown. For many interviewees, the absence of House of Cards in the Italian catalog was a huge disappointment. Despite House of Cards being a Netflix original series, it is not part of the Italian catalog, due to previous agreements between Netflix and Sky Italia. Some respondents were aware of such distribution agreements, but they also expected this hit show will be on Netflix Italia soon.6 For instance, the interviewee AV, a 38-years-old female, exclaimed with particular emphasis, “don’t even want to talk about it”; also VA, a 28-years-old male, reaffirmed that “House of Cards is still missing.” Some interviewees demanded more TV series, usually because they tended to misinterpret the nature of Netflix’s distribution system. Some respondents, such as AC, a 22-years-old male, or DP, a 40-years-old-male, expected more “new” series, i.e. US cable and network shows such as Game of Thrones or “Shondaland”7 series. The interviewees shared a primary interest in the series section, followed by documentaries and fiction films. Two noteworthy aspects emerged from analyzing the answers to the question, In addition to series, what other contents do you prefer to watch?: a feeling of surprise and satisfaction towards the documentary section; and a feeling of dissatisfaction towards the number and the quality of films on the catalog. In fact, some viewers stated that they have never watched documentaries before Netflix, and that the service helped to discover the genre. Did you already watch documentaries before Netflix? Yes! Although on “alternative channels” there are many movies but few documentaries, in fact when I opened the catalog for the first time, what struck me the most was the huge amount of documentaries, I thought “it will take me forever to watch them all.” (Male, 43)
The high visual quality of documentaries was greatly appreciated, as well as their educational value. Historical and scientific documentaries stood out among the most praised products. Cosmos, which explores the secrets of our Universe, was probably the most cited documentary. Another one was the
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series of documentaries Chef’s Table, in which every episode tells the story of an outstanding international chef. I watch many documentaries, I like them, they’re interesting, they’re very well done […] About documentaries, Netflix suggests the ones you could enjoy … They’re so many that you could waste hours to choose, so [suggestion system] works quite well. (Male, 37)
Even though Italian Netflix users seemed to be more interested in the TV series section, they still scrolled the film one and they expressed mixed opinions about it. For instance, many interviewees lamented the scarcity of relevant movies, even though they found that the catalog covers some genres more than others, e.g. animation. A number of respondents especially enjoyed the presence of classical Disney movies, while also complaining about the lack of latest releases. ME, a 21-years-old male interviewee, stated a love for Disney movies and always watched them during holiday times. Also GC, a 34-year-old male, claimed to be satisfied with the animated movies selection. Few respondents also complained about the inadequate presence of comedies and indie movies, such as MB, 33-years-old male, who had already given up because the Italian catalog is not as rich as the abroad ones. For some interviewees, Netflix seemed to perform as an archive of cinematographic and televisual memories. For those who were young in the 1980s, who watched US movies broadcast on TV, it was particularly engaging to enjoy the movies of their childhood. When they chose to add 90s movies, the ones that smashed in the 90s and 80s, I re-watched them all, like Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Beverly Hills Cop … They’re all movies I enjoyed twenty, thirty years ago and I really loved watching them again. (Female, 39) I watch a lot of sci-fi series, I used [Netflix] to pleasantly rewatch old Star Trek series. I really enjoyed it. (Male, 51)
In summary, according to what emerged from the interviews, Italians have expanded their range of TV series’ consumption, even though a number of the interviewees already accessed TV shows through irregular practices. Netflix also led them to discover new genres and new types of audiovisual content, e.g. documentaries. Generally, film category is perceived as the weakest point of the catalog, but the level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the users also depends on individual preferences and previous audiovisual experiences.
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Even though no one expressed explicit acknowledgement of the algorithmic system, the actions of the algorithm appeared between the lines on the interviewees’ answers. The predominant mention of Netflix original series reveals what the algorithm chooses to highlight in its home page. In addition, those who are prone to browsing the catalog are more open to discover new genres and consequently new consumption preferences, emphasizing a dynamic tension between the guiding function of the algorithm and the agency of the exploring user.
Discussion and Conclusions The advent of Netflix was presented to and welcomed by Italian consumers as a revolution. As with all the revolutions, the excitement and fears were clearly visible in the conversations emerging online in the aftermath of the launch. The claim used for the launch, “It will no longer be the usual story” and the discourse around the popular user-created hashtag #AddioVitaSociale (#GoodByeSocialLife) both reinforced a narrative of a caesura and discontinuity that is not reflected in the real experiences of the consumers, as emerging from the interviews, one year after the launch. The consumption of Netflix has been instead rapidly incorporated in a set of pre-existing but evolving practices and routines. While evolutionary instead of revolutionary, the finding of this study points to a potential long-term effect of the incorporation of Netflix in the everyday life of the Italian consumer under three perspectives. The binge-watching facilitating features of Netflix were clearly welcomed, especially by consumers with previous experience of on-demand streaming services, as a significant improvement of their previous TV viewing experiences. Nevertheless, we heard only a few voices claiming to have drastically departed from previous practices and on-demand content providers. The real competition seems instead to be between on-demand and traditional linear television. If anything, Italian TV consumers—as clearly pointed out by early adopters—are making space in their daily routine for Netflix by watching less linear television. Concerning places and devices, we observed a similar phenomenon. While home and the TV screen remain the center of media consumption habits, the multiplication of the available screens brings, at the same time, both an individual multi-screen experience and a more distributed and individualized consumption pattern in the household. While the contemporary
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use of more than one screen was primarily mentioned by early adopters and technology enthusiasts, the individualized consumption pattern within the members of the same family is more widespread. Most of the time, this individualized consumption happens in distinct spaces of the house but sometimes it also takes place in the same room by means of headphones as a virtual space separator. In both cases, Netflix did not cause but reinforced this trend by allowing multiple users to share the same account. Finally, concerning the Netflix catalog, the discourse on its algorithmic and personalized nature never surfaced spontaneously in the answers of our respondents. They were either unaware of it or did not feel confident to discuss what is commonly perceived as a mere technical issue. Nevertheless, when asked about specific contents, they mainly talked about those more prominently presented in the user interface (often Netflix original productions). Furthermore, most of the complaints about the scarcity of the catalog seems to raise as a result of a failed search for a specific movie or TV series. On the other hand, consumers with a more exploratory approach to the catalog claimed to have successfully discovered new content and sometimes genres (as in the case of documentaries) matching their tastes. In other terms, those who let—aware or not of its existence—the algorithm drive their choices were generally more satisfied by the service. Understanding the reasons and the full implications of this finding fall beyond the scope of this paper and are left open for future studies on the effects and accountability of algorithms in on-demand online entertainment systems.
Notes 1. A unique contributor may appear in more than one category. 2. Includes the tweets discussing the official party organized in Milan that featured several Netflix stars and the following-day press conference. 3. #GoodbyeSocialLife. 4. Chromecast is a Google device able to connect the TV screen to a wireless network in order to provide some streaming services to a TV set. 5. At the time the interviews were performed, the feature allowing the users to download the content for offline use was still absent. 6. At the time we are writing, three seasons of House of Cards are now available on Netflix Italia. 7. Meaning TV series created by showrunner Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder).
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References Andò, R., & Marinelli, A. (2017). Tv Intorno Tecnologie, Setting, Rituali E Bisogni Per Un’esperienza Di Consumo Espansa. Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza. Bassist, E. (2013, February 27). Addicted to Netflix: Teen-Soap-Opera Binge As Psychosis. The Cut. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from https://www.thecut.com/2013/02/addicted-tonetflix-teen-tv-binge-as-psychosis.html Bowker, G. C. (2005). Memory practices in the sciences (Vol. 205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Brunsdon, C. (2010). Bingeing on box-sets: The national and the digital in television crime drama. In J. Gripsrud (Ed.), Relocating television: Television in the digital context (pp. 61–75). London: Routledge. Cohn, J. (2016). My TiVo Thinks I’m Gay. Television & New Media, 17(8), 675–690. D’heer, E., Courtois, C., & Paulussen, S. (2012). Everyday life in (front of) the screen: The consumption of multiple screen technologies in the living room context. Proceedings of the 10th European conference on Interactive TV and video. ACM. FAPAV-IPSOS. (2017). Indagine sulla pirateria audiovisiva in Italia. FAPAV-IPSOS. Gillespie, T. (2014). The Relevance of Algorithms. In T. Gillespie, P. J. Boczkowski, & K. A. Foot (Eds.), Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and society (pp. 167– 194). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Gomez-Uribe, C. A., & Hunt, N. (2015). The Netflix Recommender System: Algorithms, Business Value, and Innovation. ACM Trans. Manage. Inf. Syst., 6(4), 13:1–13:19. Gunter, B., & Svennevig, M. (1987). Behind and in front of the screen: Television’s involvement with family life. London: John Libbey. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/ psycinfo/1987-98350-000 Hallinan, B., & Striphas, T. (2016). Recommended for you: The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture. New Media & Society, 18(1), 117–137. Hirsch, E., & Silverstone, R. (2003). Consuming technologies: Media and information in domestic spaces. London: Routledge. Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York, NY: New York University Press. Jenner, M. (2014). Is this TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and binge-watching. New Media & Society, 18(2), 257–273. Jenner, M. (2015). Binge-watching: Video-on-demand, quality TV and mainstreaming fandom. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 20(3), 304–320. Keane, P., & Moir, M. (1999). A Simple local-spin group mutual exclusion algorithm. In Proceedings of the Eighteenth Annual ACM Symposium on Principles of Distributed Computing (pp. 23–32). New York, NY, USA: ACM. Kompare, D. (2006). Publishing flow: DVD box sets and the reconception of television. Television & New Media, 7(4), 335–360. Lotz, A. D. (2014). The television will be revolutionized, Second Edition. New York, NY: New York University Press. Lull, J. (1980). The Social uses of television. Human Communication Research, 6(3), 197–209.
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Marinelli, A., & Celata, G. (2012). Connecting television. La televisione al tempo di Internet. Milano: Guerini e Associati. ISBN, 978(88), 6250. Matrix, S. (2014). The Netflix effect: Teens, binge watching, and on-demand digital media trends. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, 6(1), 119–138. Mittell, J. (2010, January 20). Serial boxes. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from https://justtv. wordpress.com/2010/01/20/serial-boxes/ Murschetz, P. (2016). Connected television: Media convergence, industry structure, and corporate strategies. Annals of the International Communication Association, 40(1), 69–93. Pagels, J. (2012, July 9). Stop Binge-Watching TV. Slate. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/07/09/binge_watching_tv_why_you_need_ to_stop_.html Pittman, M., & Sheehan, K. (2015). Sprinting a media marathon: Uses and gratifications of binge-watching television through Netflix. First Monday, 20(10). https://doi.org/10.5210/ fm.v20i10.6138 Ramsay, D. (2013, October 4). Confessions of a Binge Watcher. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from http://cstonline.net/confessions-of-a-binge-watcher-by-debra-ramsay/ Silverstone, R. (1990). Television and everyday life: Towards and anthropology of the television audience. In M. Ferguson (Ed.), Public communication: The new imperatives. London: Sage. Silverstone, R. (2007). Television and everyday life. London [u.a.]: Routledge. Szomszor, M., Cattuto, C., Alani, H., & O’Hara, K. (2007). Folksonomies, the semantic web, and movie recommendation. Retrieved from https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/264007/1/ ESWC2007.pdf
·12· the netflix experience A User-focused Approach to the Netflix Recommendation Algorithm Daniela Varela Martínez and Anne Kaun
Introduction A large part of the user experience of Netflix is based on the recommendation algorithm that suggests content to subscribers. The chapter employs a user-focused approach to the study of algorithmic culture using Netflix’s recommendation algorithm as a case study. While current research has focused on questions of black boxing (Pasquale, 2015), algorithmic biases in terms of visibility (Bucher, 2012), and socio-technological power of algorithms (Beer, 2017), there is a lack of research addressing the perception of algorithms and their logics by casual users. Theoretically, the chapter draws on current studies engaging with the notion of algorithmic culture suggesting a strong anchor in science and technology studies to develop an understanding of how technological innovations are actively adopted and appropriated by users in often unexpected ways (MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999; Striphas, 2015). The chapter is empirically based on material gathered through a walkthrough of Netflix (Light, Burgess, & Duguay, 2016) and in-depth interviews with heavy Netflix users in Singapore. Based on the gathered material, we investigate both habitual and counterintuitive usage and perceptions of the recommendation algorithm.
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The chapter suggests a rethinking of the role of the user for algorithmically enhanced cultural production. Based on our findings, we consider users as co-producers of content, contributing data and knowledge through their practices to the platform development and consequently to its success. This implies a shift in conceptualizing the consequences of algorithmic black-boxing, both in terms of ontology and epistemology. Our approach reinforces the idea of users not as passive data providers, but as active co-creators of cultural products. This also ignites the discussion about demands of opening the black box from a user’s perspective moving beyond questions of ethics. Applying this perspective enhances the need for commercial platform providers to acknowledge the active role of users for their own development. Consequently, the chapter argues for a shift in the study of algorithmic culture taking user practices and perceptions seriously rather than foregrounding the platform and its algorithmic configuration. Overall, the chapter revisits the current streaming culture, analyzing the role of the viewer as co-producer of algorithmic culture.
Researching Netflix Previous research on Netflix has largely focused on either its content, such as Orange Is the New Black, Black Mirror and House of Cards (Artt & Schwan, 2016; Salem, 2011) or on Netflix as an emerging media platform, including discussions of the role of algorithms for the development (Finn, 2017, 93). Since this chapter is mainly interested in the user experience of engaging with Netflix in relation to its technological properties, we will focus on studies dedicated to the latter. Ed Finn (2017), for example, studies the implications of algorithms on the creative process while crafting House of Cards, and the possible outcomes and consequences of those decisions for user’s behavior and further content creation. He argues that “this app has assembled a sophisticated algorithm model for describing the cultural relationships among individual film and television works, a model that fully embraces the gap between computation and culture” (Finn, 2017, p. 93). Blake Hallinan and Ted Striphas (2016) in contrast, have focused on the Netflix Prize project as a way to outsource the platform’s development to external stakeholders, users, and generally interested people. The Netflix Prize was an online contest offering US$1 million to whoever could improve the accuracy of Cinematch, the company’s existing movie recommendation system by 10% (Hallinan & Striphas, 2016, p. 117). The challenge announcement did not specify what “improving Cinematch” might mean. The
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definition of improvement was rather one of the key outcomes of this contest, and although none of the suggestions were applied in the end, Netflix did come up with a solution to this matter by incorporating “taggers,” meaning more precise, in-depth yet “human” characteristics in the form of adjectives or descriptions, where more information was suddenly available and the system could perform at its best (Finn, 2017, p. 89). By instituting the Netflix Prize, the platform aimed to innovate the recommendation algorithm through crowdsourcing. An interesting finding of this aforementioned research—besides improving the current recommendation algorithm—is what the authors discuss as the way “how new meanings and practices can insinuate themselves into long- established routines, transforming the latter in ways that may be just reaching popular awareness” (Hallinan & Striphas, 2016, pp. 118–119). A general lack in current research on Netflix is, however, a focus on user experience engaging with the streaming service and its recommendation logic. In terms of recommendation systems, Jockum Hildén (2017) divides between recommendations based on (a) demographics; (b) media use and content similarity; (c) similar users; (d) user feedback; (e) social networks. He further adds that recommendation systems usually complement other, more general recommendations, such as curated content recommendations (such as editor’s picks), most viewed content, and most recent content. Netflix’s system is a combination of several types of recommendation systems. It relies heavily on previous usage and suggests similar content but combines it with recommendations based on user feedback and curated content (the role of Netflix’s original content is particularly important here). However, Netflix, like many other applications and platforms, does not fully disclose the characteristics of its algorithms.
Theoretical Background: Algorithmic Culture Algorithms shape the way we consume entertainment, communicate and connect. In that sense, algorithms now figure as cultural objects themselves, while also shaping our understanding of culture. According to Striphas, big data and large-scale computation logics—such the one Netflix uses—alter the way humans think, conduct, organize, practice, experience and understand culture (Striphas, 2015, p. 396). The author defines it as the shift of delegating the work of culture of “sorting, classifying and hierarchizing people, places, objects and ideas” to computational processes that eventually modify the way we practice, experience and understand them (Striphas, 2015, p. 395).
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An important aspect which also showcases that “tethered self” (Turkle, 2006, p. 6) and the blurring of boundaries is that personalization production happens at two levels: an automated one, where algorithms, marketing interests, and previous consumer behaviors are being considered, and a “human” one, based on user’s agency, where personal choices are also determined by peers, friends and a reference community. As Jones argues, these customized, individual choices of content are “not based on invisible interactions with machines […] we should not be blind to the fact that is real people who occupy that space, virtual or otherwise” (Jones, 2002, p. 3). Jones considers in his analysis the music sphere, but the similar issue can be identified in the broader entertainment sphere. Following Gillespie, we argue that algorithms should be understood as “‘socio-technical assemblages’ joining together the human and non-human, the cultural and computational” (Gillespie, 2014, pp. 404–405). Drawing on Flusser’s approach, Striphas argues that algorithm culture “is the automation of cultural decision making processes, taking the latter significantly out of people’s hands” (Flusser, 2011, 1, 1117 cited in on Striphas, 2015, p. 408). Hence, a platform is either the material or immaterial support for a social activity to happen. Usually, these social activities are formatted into protocols, meaning the expected or correct way to happen, and this phenomenon is presented to the final user with a friendly look or interface (van Dijck, 2012, p. 4). “Any platform’s connective structure is mediated by protocols: formal descriptions of digital message formats complemented by rules for regulating those messages in or between computing systems” (van Dijck, 2012, p. 4). Protocols can be “technical sets of rules” that work independently and indifferently from its very own content, but they can also improve and reframe their usability and goal, and differ from its original programming and intent, due to the way their owners use them (van Dijck, 2012, p. 4). In this case, the platform is the Netflix application on a TV, tablet, phone or computer that plays entertainment content. The protocols are the programmed and formatted series, movies, and documentaries available to stream and then, when the users decide what to watch and their preferences start getting set up, those protocols mutate. These processes are available to the user thanks to a friendly interface with which they interact. The architecture van Dijck highlights refers to what the regular user is usually unaware of and what the savvy user is hesitant about, which is the programming technique behind the apps and technology we use. For example, Netflix’s copyright laws do not let users change their IP location for more or different content; technical restrictions on other platforms include uploading photo requirements on Facebook as well as video length on YouTube. While
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we aim to focus on user practices in relation to algorithms, it is important to keep in mind why we still mention these technical subjects as relevant. Platforms, protocols, and interfaces contribute to illustrate this matter, particularly the link between technological and social aspects. An algorithm is any well-defined computational procedure that takes some value, or set of values, as input and produces some value, or set of values as output. An algorithm is a sequence of computational steps that transform the input into the output. We should consider algorithms, like computer hardware, as a technology. (Seaver, 2014, p. 1)
This definition is enlightening because it provides clarification of the emerging fact when “rigid, quantitative logic of computation tangles the fuzzy, qualitative logics of human life” (Seaver, 2014, p. 2). As stated, brands, communications, and media cannot be separated from everyday life and the representation of the online self: these zeros and ones can actually be considered a 21st century fingerprint or the users’ digital trace, which reflects on their offline persona. The same thing applies to Netflix. “Given the personalization [of] algorithms […] all interactions with the system are tailored to specific user accounts” (Seaver, 2014, p. 5). These are three very important characteristics about algorithms: in no particular order, the first relates to the role algorithms have. “These algorithms are producing and certifying knowledge” (Gillespie, 2012, p. 2). The second one is how algorithms are readable and therefore usable, “only contrasted and in cooperation with data” (Gillespie, 2012, pp. 3–4). Lastly, it is important to state that it is not the algorithm results that matter, it is what the user does with them (Gillespie, 2012, p. 4). We therefore emphasize the interactive, engaging, and performative actions of users that have to be considered in reshaping media, and therefore culture. This understanding of active behavior is not new (Williams, 1974), but the engagement with algorithms and automated systems adds a new layer to this relationship. This chapter will reflect upon users’ actions to develop an understanding of how technological innovations are actively adopted and appropriated by users in often unexpected ways (MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999; Striphas, 2015).
Methods and Material This research is empirically based on material gathered through a walkthrough of Netflix (Light et al., 2016) and in-depth interviews with heavy Netflix
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users based in Singapore. Based on the gathered material, both habitual and counter intuitive use and perceptions of the recommendation algorithm were investigated. The walkthrough method allows for the examination of the app interface and provides a better understanding of the embedded cultural references shown on it that guides and shapes users’ experiences, merging symbolic and material cultural objects (Light et al., 2016, pp. 5–7). The walkthrough method provides vital information on how to address some of the questions for the users’ interviews and will provide hints for the process of standardize and analyze the quantitative content analysis. In addition, we conducted in-depth, think aloud interviews—“a research method in which participants speak aloud any words in their mind as they complete a task” (Charters, 2003, p. 68). The interviewees were first asked to turn on Netflix as they usually would and watch it for a while. In combination with observing their user-practices, we asked them to reflect on what they were doing and why. The interviews lasted around forty minutes, each giving insights into the user’s experience and journey while using the app. Additional questions not directly related to the practice of watching included context information such as when, where, on which device, with whom our participants normally watch Netflix as well as questions related to the number of profiles, accounts, content, and experiences related to social, technical and algorithmic aspects. Their answers were contrasted with the information gathered through the walkthrough method. For this chapter, however, we rely mainly on the interview material. The material gathered with the help of the walk-through serves as contextualizing data that are not presented extensively here. The empirical material collection for this research was conducted in Singapore, a worldwide creative hub where 44% of the entire population was under a work permit pass during 2016, meaning they were not considered permanent residents nor Singaporean citizens (Statistics, 2016), providing a cosmopolitan sample (see table 12.1 for an overview). Participants originated from Latin America, North America, Europe, and Asia itself, which resulted in a diverse sample to illustrate this global phenomenon. Gender and age were also variables taken into consideration. Particularly age features as a selection criterion. Millennials, referring to the generation born between 1984 and 2004, was the generation selected for the investigation since they are more prone to change: their age and tech skills allow them to be more flexible, easily adaptable, and learners of new experiences (Howe & Strauss, 2000).
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Table 12.1. Overview of the participants. Sample: Singapore Based, Heavy Users, Creative Industry Employees Nationality
Finally, the last considered variable was usage. The selected Netflix users were heavy users. They should have a Netflix account—not necessarily one of their own—and watch it at least 3 times a week. This would allow us to investigate a savvy user approach, maybe not an expert one, but at least an experienced user who dealt with the app on regular basis and was familiar with it. Taking all these variables into consideration, one can briefly sum up that this study focused on how the Netflix algorithm was perceived by users, conducted through a gender panel sample of millennial, ex-pat users from three different continents currently living in Singapore and working in the creative industry. Considering the aim of understanding user experience, it is important to define some of the limitations of this study. Programming, coding, and Netflix’s structure will be only taken into consideration throughout the user’s eyes and not the software structure. How its algorithm and content is programmed, coded, and suggested is something this research can infer in light of users’ experiences, but will not attempt to clearly define how these elements are actually designed on and for the app.
Watching Netflix: When, Where, and With Whom The participants of the study usually watched Netflix at home and alone. Only in some cases other people, for example partners, were present. The experience also occurred as an after-work routine or leisure activity option.
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[Netflix is] Something to keep me company if I don’t really go to sleep. Netflix and chill by myself! (Interviewee C, Female)
This articulation of time definitely affected not only the participants’ preferences on what to do during their weekends and free time but was also an important indicator for the content: people chose to dedicate valuable time to watch this app so, therefore, the offered content, the recommendations’ logic and precision as well as the overall experience should be worth it. The participants preferred watching Netflix on a smart television set or a television connected to a laptop rather than on tablets or mobile phones. Many defining factors: image quality and size, subtitles readability, can be enhanced with external devices such as speakers and sound systems, and overall a television delivers a better sensorial experience.
Feeling the Algorithm New physical practices and technological embodiments such as clicks, swipes, remote control usage, or screen touches are essential to the experience of the Netflix application. One of the biggest drawbacks of the TV as the favorite device for Netflix is the search bar and the remote control: users have to tap letter by letter and the search bar is hidden and not much appreciated. This pre-defined set-up tends to promote the algorithmic logic and the suggested recommendations over the individual search of specific content. As Bull defines it, communication technologies “embody a range of filtering practices […] in a world in which the cultural industry is continually trying to attract our attention, we turn to those industries to try to manage our experience—to carve our mediated space for ourselves” (Bull, 2007, p. 22, 23). The idea that we actively manage our mediated spaces and lives as expressed by Bull, figures also in a number of our interviews, particularly in relation to finding new content. Users develop a pragmatic approach towards algorithmically suggested content and the potentially endless archive of unsuggested content. This respondent describes his experience of Netflix as limiting searches and nudging the users towards suggested content: I think they don’t want you to search, right? There’s no easy way to search for stuff … Or at least it’s somewhere hidden … but then you have to type letter by letter, with the control … but if you have the Apple TV you can search by voice … we have a keyboard which we can use, but we don’t use it. … (Interviewee F, Male)
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Actually, apps brought to life in phones, tablets, and computers, are “closer to our faces and bodies, from across the room to pockets, laps and hands” (Finn, 2017, p. 102). This is just not a physical proximity, but an algorithmic knowledge proximity: our way of learning and interacting provided by this app “leads to a reinvention not merely of content but of user behavior” (Finn, 2017, p. 102). According to our interviewees, users are very much aware of the strategic design of Netflix favoring their own principles for suggesting content rather than enhancing independent searchers. This is, however, not experienced as a disadvantage, but as the primary value of algorithm-based television consumption. It does not affect the perception of functionality nor the brand image the interviewees showed towards Netflix either. On the contrary, as stated in the above participant’s quotation, they acknowledge it as a strategy and not as a major issue that interrupts their experience. It is therefore an ambivalent experience of feeling enabled to find the right content, while delegating agency to algorithms that is foregrounded in the interviews.
Gendered Experiences of Recommendations Netflix’s motto is “everything is a recommendation” (Finn, 2017, p. 95). This is not taken lightly: micro-tags curate, differentiate, gather and group the content as well as the algorithm, personalizing the menu and its options from user to user. As stated once by Netflix itself, “there are 33 million different versions of Netflix [in US] or a uniquely tailored system for each individual to consume” (Finn, 2017, p. 95). Given this customization and personalization possibilities, talking about 33 million versions of Netflix is possible, but one can also think of it differently. As Manovich (2009) explains it, users are people and people are users. Not only merely “people” or “users” but with a name, a last name, taste, likes, dislikes, friends, preferences and a voice, either represented algorithmically or physically in the offline world. Another important manifestation of “everything is a recommendation” (Finn, 2017, p. 95) is the contextual trend strategy Netflix performs. Content is not only generated and/or pushed randomly, it is also meticulously crafted to match important and relevant media or real-life events: a new season teaser of House of Cards when Trump assumes the presidency or the launch of an original content documentary called The Cuba Libre Story when Fidel C astro passed away. This phenomenon is also another way on how algorithmic techniques and programming, that seem to be hidden under a black screen on each
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device, are actually very much alive in today’s creative industry and play a very important role feeding and shaping our daily life. The number of categories, genres, and suggestions surprised a majority of our participants. Recommendation rows (“Because you watched …”) tended to be more than half of the total amount of displayed content. Usually more than half of the recommendation rows were offered by the algorithm according to past watched selections, pushing original content first in any of those rows. When it comes to content and its relationship with the algorithm itself, there is an interesting distinction about the approach and overall perception of the app and the algorithm logic behind it regarding gender. Male interviewees usually complement the app usage by other sources of online streaming services: because of updated content, availability, taste, etc. Male users invested more time in organization and planning their Netflix usage. They often relied on reviews outside of Netflix, particularly to decide which series to follow, while movies were chosen more spontaneously. Women, in contrast, tended to select what content to watch according to their routines. They reserved lighthearted content for breakfast or weekends, and more intense programs such as dramas, documentaries, or thrillers for the nights. This finding raises the question of whether they chose that content for those moments or if those idle moments inclined them to pick those series instead. Also, the only organizing aspect mentioned was an external tool used to keep track of the airing dates of their favorite tv shows. The male participants in our sample would prefer a more holistic or integrated approach regarding the service: they reported that if the app crossshared information with some of their other apps such as social media or search behavior, the recommendation could be more accurate. They just recommend on whatever you watched on Netflix, whereas, if you look how people advertise on the Internet, they will track all your behavior. I wonder if Netflix could invest more on this … Probably they don’t need to … What I mean is that maybe they could find more relevant the things I search for on the IMDB for example, or Google … coz I would always Google them … and take it from there. I guess what I’m saying I just don’t only rely on Netflix telling me what to watch. If things are in Netflix I watch it, if they are not, then I’ll torrent it. (Interviewee B, Male)
In contrast, our female participants emphasized the importance of stories and quality of the content. Their experience is also limited to availability and time rather than technical aspects.
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Let me see … The ones like these? [showing to us the selection of that section] Yes. I would actually have a look through this … at the moment from what they suggest I probably would watch some of the things they’ve suggested. (Interviewee A, Female)
When it comes to gender, it is, therefore, important to distinguish the different practices performed by the users. While male participants tended to organize their viewing in terms of functionality and app features, the female participants’ organization was closely related with their offline practices outside of the Netflix platform, such as time management and its corresponding content consumption and administration.
Working for the Algorithm When discussing profiles and accounts with the participants, Western millennials, both male and female, tended to have their own accounts and were aware of the teaching/learning principles of Netflix’s suggestion logic. They wanted to promote it and they expected better and more accurate curation, suggestions, and listings if they are not sharing their profile with other users. Although most of the interviewees complained about the seldom “one off” recommendations that were unexpected or not accurate to their profiles, they tended to neglect the active rating feedback, assisting the app in tailoring content and suggestions. They did not rate likes/dislikes, and they rather considered that binge watching or quickly closing a title should tell the algorithm more than a literal thumb up would. The usage of accounts and profiles was very interesting. Usually subscribers create several user profiles within one account. Normally, users would respect the distinction between different profiles and only use their own. This practice continued even if the users had moved out from their home countries: they kept sharing their accounts with people at home, although they had access to a different catalog of options. This was one of the main issues and concerns regarding their experience. Regardless of the active rating, our participants tended to co-work as much as they could to help the algorithm: even in shared profiles a couple respected the fact that only she was supposed to use the “My List” feature while he wouldn’t, so they do not interfere with each other’s experience. The Netflix experience has been highly rated by all the interviewees, and the only thing that led the user to seek for entertainment somewhere else is the lack of content, particularly in Singapore, where the catalog was not as
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vast as in other markets due to its recent launch. The majority of the participants replied with a negative satisfaction regarding title availability but reported positive and constant usage of the app regardless. There was no major discomfort perceived from the interviewees when the algorithm went wrong: not in terms technical failure, but when the app did not suggest content the users liked or when Netflix recommended content that had little to do with their taste. This mismatch was not perceived as a mistake; on the contrary, this was perceived as a lack of licenses or available content but not as Netflix’s failure. No major unexpected practices were detected more than hacks and online tricks to get better content results such as the usage of VPNs or unveiling hidden tags for better search results. There was a strong trust in the app and its aim to provide the best possible service for streaming content, so this was not perceived as something that might affect Netflix’s performance or profile submissions. It does, however, represent an area for growth for their competitors. If the users cannot find what they are looking for or feel that they are not being suggested the right content, they immediately change to another on-demand app provider, torrenting site, or even to indirect competitors such as cable TV.
Discussion It is interesting to consider each user as a co-creator. By watching, clicking, rating, and binge watching, people are generating valuable data that Netflix may use to further content creation. There might be different levels of co-creation as well, starting from an un-aware one, as the mere act of watching and selecting content, to a conscious decision of rating the content we prefer. Netflix, with its algorithm system and its live generation and storage of user behavior and data, as well as other contemporary apps, allows an increasing surveillance process where “the work of being watched is steadily eclipsing the work of watching” (Caraway, 2011, p. 698). This issue is very important for these companies where their major asset and capital value are their users. This leads to an interesting paradox of users paying for a service in which they also produce new, added value for the company they are hiring the service from. Users are improving the system as they are paying for its service with their data at the exact same time they enjoy their favorite show. Even during that “free month trial” credit card information, user preferences, and new viewer behaviors can be studied and withdrawn, for example, to promote
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co-branding strategies with credit cards and other brands and services that engage with the yet new, formally unsubscribed, users. This could be understood in the light of neo-Marxist approaches, which suggest that users are alienated, unaware, and even losing that “fake” leisure time they think they are enjoying, while actually producing information and value for a third party. Or, on the other hand, this can be considered an emancipatory and co-creational path towards better entertainment. Not only is the user a key influencer and defining factor of this new on-demand logic and economy, providing input on how the apps should function and what they should look like, but also shapes its own entertainment pool of options. The user becomes a co-creator of content, and the algorithms are the way to consolidate all the input and feedback the user provides click after click. Hence, users are co-creators and co-producers of the entertainment and cultural industry they consume and live in.
Conclusions How does the user perceive Netflix’s suggestion logic? After conducting this research, entertainment, fun, companionship, distraction, and information are some of the reasons for turning the app on. The catalog available on the app has become an excuse to share, interact, and socialize on and offline for this app generation. Netflix is currently one of the major cultural content producers and distributors of our time. To give a recent example, if one searches on Google 13 Reasons Why, one of its latest original productions, the search engine will display 7.380.000 results—and this is only within 3 weeks of its worldwide release—showcasing the cultural success, relevance, and importance of Netflix’s Originals. As reflected in this research, this app has major repercussions for what and how users choose to spend their leisure time: “Web 2.0 platforms may be technically indifferent to the content they transport, but they are not socially or culturally indifferent. […] Content is no longer simply ‘water’ but a certain brand of water: its content has changed as a result of its packaging and distribution and drinking bottled water becomes part of someone’s identity and daily routine” (van Dijck, 2012, p. 7–8). The user is generally aware of the recommendation logic and wants to take the best advantage of it. This advantage is expected but not cultivated: evaluating content and having good quality, engaging titles to watch is important, although the users do not generally engage in rating or reviewing themselves—at least not within Netflix. They do so through their practices
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outside the platform: sharing trailers, commenting with friends, and promoting certain shows. Overall, this algorithmic logic expands the user’s experience since it suggests titles and content the user would not choose on first sight. A more human-focused approach has suggested nothing but to reaffirm algorithmic logic as more than just zeros and ones. Instead of regarding algorithms as powerful, all-mighty entities, they can be considered something that emerges in relation to practices, in many places, every day, again and again, constantly under construction (Ziewitz, 2011, p. 5). Ziewitz’s (2011) interpretation, combined with the empowerment of the user/viewer is a very interesting connection worthy of further research, especially the meanings and connotations of algorithmic narratives and how they affect not only the user experience but also the cultural industry. User behavior, its interaction, and its use of algorithm logic behind global entertainment apps is a yet untapped fertile soil for the industry as a whole that is looking for insights and raw material to generate new, more diverse and inclusive content, contemplating a more representative sample of those 33 million recommendations, that in sum, the user is consuming, demanding and co-creating.
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Gillespie, T. (2012). The relevance of algorithms. In T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, & K. Foot, Media Technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and society. Cambridge: MIT Press. Gillespie, T. (2014). Algorithm (Digital Keywords). Culture Digitally. Retrieved from http:// culturedigitally.org/2014/06/algorithm-draft-digitalkeyword (accessed on 04/02/2017) Gray, A. (1987). Behind closed doors: Video recorders in the home, from boxed. In H. Baehr & G. Dyer (Eds.), Women and television. New York, NY: Pandora Press. Hallinan, B., & Striphas, T. (2016). Recommended for you: The Netflix prize and the production of algorithmic culture. New Media & Society, 18, 117–137. Hildén, J (2017). Online recommender systems and public service media—from exposure diversity to engagement diversity. (unpublished working paper). Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising. The next great generation. New York City, NY: Vintage Books, Random House. Jones, S. (2002). Music that moves: Popular music, distribution and network technologies. Cultural Studies, 16(2), 213–232. Light, B., Burgess, J., & Duguay, S. (2016). The walkthrough method: An approach to the study of apps. New Media and Society, 20(3), 881–900. MacKenzie, D., & Wajcman, J. (1999). Introductory essay: The social shaping of technology. In D. MacKenzie & J. Wajcman (Eds.), The social shaping of technology (2nd ed.). Buckingham, UK: Open University Press. Manovich, L. (2009). The practice of everyday (media) life: From mass consumption to mass production? Critical Inquiry, 35(2), 319–331. Pasquale, F. (2015). The black box society: The secret algorithms that control money and information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Salem, B. (2011). Technostruggles, Capitalism and Media Culture in the United Kingdom. University of Lancaster, N/A. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/19274981/Black_ Mirror_Technostruggles_Capitalism_and_Media_Culture_in_the_United_Kingdom? auto=download Seaver, N. (2014). Knowing algorithms. Media in Transition. Smythe, D. W. (2001). On the audience commodity and its works. In M. G. Durham, & D. M. Kellner (Eds.), Media and cultural studies keywords (pp. 230–256). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. Statistics, T. S. (2016). Population in Brief 2016: The Singapore Department of Statistics. Singapore: National Population and Talent Division, Singapore Department of Statistics, Ministry of Home Affairs, Immigration & Checkpoints Authority. Striphas, T. (2015). Algorithmic culture. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(4–5), 395–412. Turkle, S. (2006). Always on/Always-on-you: The Tethered Self. In J. E. Katz, Handbook of mobile communications and Social Change (s. 21). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. van Dijck, J. (2012). Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: a multilayered approach to social media platforms. Convergence, 19(2), 141–155. Williams, R. (1974). Television. Technology and Cultural Form. New York: Schocken Books. Ziewitz, M. (2011). Discussion paper for Symposium on “Knowledge Machines between Freedom and Control.” Retrieved from http://ziewitz.org/papers/ziewitz_algorithm.pdf (accessed on 04/02/2017)
·13· do spoilers matter ? Asynchronous Viewing Habits on Netflix and Twitter Theo Plothe and Amber M. Buck
As noted in the chapters throughout this collection and by the PEW Internet and American Life Project, video streaming is an increasingly popular way to watch television through digital streaming services, with 6 in 10 young adults (age 18–29) reporting this method as the primary way that they watch television (Rainie, 2017). In their study of television viewers, Bury and Li (2015) found that over half of their survey respondents watched timeshifted television with only 20% of respondents’ television viewing being live. 90% also watched some sort of streaming television service. While streaming services have grown in popularity and replaced live broadcast television, at the same time, Pittman and Tefertiller (2015) noted that viewers are increasingly using social media like Twitter as a second screen application for “co-viewing” with other fans. Harrington, Highfield, and Bruns (2013) identify live television events, particularly political, sporting events, and reality television, as the primary types of television popular with Twitter, though scripted broadcast programs also enjoy a live second-screen following. These scholars also state that television “readily catalyzes audience discussion, interaction, fandom and other social activity. Twitter has become an important backchannel through which such social activity is sustained and made more widely visible” (p. 405). From sporting events to political debates and award shows, as well as even scripted dramas, hashtags are even promoted
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on the screen in order to generate in the moment conversation on Twitter and other social media platforms. The confluence of these two trends in television viewing, however, raise questions for social media users who want to discuss the program with others. When temporality becomes an issue, when viewers are not watching the program at the same time, how can they discuss the plot with other fans? This chapter explores this question through an analysis of the first week of tweets surrounding the Season Four premiere of House of Cards. We analyze the conversation around the program on Twitter in order to consider the nature of topics discussed by viewers.
Streaming Television and Second Screen Applications Recent work by Pittman and Tefertiller (2015) has found that viewers of Netflix programs engage more on Twitter than viewers of broadcast programs. These authors compared the Twitter activity of two different broadcast programs, Downton Abbey and Parks and Recreation with that of two streaming programs on Netflix, House of Cards and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The Twitter activity of the two program types was different; the broadcast programs had significant spikes during the show’s air time, while the activity for streaming programs was more uniform. As a whole, though, Pittman and Tefertiller found that viewers of the Netflix programs engaged more on T witter than viewers of broadcast programs, yet the nature of that interaction and its content remain under-examined. As Harrington et al. (2013) identify, live television events provide an opportunity for viewers to connect with others in order to discuss rapidly unfolding events, as well as to provide an update and record for those not present. Tweeting scripted dramas on broadcast television has a similar aim of interacting with others around particular important moments. ABC encouraged live tweeting during broadcasts of Scandal by promoting #OMGMoments in their advertisements. Similarly, NBC currently displays #sharethemoment at the bottom of the screen during key scenes of their popular This Is Us family drama. For streaming television, those moments are not immediately shared in real time with other Twitter users. While Pittman and Tefertiller (2015) found more Twitter traffic connected to the Netflix programs rather than the programs on network television, they did not examine the content of those tweets in much depth. The content and nature of tweets about Netflix programs, then, remains underexamined.
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Spoilers At the heart of this concern lies an evolving cultural etiquette around the notion of television spoilers. With the introduction of time-shifted viewing practices, television viewers can no longer assume that others are caught up on key plot developments of popular programs. Perks and McElrath-Hart (2016) found that television viewers who watch time-shifted television still care about “spoilers,” defined by Gray and Mittell (2007) as “any revelation of yet-to-unfold narrative developments.” Perks and McElrath-Hart argue that while many viewers have adopted “post-network era reception practices” (p. 3) in electing to watch television programs at a time after the original broadcast date, they adhere to “network era norms” (p. 3) in trying to avoid plot details. These authors note that previous definitions of “spoilers” referred to information revealed before the actual program airdate, but that Johnson and Rosenbaum (2015) and Gray and Mittell (2007) take into account timeshifted viewing practices in providing broader definitions. Etiquette surrounding spoilers on social media often involves clear labeling as well as warnings for unexpected readers. Castellano, Meimaridis, and dos Santos’ (2017) study of tweets related to the popular HBO drama Game of Thrones found that the reaction to spoilers from this television program were slightly different because the program is an adaptation of a novel, and viewers who have read George RR Martin’s Fire and Ice series already know the outcome before episodes air. These scholars argue that the important issue of the circulation of spoilers involves the fan context in which they are circulated. In Castellano et al.’s research, many Twitter users noted that if they hadn’t watched the Game of Thrones program yet, they avoided the platform between certain hours, thereby identifying a certain time and place where spoilers might happen. There were constant clashes, however, with fans who had read the books and shared information with other viewers on Twitter. Those upset with the revelations, Castellano et al. (2017) argue, draw boundaries around the narrative world of the television program and see the books as a separate entity. The conversation around spoilers still uses a discrete airdate as a marker, however. Netflix releases an entire season of episodes at the same moment, and unless a viewer watches the episodes consecutively without stopping, different viewers will be viewing different episodes at any given time. The nature of Netflix viewing practices, then, makes the use of second screen applications for interaction with other fans fraught with the potential for spoilers.
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House of Cards As a means of exploring the presence of spoilers in tweets about a Netflix program, we collected and analyzed tweets from House of Cards (2013—2018), one of the first of Netflix’s original scripted dramas, created by Beau Willimon and starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. The program is based on the British mini-series and novel of the same name by Michael Dobbs. House of Cards was the first exclusively online web television series to receive major Emmy nominations, with 33 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor for Spacey, and Outstanding Lead Actress for Wright, for each of its first four seasons. In order to investigate the use of spoilers on Twitter, we required a television show that was an original product for Netflix, one that had not been seen on television beforehand, and one that released the entire season’s worth of episodes at once. We chose House of Cards for our study for three reasons: (1) its position as an incredibly popular Netflix original program that had won critical acclaim; (2) the nature of the drama within the program itself, which featured plot twists and surprising moments; (3) the level of audience engagement with the program on Twitter. At the time of our study in 2016, House of Cards was a highly tweeted program and one that Netflix itself promoted actively on Twitter. Cast members often tweeted about the show during the highly anticipated launch, and Pittman and Tefertiller’s (2015) study found twice the number of tweets from House of Cards than from the three other programs they studied. On the day of the second season launch in 2014, then-President Barack Obama also tweeted about the show, specifically requesting no spoilers. His tweet read, “Tomorrow: @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please” (Obama, 2014). This program, then, was the marquee example for how Netflix viewers might write about and react to spoilers on Twitter. For these reasons, House of Cards served as a strong example for our study.
Methodology This study examined the public conversation on Twitter around the dedicated hashtags for the Netflix program House of Cards. To this end, we collected all public tweets using the official #HouseofCards hashtag sent during the first 7 days after the release of the 4th season of the program on Netflix’s streaming
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service, from March 4–10, 2016. We first performed a content word search in NVivo to analyze the most commonly used words, as well as the ways the word “spoiler” itself and its variations were used in the data set. This analysis assisted us in gaining a sense of the overall conversation on the hashtag, as well as what topics or words were most prominent. Examining spoilers required manual coding of the tweets themselves. What counts as a spoiler is, of course, nuanced and must be determined by human raters rather than a computer analysis. To this end, we selected a random sample of 550 tweets to qualitatively code for plot spoilers. We defined spoilers according to Gray and Mittell (2007)’s definition as the revelation of specific plot details and events. For the purposes of this study, we used the entire tweet as a unit of analysis, and we defined a spoiler as any tweet which revealed information about the plot of that season. This did not include comments about character traits or what we might consider habitual actions by particular characters that did not reveal plot information.
Results In total, we collected 152,520 public tweets from March 4–10, 2016. While much of Netflix’s content is subject to country-specific licensing agreements, Netflix generally makes its own content available in each country; the tweets using the House of Cards hashtag in English contained tweets in nine different languages; 75% of the tweets were in English, as seen in Table 13.1. Table 13.1. Language of #HouseofCards tweets. Language
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The most frequent appearing words in the tweets appear in Table 13.2. Along with the names of the two primary characters, the most frequent words comment on the act of watching or “binging” the show itself, demonstrating that a good portion of the tweets are users just reporting on their activity of watching the show, without any spoilers. With words like “episodes,” “watch,” and “binge,” Twitter users share their activity with other viewers. The word “episode” was also rather prevalent as well. Along with mentions of the show’s Twitter account (@houseofcards) the main characters of the show, Frank and Claire Underwood, are mentioned most frequently, demonstrating that Twitter users discussed the characters, and potentially specific plot actions of the characters, in tweets. The #fu2016 hashtag, frequently used in this dataset, refers to the hashtag for the Underwoods’ presidential campaign, a hashtag also frequently promoted by Netflix. Users included this hashtag often to refer to the campaign, the Underwoods, and just the show itself. These word frequency counts can be seen in Table 13.2. Table 13.2. Word frequency count. Word
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There were 2,598 instances of the word “spoil,” “spoils,” “spoiler” and “spoilers” in the data, which was only a small portion of the entire data set, and therefore not included on the above chart. Some of these tweets included phrases like, “If anyone on here spoils house of cards you are garbage,” and “if anyone spoils house of cards on Twitter endurteth the wratheth,” “If anyone spoils house of cards I swear I’m going to …” and “I’m watching the new season of House of Cards before someone spoils it for me.” There was, then, a conversation around spoilers using the hashtag on Twitter that emphasized a desire to avoid them. After this initial analysis, we chose 550 randomly selected tweets from the entire sample for analysis. In this sample, there were only 31 plot spoilers, or 5% of the sample, ranging from small and large plot points. Some of these tweets involved specific scenes, small actions taken by a character, such as using a particular object, or a particular speech or line of dialogue. These spoilers also included more important plot points of the season, including character deaths and major events. We are not reproducing the actual spoiler tweets here to avoid spoiling the program ourselves. What was most striking in the data set was the way that individual Twitter users would share broad and often ambiguous tweets in order to avoid giving away plot points. These tweets include reactions to something on screen, such as: “Owh I love Claire Underwood. Cold hearted bitch. #HouseofCards” (Guilty Pleasure, 2016). While this tweet is quite possibly a reaction to a specific action that Robin Wright’s character engaged in, the tweet provides no details, and could function as a reaction to any number of actions taken by this character over the course of the series. The tweet acts both as a reaction to a specific moment as well as a larger point of discussion within the larger community of House of Cards viewers on Twitter. Reaction tweets were also common, such as a tweet that simply read: “Yaaasssss Claire! #HouseofCards.” (Roberts, 2016). This tweet is instead an exclamation; it exists untethered to any particular moment in the show and rather represents a reaction to
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something that Twitter user witnessed in the program. Like the previous tweet, this one is also unmoored from a specific episode or moment. A viewer currently on episode one and a different individual on episode twelve may both connect to this tweet. Other tweets react to specific characters’ behavior, such as the tweet: “Doug Stamper you need to fuck off mate #HouseofCards” (Andrews, 2016). Again, while this tweet does not reveal a specific plot point, it does provide a bit more specifics about a character and his behavior that is prompting a reaction in this particular viewer. This tweet is a bit more specific, but still not particularly revealing in terms of spoilers: “After that speech to Kathy Durant I’m going to have serious #PresidentUnderwood nightmares tonight! #HouseofCards #houseofcardss4” (Bragg, 2016). While this tweet in particular does reference a very specific moment, it does so in such a way that emphasizes the viewer’s reaction to the event rather than the content of the conversation. All we know from this tweet is that President Underwood has a heated, and we might assume threatening, conversation with Catherine Durant, the Secretary of State in Season Four. Without the episode number or any additional details, this moment could have been one of many during the season. The emphasis of the tweet is on the viewer’s reaction rather than the plot point itself.
Discussion From this analysis, the vast majority of tweets using the #HouseofCards hashtag during the fourth season of the show discuss both the action of watching the show itself, given the prevalence of terms like “binge” and “watch” in our dataset, as well as the two main characters on the show. The first primary use of Twitter as a second-screen application, then, is to share the act of watching itself. Settling in for an evening of binge watching (sans spoilers please) was a common sentiment expressed on the hashtag. Given the prevalence of the character’s names in the dataset, as well as the approach of tweets that avoided spoilers, a common practice of these Twitter users was to focus on habitual action. The tweets aim to represent reactions in a way that obscures the details themselves. These tweets prompt engagement and connection with other Twitter users, but not in a way that would be disruptive or disappointing to users still making their way through earlier episodes. Focusing on habitual action does not only avoid spoilers, but it also allows Twitter users to connect with other viewers at different points of the
do spoilers matter?
season and even the series. A tweet like “Owh I love Claire Underwood. Cold hearted bitch,” (Guilty Pleasure, 2016), as mentioned above, is more about the character overall than conversation about any particular season of the show. Most of these tweets also emphasize reaction. For these viewers, sharing the experience of watching the television show is more important than revealing plot details. Viewing the program at the same time, even if Twitter users are not seeing the same moments on the screen at once, is still a process of co-viewing. Viewers can still discuss the overall personality of characters and their habitual actions at any point in the series without analyzing plot details. These Twitter users might be at home binging alone, but they are sharing the experience together.
Conclusion Using Twitter to talk about streaming television demonstrates an awareness of Twitter as an equalizer of temporality and spatiality. Viewers understand that while they are sharing the experience of watching House of Cards, not everyone is experiencing the show at the same moment. Connecting with other users while watching Netflix programs, then, requires a difficult balancing act and sophisticated awareness of the need to obscure particular details about the plot. This practice is a skill, though, that House of Cards viewers seem to have mastered. These results indicate that Netflix viewers who use Twitter have an awareness of what we might call “spoiler etiquette” and a sophistication for reacting to the show without revealing crucial plot information. Viewers may have an understanding that while they are sharing the experience of watching the show, not everyone is experiencing the show at the same moment. This study contributes to our understanding of the evolving definition of spoilers for streaming television that is distinct from network era definitions. This work also furthers our understanding of the ways in which audiences engage with asynchronous and streaming video and integrate second screen applications into their viewing practices.
References Andrews, A. [Amyjandrews]. (2016, March 13). Doug Stamper you need to fuck off mate. #houseofcards [Tweet]. Retrieved from http://twitter.com/AmyJAndrews/statuses/7091066 10979913728
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Bragg, J. [KitCouchPotato]. (2016, March 13). Dear God after that speech to Kathy Durant I’m going to have serious #PresidentUnderwood nightmares tonight! #HouseOfCards #houseofcardss4 [Tweets]. Retrieved from http://twitter.com/KitCouchPotato/statuses/ 709106705255309313 Bury, R., & Li, J. (2015). Is it live or is it timeshifted, streamed or downloaded? Watching television in the era of multiple screens. New Media & Society, 17(4), 592–610. Castellano, M., Meimaridis, M., & dos Santos Junior, M. A. (2017). Game of spoilers: Adapted works and fan consumption disputes in Brazil. Intensities: Journal of Cult Media, 9, 74–86. Gray, J., & Mittell, J. (2007). Speculation on spoilers: Lost fandom, narrative consumption and rethinking textuality. Particip@tions: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, 4(1). Retrieved from http://www.participations.org/Volume%204/Issue%201/4_01_graymittell.htm Guilty Pleasure. [LoveDien]. (2016, March 13). Owh I love Claire Underwood. Cold hearted bitch #HouseofCards [Tweet]. Retrieved from http://twitter.com/LoveDien/ statuses/709102775129530369 Harrington, S., Highfield, T., & Bruns, A. (2013). More than a backchannel: Twitter and television. Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 10(1). Retrieved from http:// citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.689.4259&rep=rep1&type=pdf Johnson, B. K., & Rosenbaum, J. E. (2015). Spoiler alert: Consequences of narrative spoilers for dimensions of enjoyment, appreciation, and transportation. Communication Research, 42(8), 1068–1088. Obama, B. [BarackObama]. (2014, February 13). Tomorrow: @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/barackobama/status/4341081037897 93281?lang=en Perks, L. G., & McElrath-Hart, N. (2016). Spoiler definitions and behaviors in the post- network era. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 1–16. Pittman, M., & Tefertiller, A. (2015). With or without you: Connected viewing and co-viewing Twitter activity for traditional appointment and asynchronous broadcast television models. First Monday, 20(7). Retrieved from http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/ view/5935/4663 Rainie, L. (2017, Sept. 13). About 6 in 10 young adults in U.S. primarily use online streaming to watch TV. Pew Internet Research. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/ fact-tank/2017/09/13/about-6-in-10-young-adults-in-u-s-primarily-use-online-streamingto-watch-tv/ Roberts, T. [Taelyreddestiny]. (2016, March 13). Yaaasssss Claire! #HouseofCards [Tweet]. Retrieved from http://twitter.com/Taelyreddestiny/statuses/709106683323269120
you still watching ? ”
Audiovisual Consumption on Digital Platforms and Practices Related to the Routines of Netflix Users Vanessa Amália D. Valiati
Waking up earlier to watch Netflix before going to work and college is part of M.’s routine, a 19-year old student. When he gets home, he still has time to watch two more episodes before going to bed. He likes to watch Netflix programs on his smartphone even though he’s at home, and he considers cable TV an “enormous waste of money.” On the weekends, he binge-watches and could easily watch 13 hours in a row to finish a season—this process refers to a cycle called “happiness, anxiety, and emptiness.” He thinks of the platform as a “family member” who is always available. This profile, taken from a pilot interview for this study,1 is indicative of current media consumption which has made significant changes to everyday life and the consumption of audiovisual products. These changes are noticeable when analyzing our routine use of media. With on-demand access via streaming becoming more and more popular, users are now adapting to new practices or reshaping their old behaviors. Other forms of domestic consumption with streaming content have now been established—television sets are used to access internet sites and applications. At the same time, computers, tablets and smartphones have become the main devices for transmitting and consuming, which have led to questions about home or family life because platform mobility and consumption via mobile devices increases the space for consumption.
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Terms like “binge-watching” or “Netflix cheating” are only some of the more obvious phenomena. The company played a major role in creating new consumption habits the same way it inserted new routines and behaviors into daily life. It is now becoming more and more common to hear or read expressions like “Netflix has destroyed my social life,” “I’m addicted to Netflix,” “I don’t go out at night anymore, I prefer to stay home and watch Netflix,” “I didn’t sleep much because I was watching Netflix,” and “I cancelled my cable TV subscription and just watch Netflix”; these are just some of the expressions used that refer to the platform’s centrality in terms of media consumption. In order to understand these phenomena, I begin with the Practice Theory approach. Its roots are based in anthropology and sociology and even though it is not systematically designed as a field of study (Postill, 2010; Reckwitz, 2002), it is used as a starting point to relate to structures, systems, individuals or interactions (Postill, 2010). The practice in this study is defined as routine behavior, with a number of interconnected elements in a continual relationship between agents and objects (Reckwitz, 2002). This study therefore investigates the many layers that make up the structured practices of consuming audiovisual products on the Internet and aims to understand how audiovisual content consumption on Netflix is articulated into the routines of users in Brazil.
The Netflix Platform The current audiovisual scenario is made up of a range of interfaces, videos, environments, and uses (Montaño, 2015). In order to address streaming platforms and on-demand audiovisual content services, we need to first define the term “platform.” Aside from a point of access to particular content, an interface, or software, Parker, Alstyne, and Choudary (2016) describe digital platforms as companies that provide interactions that create value between consumers and producers. For these authors, the platform’s general objective is to promote a relationship between users and facilitate the exchange of goods, services, or local currency, thereby giving it value to all participants. In terms of audiovisual consumption platforms like Netflix, if we exclude the “pay to consume” commercial relationship, these exchanges seem to occur simply by sharing information—once users enter their data and consumer profile on the platform, it gives them access to its catalogue of shows and a complete recommendation and notice system. Furthermore, the value
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it has lies within the autonomy it creates and the ability to watch content anywhere at any time. Also, in terms of currency and capital, Netflix has subscription fees. Additionally, according to Gillespie (2010), platforms have a political bias and, despite their discourse about innovation, openness, equality and democracy, they contain more aspects of traditional media than they admit. Thus, taking into account the above-mentioned characteristics, this paper understands Netflix as a digital platform whose value is in the availability of audiovisual content and its ability to enable the on-demand consumption on multiple screens. The platform is also based on the information about its users’ habits, using algorithms to suggest content—a mindset that could also be applied on a discursive and political level.
Media, Practice, and Information Routes Practice theory provides media studies with new frameworks through which to consider central issues in the field, such as media in everyday life, media and the body, and media production (Postill, 2010). The first generation of theorists, more specifically Bourdieu (2009), Giddens (2009), and Postill (2010), state that this approach suggests that individuals use media in order to maintain a sense of ontological safety. Media becomes a field for observing the daily cultural game of reproducing and changing where practitioners (with varying degrees of expertise, discipline and commitment), practices, and technologies meet and circulate. Along these lines, Couldry (2010) proposes a new paradigm for media studies which can be thought of as the study of “the open set of practices relating to, or oriented around, media” (p. 36) in order to understand ties between media and the power it has in daily life. In that respect, the reason behind systematizing the data from this research was inspired by the work of Shove, Pantzar, and Watson (2012) and the perspective of Schatzki (1996, 2001) and Reckwitz (2002), which states that practice is defined by interdependent relationships between materials (object, technologies, physically tangible entities, and things the objects are made from), competencies (skills, know-how and techniques) and meanings (which include symbolic meanings, ideas and aspirations). Thus, the practices related to media consumption include a mix of materials, competencies, and meanings. This study is based on an empirical observation and theoretical foundation related to the elements that make up this practice.
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Methodology In order to further develop this analysis, we interviewed 12 individuals between the ages of 18 and 40 years old who live in the south of Brazil (Porto Alegre and the metropolitan area). They described their use of Netflix as either intense or average (more than 4 hours a week). The participants were selected from questionnaires they had previously answered in social networks. Using observation and interview techniques, we monitored these users’ relationships with the platform and the environment in which they watch it. Taking into account the theoretical basis of this research, criteria developed by Shove et al. (2012) and Magaudda (2011) were used to group and organize the multiplicity of observed aspects, noting that these elements were in constant interconnection and that the practice itself would not exist with isolated elements. Thus, users’ interactions with technology were analyzed along the five axes of this project: material aspects, competencies, affective dynamics, relational dynamics, and spatio-temporal dynamics. These observations examined the organization of space-time dynamics in everyday life around Netflix.
Results: “Netflix is Every Day” This section will present some of the results obtained through the interviews and will analyze connections between the verbalization and observation of practices and the theoretical contributions previously brought by this research. When observing users’ preferences for steaming media, most users report a preference for television. Contextual variations also change the choice of artifact—not always, according to respondents’ home routines and other constraints, the preferred medium is in fact often used, as Respondent 6 says: “My favorite one actually is TV, but my father owns the TV, so […]. I end up watching on the computer. But I prefer the TV; the screen is much bigger. And my computer has an internet problem, there it’s falling, coming back, falling, coming back.” Or Respondent 11, who routinely watches on his cell phone or work computer, spending the day away from home, but prefers the television. “I prefer the TV because it’s more practical. Like, I’m free, there’s nothing in my hands, you do not need the phone […] on TV is much better. I prefer it and feels easier.” Among the physical aspects mentioned by most interviewees are the screen dimensions, comfort, and the greater attention thought to be tied to the idea of television usage in detriment of other artifacts.
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Compared to other screens, such as the smartphone, for example, the Respondent 5 commented: It is that the phone has to be held, and sometimes, I don’t know, some notification comes in, or, sometimes I’m unworthy and I want to send a message to someone. It doesn’t work, because I have to stop everything, pause it, go to the application, and then go back to the series. For TV, I think you can get more details. Because on the phone, you’re going to feel like doing other things. I, at least, like to see what is happening on networks. If I see it on TV, I can only focus on TV.
It is also possible to notice, in the interviewees’ responses, the relationship with television in more traditional ways, besides broadcast transmission or cable. Respondents say they do not watch for a long time or have canceled their cable subscriptions, including themselves into the generation of cord-cutters (WOLK, 2015). Among those interviewed, the resistance to paying for cable TV is perceptible—those who were responsible for paying the subscription have canceled it. It is common among the interviewees to select programs but not to watch, either for reasons of time, or because they forgot what they selected. As Respondent 12 reports: “I choose more series to view than I watch. If I see my list, there’s a lot I do not even remember putting there.” And it defines: “It’s like a clothing consumer who buys and does not wear the clothes. My list of attendees is also a series of content that is seen in half.” This way, Respondent 9 defines the list as “an illusion of things I’m really going to use, I put in a lot and watch little there.” This aspect also refers to the content mobility in the platform—this illusion to which Respondent 9 refers is also presented in the idea that content will always be there to be watched, when in actuality the presence of content is not a constant and depends on licensing agreements and contracts, which can lead to frustrations. This mapping of consumer tastes and profiles does not seem to displease Netflix users interviewed for this research. Respondent 5, for example, does not consider it invasive. According to this participant, “because there are some things that really invade your privacy, but they [Netflix] are ok, because it is data that they need to understand who the consumers are, to identify and such.” For the Respondent 2, it is also positive: “taking my consumption custom and throwing it back at me is even better, I want more is them to understand me. There are things I will not want to see.” Respondent 7 believes that it facilitates, “but obviously bothers me”—this person says that they “sold” its data to Google, Facebook and Apple for many years, “so it’s
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just another one.” They ended: “It bothers, but I would not stop using it because of it.” Interviewees were questioned about their perceptions regarding the use of the platform and issues associated with the body and their relationship with the artifacts. The individuals reported a great range in the deprivation or alteration in sleep habits. When questioned about whether they were sleeping more or less due to the use of the platform, Respondent 1 was strict, associating the phenomenon with the presence of the device in the room: “Much less [sleep]. I think I’d come in from college and go straight to bed when I did not have a television in my room.” Regarding technical competencies, the interviewees showed adequate know-how in using the Netflix platform. They spoke easily about the management of passwords and profiles, the limits of the chosen plan and access screens, as well as the genres and search systems. About the proliferation of screens (cell phone, tablet, computer) in everyday life, respondents were asked about attention and focus while watching Netflix—interacting at the same time with other screens. Their responses related to the focus and ability to perform other tasks while watching Netflix, as well as the platform’s affordances in supporting assisted content. Most of the interviewees were therefore able to watch the content and at the same time perform other activities. Respondent 8, for example, affirmed being able to watch and look at the smartphone at the same time “and pay attention to both.” The same practice was routine for Respondent 5: “I can usually listen and type. I’ll take a peek or even send a voicemail. I’ll read what’s going on.” This cognitive ability of divided attention is often referenced by the respondents—the presence of another screen can be considered a characteristic of the link between the program, the user, and the platform (Martin, 2014). In addition to the multiple screens, some respondents’ attention was divided with other daily tasks. Respondent 10 reported: “I watch here at all times, when I’m cooking, when I’m doing the dishes and when I’m eating.” Food is also related to Respondent 6 consumption: “Usually I watch Netflix when I’m eating […] I have to be doing something other than having dinner or having lunch. So, Netflix is very food related.” What can be concluded, therefore, is that most interviewees demonstrate the development of cognitive skills in relation to the attention needed to perform other activities while watching, choosing the content according to the situation. From these configurations you can see that streaming platforms, in this case specifically Netflix, end up assuming a role that for a long time was the
“are you still watching ?”
television’s or the radio’s—that of being background company: “Like, you are in absolute silence at home and you are going to have dinner alone, turn on the TV […] to make a noise in the house” (Respondent 2). In the field of affective and relational dynamics, among this study’s research participants Netflix acquired a space of prominence in their routines. As Respondent 5 stated: “So it is part of my life. When there is no internet, there is no light, I think: ‘My God, what am I going to do? What am I going to watch now?’” (Respondent 5). Respondent 12 understood the platform as an escape, from the time one arrived home from work until bedtime: “I think it’s an escape from reality for me. It’s an experience I have in a fictional universe that I can escape from everyday life.” This “escape” is in line with the survey released by Netflix (2013), in which 76% of respondents said they watched to escape from everyday concerns. Reactions to the end of a season or series after binge-watching was another notable aspect of the interviews. Most respondents used the expression “feeling of emptiness.” Sleep, anguish, and duty fulfilled also figured among the answers. Respondent 2 compared the feeling to a hangover, as does the origin of the term binge: “I get depressed. It’s kind of crap. Do you know alcohol? You know when you go out for a drink with people and ‘Oh, I’m going to have a beer,’ you know? […]. The hangover the day after.” (Respondent 2). Finally, the feelings of love, guilt, betrayal, depression, and emptiness mentioned by the respondents denote the affective dimension of meaning that Netflix acquires in the routine activities of users. This finding allows us to consider that the platform acquires meanings that go beyond the usual description of “emotional content-based streaming content producers and distributors” capable of producing strong links with consumers, as illustrated by Respondent 5: “Netflix is the love of my life”—and these bonds based on emotion compose, reinforce, and maintain the performance of this streaming practice. Assisted content on Netflix, according to most interviewees, provides the subject for interaction—especially for “watercooler talk” moments (Tryon, 2013), as well as what happened (and still occurs) with the traditional television stream (such as soap operas, reality shows, and events seen on television are commented on and generate discussion). For example, Respondent 1 explained: “So I am a person who […] watches things to have a subject with people.” She stated that the platform has a relevant role in conversations with her boyfriend. “So, we sometimes watch things to be able to raise a line of discussion, criticism or, finally, what the series is about.” There are, therefore,
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elements that refer to the creation of bonds and the sense of belonging enabled by the use of the platform around shared experiences of visualization. Practices are behaviors that appear at different locations and points in time (Reckwitz, 2002). This way, all interviewees have stated that Netflix viewing takes place for more than an hour—with variations for longer sessions, depending on the configuration of other daily practices and obligations. Therefore, in most cases, there is a more intense concentration of usage on weekends. When questioned about the insertion of Netflix in the routine, the interviewees emphasized ritual elements: “Netflix is every day. I watch at least one episode of any series every day. Usually I watch in the morning when I’m waiting for my mother to finish packing for work, I watch at noon and I watch at night” (Respondent 6). Regarding this relationship, Respondent 11 referred to “automatic” behavior: “I know I’m going to get home, I’m going to have dinner, and then I’m going to watch some episode of Netflix because there’s nothing on the TV that I want” (Respondent 11). In this way, for most of the interviewees, due to the availability of time, binge-watching occurred primarily on weekends, in temporal sequences that originated with the practice itself (Shove et al., 2012), although for most there was no specific planning. As Respondent 7 explained: “The series is good, and I’ll stay up later. But I usually do not uncheck things or decide that I will do just that. Of course, sometimes it happens. I wake up early on a Saturday and then put on a show and when I see it’s three o’clock in the afternoon.” In the case of Respondent 12, marathons occurred during weekdays as well and are also, according to her, “very impulsively.” As she claimed to have difficulty choosing titles, she reported watching “two minutes of each” until tiring. “But then when I find a good series that holds my attention, I watch many episodes in a row. So, the marathon is not very planned. It goes as far as the series can take me” (Respondent 12). Regarding to the temporal flow of marathons, Respondent 8 says that marathons are “natural” in her life. “It’s marathons because there are more than three, four episodes, one after another, but I do not consider it as a marathon because I do not have that planning.” She reported watching Netflix until the platform asked: “are you still watching this?” (Respondent 8), referring to the verification that Netflix prompts after a few hours to make sure that the user is still watching. In her perception, if she had more time, she would watch more: “It was going to spoil my day. I love Netflix, but my day would be even more unproductive.” Considering marathon days as “unproductive” was also one of the considerations made by Respondent 11. He watches marathons with his
“are you still watching?”
mother, usually on Sundays, when he says he has nothing to do. “There we go to Netflix […] It gives about six or seven hours in a day. That’s a lot, right? I do not know if it’s wasted, all of a sudden, right. I could have done other things that Sunday” (Respondent 11). That is, by functioning as a content repository that is available according to the user’s programming, the platform allows the autonomy of access in the space and time available.
Discussion: How Practices Are Formed and Consumption Flows in Netflix This study shows that Netflix is more than just a platform that produces and distributes content across the internet; it also plays a major role in daily audiovisual consumption. The collected interviews and data analysis bring to light and consolidate some possible answers to how Netflix practices might be formed in its users’ routines even though this scenario is constantly changing due to the volatility of the digital environment and the changing nature of digital consumption. It is of note that this study does not intend to generalize patterns of individual behaviors and routines, but it does interpret how these practices mix together and how this new normality (Christensen & Røpke, 2010) of consumption via streaming has been built in to daily activities. The interviews show that consuming Netflix content is linked to and organized through the following elements highlighted by Schatzki (1996): a shared understanding. In other words, the interviewees are aware of the required procedures for Netflix and generally follow its rules and instructions regarding access and releasing new content. They also know what its power and limitations are (Castanheira, Polivanov, & Maia, 2016). Some of its affordances2 are clearer to them than others; for example, its classification system and ability to download content through a friendly interface that they described as “easy to use.” We need to remember that this is what the company wants; it wants to give users several choices and direct them to the content they would be most interested in (Arnold, 2016). The third connection is an emotional one. The platform is pleasing to the user and because of this, the user sees the affectionate side of the platform (as one interviewee said, “Netflix is the love of my life”). The interviewees, even those who use other devices, agreed that television is a medium for reproducing content. This preference indicates a connection with habitus (Bourdieu, 2009); in other words, the presence of past
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experiences, matrices of perceptions that are given to each organism—the habit of watching television at the end of the work or study day is acquired throughout life. It is a leisure activity, left on in the background while performing other activities; we even watch it lying down in a comfortable position, and these elements are all parts of this behavior. Furthermore, screen size, multitasking, and second screen applications are a phenomenon which is referred to as screenness; in other words, the power that screens have in attracting the attention of individuals (Introna & Ilharco, 2006; Thrift, 2005). In this sense, the attention to and engagement with screens also depends on the content that is being watched, or more specifically on the complexity of the narrative—the interviewees who described series as “more complex,” or “sillier” and “routine” (less complex with familiar plots) is representative of how they perceive the narratives and how much attention is given to each one in a kind of content management. We can also see the non-human mediators that “make us do things” (Lemos, 2013, p.19) becoming an intrinsic part of our daily lives; for example, the fact that all interviewees viewed content automatically. They are encouraged to watch many episodes in a row, leading to binge watching, to an increased engagement, or to the recommender system which they reported helped them choose what content to watch. Getting notified of new content and the buzz around some series on social networks also makes people curious and gives them the sensation of having to see it as soon as possible. Since this field is in constant motion, Netflix continuously changes the system’s affordances in hopes of including new elements for users and directing this use towards maintaining structure, such as changing the classification system, which the company says helps give them the best recommendation system by allowing users to “skip series introductions,” by making trailers available in some interfaces, and so on. However, this aspect is also observable under the perspective of performance integration (Magaudda, 2011); in other words, integrating new material into pre-existing practices and ongoing changes. Overall, the streaming system and digital data, like the facility of sharing and distributing content (Burroughs, 2015) which used to be held exclusively for the “world of television” (series and film narratives) has migrated to the “world of computers” (streaming platforms), and needs other competences to deal with the platform’s technical aspects like creating profiles, cataloguing, watching multiple screens, consuming on mobile devices, etc. It strengthens or creates new meanings (the feeling of pleasure and relaxation, the love for the platform, the emptiness, and completing a binge-watching
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marathon), stimulates relationships, and alters temporal and spatial dynamics (discussions on series, binge-watching, consumption spaces, etc.). In the field of relational dynamics, as the interviewees reported, interacting with friends on social networks and messenger applications while consuming content depends on what is available. It happens in a more intense, asynchronous way; in other words, even though most users interact during the practice, they do not see any problem with continuing conversations on other screens when the content is not as attractive, and they develop competences for this behavior. Furthermore, users want to re-watch content to catch information they had missed or to remember the past (Mittel, 2011). Netflix and its content “become a talking point” and are present in the interviewees’ conversations and relationships on all levels, confirming the idea that even though consumption is individual, the social character of the platform stands out and, together with material objects, makes up layers of consumption flows and strengthens or creates new ties (as in the case of the interviewee who binge watches “together, but separately” with friends across messenger applications and chooses programs in order to “have something to talk about” with the people around her, including her boyfriend). The feeling of belonging that comes with watching content with a group or being the first one to see a show (in order to show off or avoid spoilers) permeates these relationships. The subjects interviewed for this study show a reflexive ability (Giddens, 2009) to monitor consumption of digital content and its associated practices. Most of them when asked about their routines and the time they spend watching needed some time to answer due to an “automatic behavior” in place. From the answers they gave, one can infer that the practical time (Shove, 2009); the length, sequence, and time spent consuming audiovisual content on Netflix, generally occurs when interviewees finished their regular activities (work/school, or in some cases during their breaks). Even though we cannot link any collective “convention” to this, based on the information from the interviews, this aspect appears to be consistent. According to the interviews in this study, the practice occurs at least two hours per day in most of the subjects’ routines, normally at night. An analysis of this information demonstrates that these routine relationships between practices and users create a flow of digital audiovisual consumption in the users’ routines. Streaming and the opportunities that the platform offers allow users to create rhythms and time sequences. These moments of consumption vary; in other words, they are reduced or increased depending
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on one’s daily activities. For example, when a new series is released or when they have more time off work, the need to wind down after a hard day at work, among others. According to the concept of traditional television flow (Williams, 2016), these digital flows (McCormick, 2016) have their own characteristics which can be observed in this research, such as autonomy in time sequencing, insatiability, the influence from the recommendation system, using multiple screens, and synchronous or asynchronous interaction while consuming. As the interviewees expressed, these flows are already naturalized and “watching Netflix” just becomes part of their routines; a behavior that, despite not needing any specific planning in most cases, does adopt a ritualistic character. Binge-watching represents the autonomy in this consumption flow even though it has existed longer than on-demand content platforms. Most of the interviewees confirmed that they watch a number of episodes in a row without planning to do so. This is an immersive experience that also depends on the kind of content being shown (it is also stimulated by content availability and the automatic replay system, according to the interviewees). Even though this flow involves autonomy and time sequencing, when binge-watching comes into play we need to also consider the uncontrolled time the interviewees mentioned, something that Perks (2015) says strengthens the immersion and intensity of the binge-watching experience. On the other hand, we can relate the “empty” feeling that most interviewees experienced when finishing a binge-watching marathon to the momentary absence of security—the feeling of “not knowing what to do now” which usually lasts until another series is released or until they find new content to watch. The feeling of “mission accomplished” which some interviewees mentioned to describe how the feel when they finished binge watching is connected to the practice itself and content consumption. This highlights the emotional side of the platform and the consequent exhibition of these feelings on social network profiles and the company’s official contact channels—and it is impossible to not compare it with television which, despite being a routinely used media object with a strong emotional and relational appeal, appears to not generate the same amount of intensity. Also, digital consumption flows appear to show closer relationships between users and platforms—and for the interviewees, Netflix mixes and sometimes balances emotion and engagement with the content it transmits and/or produces. Therefore, the recommendation system and algorithms become more important aspects of the Netflix system and its discourse, including producing
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content based on data collected on users’ viewing habits. The participants’ responses show they are aware of these mechanisms even though they do not understand how algorithms really work. The recommendation system has a duality to its structure, in which the human agent and the structure constantly reproduce and interact (Giddens, 2009). Netflix (as a structure) provides its users with more and more content, resulting in more viewing data used to maintain the platform’s discourse and produce and obtain more content; all of which are being constantly restructured. There are at least two flows that interconnect here: (a) the flow of continual content on Netflix with original productions and the inclusion/exclusion of library content which stimulates user engagement while they search for new content in the library. This content is often directed and acquired through advertising and company notifications of new content that will be released; and (b) user flow, which is characterized by routine, self-managed, insatiable access. Both flows are recursive because engaging in content is what determines the intensity of consumption and the length of time spent on the platform as well as attributing meanings and associated practices. The numbers of different flows are related to material aspects, important agents in determining the process as elements that enable the practice, time, spacetime and relational dynamics spread throughout the process. However, the consumption of audiovisual products on streaming platforms is a set of routine practices that make up part of a broader structure of media consumption (Ardevòl, Roig, San Cornelio, Pagés, & Alsina, 2010). In this regard, the platform plays an important role in the interviewees’ routines and consumption, and on the emotional and social dimension of its users—in relation to both available content and the presence and daily interaction with the platform which often ties into their emotions. This study also strengthens the practicality of the practical approach towards understanding digital consumption and how individuals use digital objects.
Notes 1. This text summarizes the results obtained from the study conducted for this author’s doctoral dissertation. 2. The concept, pioneered by Gibson (1977), originally consists of the relationships between the properties of an environment and the behavior of animals. This idea was adapted to numerous fields of knowledge for focusing on relationships between human beings and objects, such as design, technology and communication.
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References Ardévol, E., Roig, A., San Cornelio, G., Pagés, R., & Alsina, P. (2010). Playful practices: theorizing “new media” cultural production. In B. Bräuchler & J. Postill (Eds), Theorizing media and practice (pp. 259–280). Oxford and New York: Berghahn. Arnold, S. (2016). Netflix and the Myth of choice/participation/autonomy. In K. McDonald & D. Smith-Rowsey (Eds.), The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st Century (pp. 69–85). New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic. Bourdieu, P. (2009). O senso prático. Petrópolis: Vozes. Burroughs, B. (2015). Streaming media: Audience and industry shifts in a networked society. Ph.D. thesis, University of Iowa. Retrieved from h3p://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/1833 Castanheira, J., Polivanov, B.; & Maia, A (2016). Does code dream of stuff? Dinâmicas materiais em mídias digitais. In 25º Encontro da Associação Nacional dos Programas de Pós-Graduação em Comunicação – Compós (pp. 1–21). Proceedings. Goiânia: Compós. Retrieved from http://www.compos.org.br/bibliotecadinamicasmateriaisemmidiasdigitais_3274.pdf Christensen, T., & Røpke, I. (2010). Can practice theory inspire studies of ICTs in everyday life? In B. Bräuchler & J. Postill (Eds.), Theorizing media and practice (pp. 233–257). Oxford and New York: Berghahn. Couldry, N. (2010). Theorizing media as practice. In B. Bräuchler & J. Postill (Eds.), Theorizing media and practice (pp. 35–54). Oxford and New York: Berghahn. Elizabeth, S., Trentmann, F., & Wilk, R.(2009).Time, Consumption and Everyday Life: Practice, materiality and culture. Oxford and New York: Berghan. Giddens, A. (2009). A constituição da sociedade. São Paulo: WMF Martins Fontes. Introna, L., & Ilharco, F. (2006). The meaning of screens: Towards a phenomenological account of screenness. Human Studies, 29, 57–76. Retrieved from http://www.ucp.pt/site/resources/ documents/FCH/F%20Ilharco/c25659568qj27136%20FINAL.pdf Lemos, A. (2013). A comunicação das coisas: Teoria ator-rede e cibercultura. São Paulo: Annablume. Magaudda, P. (2011). When materiality “bites back”: Digital music consumption practices in the age of dematerialization. Journal of Consumer Culture, 11(1), 15–36. McCormick, C. (2016). “Forward is the battle cry”: Binge-viewing Netflix’s House of Cards. In K. McDonald & D. Smith-Rowsey (Eds.), The Netflix effect: Technology and entertainment in the 21st Century. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic. Mittel, J. (2011). Notes on rewatching. JustTV. Retrieved from https://justtv.wordpress. com/2011/01/27/notes-on-rewatching Montaño, S. (2015) Plataformas de vídeo: Apontamentos para uma ecologia do audiovisual da web na contemporaneidade. Porto Alegre: Sulina. Parker, G., Alstyne, M. W. Van, & Choudary, S. P. (2016). Platform revolution: How networked markets are transforming the economy and how to make them work for you. (1st ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton. Perks, L. (2015). Media marathoning: Immersions in morality. New York, NY: Lexington Books. Postill, J. (2010). Introduction: Theorizing media and Practice. In B. Bräuchler & J. Postill (Eds.), Theorizing media and practice (pp. 1–33). Oxford and New York: Berghahn.
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Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a theory of social practices: A development in culturalist theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5, 243–63. Schatzki, T. (2001). Introduction: Practice theory. In T. Schatzchi, K. Knorr Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The practice turn in contemporary theory (pp. 1–13). London: Routledge. Schatzki, T. (1996). Social practices: A Wittgensteinian approach to human activity and the social. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: Theorizing. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(2), 243–263. Shove, E. (2009). Everyday practice and the production and consumption of time. In E. Shove, F. Trentmann, & R. Wilk (Eds.), Time, consumption and everyday life: Practice, materiality and culture (pp. 67−84). Oxford: Berghan. Thrift, N. (2005). Beyond mediation: Three new material registers and their consequences. In D. Miller (Ed.), Materiality (pp. 231–255). Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Tryon, C. (2013). On-demand culture: Digital delivery and the future of movies. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Williams, R. (2016). Televisão: Tecnologia e forma cultural. São Paulo: Boitempo. Wolk, A. (2015). Over the Top: how the internet is (slowly but surely) changing the television industry. New York: CreateSpace.
Sheri Chinen Biesen is Professor of Radio, Television, and Film Studies at Rowan University and author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), and Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen (Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2018). She received her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, MA and BA at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, and has taught at USC, University of California, University of Texas, and in England. Amber M. Buck is an Assistant Professor in the Composition, Rhetoric, and English Studies program at the University of Alabama. Her research considers writing technologies, social media, and online audiences. She has published in the journals Research in the Teaching of English, Computers & Composition, and Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy and in edited collections Ubiquitous Learning; Stories That Speak to Us; Literacy in Practice; and Social Writing/Social Media. Chiara Checcaglini obtained her PhD in Sociology and Communication Studies in 2016 at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo, with a thesis about Italian online critical discourse and contemporary TV series. Her current research interests include media education, transmedia storytelling,
netflix at the nexus
contemporary serial narratives, their critical reception and their forms of distribution. She wrote several essays on these topics, and she is a contributing writer for webzines dedicated to audiovisual criticism. She authored the book Breaking Bad. La chimica del male: storia, temi, stile (Mimesis, 2014). She is an adjunct professor of Media Literacy and Transmedia Narrative at the University of Udine. Kimberly Fain is a Visiting Professor at Texas Southern University and a licensed attorney. Fain holds a JD from Thurgood Marshall School of Law, a MA from Texas Southern University, and a BA degree from Texas A&M University at College Station. Currently, she’s a Technical Communications and Rhetoric doctoral student at Texas Tech University. Her research focuses on political and visual rhetoric, African American rhetoric, and digital technologies. Lastly, Fain has published two books: Black Hollywood: From Butlers to Superheroes, the Changing Role of African American Men in the Movies (Praeger, 2015) and Colson Whitehead: The Postracial Voice of Contemporary Literature (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Jessica Ford, PhD, is an early career researcher at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Jessica is a co-founder of the Sydney Screen Studies Network—a community of screen studies scholars and researchers, and a Contributing Editor of MAI: Journal of Feminism and Visual Culture. She has published on various women-centric US television series, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bunheads, Girls and Better Things. Fabio Giglietto, PhD, is a tenure-track Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication Sciences, Humanities and International Studies at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo, where he also teaches Social Media A nalysis. His main research interests are theory of information, communication, and society with a specific focus on the relationship between social systems and new technologies. On these topics, he has published extensively in journals such as the Journal of Communication, Information, Communication and Society, the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Social Media + Society, and the International Journal of Communication. Anne Kaun is an Associate Professor in Media and Communication Studies at Södertörn University, Sweden. Her research is concerned with media and political activism and the role of technology for political participation in the current and past media ecologies. In 2016, she published her book Crisis and Critique with Zed Books. Marissa Kiss is a doctoral candidate in Public Sociology at George Mason University and a Graduate Research Assistant at the Institute for
Immigration Research at George Mason University. Her primary research interests include immigration, media studies, sports, qualitative and quantitative research methods, and statistical analysis. Luis F. Alvarez León is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College. He is a political economic geographer with research interests in the spatial, political, regulatory, and economic dimensions of the digital information economy. In particular, he is interested in examining the evolution and implications of geospatial data, media, and technologies— ranging from Google Street View to self-driving car navigation, content geotargeting, and remotely sensed satellite data. His work contributes to a geographical understanding of how information economies are spatially constituted through the geolocation, commodification and marketization of data. He received his PhD in Geography from UCLA in 2016. Daniela Varela Martínez is a Brooklyn-based communicator and researcher. Her passion for content creation and production took her to Vietnam, Sweden, Spain and Singapore, where she developed her work as a creative storyteller and writer. Her Netflix binge-watching pleasure lead her to research about viewers’ behavior with on-demand platforms, sharing her findings as a special lecturer in local universities and radio programs in Uruguay. She earned her Master of Communications, Media and Cultural Analysis degree from Södertörn University and her Bachelor of Arts from Universidad Catolica del Uruguay. She currently works as a Creative Director in Orchid Creation, and she enjoys her daily cappuccino while blogging for Bites&Kms and Medium. Ana Cabral Martins is a research assistant on the project “Portuguese Women Directors” at ICS/ University of Lisbon and has a PhD in Digital Media. Some of her recent work includes a chapter on comics and movies in the volume Visions of the Future in Comics: International Perspectives (2017) and “A Bridge and a Reminder: The Force Awakens, Between Repetition and Expansion,” published by Kinephanos—Journal of Media Studies and Popular Culture (June 2018). Annette Markham is a communication scholar who researches how people interpret and use digital technologies, how the sociotechnical systems surrounding us influence how we make sense of our selves and our social world, and how we might create better ethical futures through speculative thinking. She has conducted ground-breaking sociological studies of how people make sense of digital tech, well represented in her first book, Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space (AltaMira, 1998).
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She writes frequently about the intersection of methods and ethics and is well known for her innovation in both areas. Annette is Professor of Information Studies and Digital Design at Aarhus University and Affiliate Professor of Digital Ethics at Loyola University, Chicago. She earned a PhD in communication studies from Purdue University in 1997. More information at www.annettemarkham.com. Giada Marino is a PhD candidate in Sociology of Communication at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo. She is mainly interested in audience studies and social media platforms usage, with specific reference to social networks sites affordances and user behaviors. She has contributed in a junior research assistant position to several academic research projects, such as News-Italia Observatory and Mapping Italian News Media Political Coverage in the Lead-up of 2018 General Election, and in a teaching assistant position to the Social Media Analysis class at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo. Lella Mazzoli is a Full Professor of Sociology of Communication in the Department of Communication at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo where she was Dean of Faculty of Sociology and Head of the Communication Department. Currently, she is the director of the Journalism Institute, founder and director of LaRiCA (Laboratory for the Research on Advanced Communication), and Director of National Observatory News-Italia. She deals with research and analysis of communication within different contexts: technological communication, new media, different forms of cultural consumption. Recent publications: Cross-news. L’informazione dai talk show ai social media (Codice Edizioni, 2013); Patchwork mediale. Comunicazione e informazione fra media tradizionali e media digitali (FrancoAngeli, 2017). Theo Plothe is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Savannah State University. His work considers the materiality of digital media, especially social media, digital gaming, and remix culture. He has published in the journals G|A|M|E, Kinephanos, and the edited collections Video Game Policy, Digital Football Cultures, and Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games. Briana L. Pocratsky is a doctoral candidate in Public Sociology at George Mason University. Her research focuses on popular culture, youth, and sociology of everyday life. She is the managing editor of The Sociologist, an open access magazine of public sociology. Gabriele Prosperi is a PhD candidate in Human Sciences at the University of Ferrara, Italy. His research interests include the diffusion of cinema
and television products on the web, the relationships between formal and informal distribution, and the new forms of audiovisual communications. His career also includes collaborations as a TA for the Department of Visual, performance and media arts of the University of Bologna, as a TV analyst for the Italian broadcaster Mediaset—RTI, in collaboration with the University Sacro Cuore of Milan, and as a TV analyst for the French agency of television audience measurement Médiamètrie—Eurodata TV. Oranit Klein Shagrir is a senior lecturer at Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem and a course coordinator at the Open University of Israel. Prior to her academic career, she worked for the Israeli public television in various production roles. Her book Para-Interactivity and The Appeal of TV in the Digital Age (2017) was published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Max Schlüter is a Research Assistant and Master Student of Information Studies, Digital Living at Aarhus University, Denmark. His research interests revolve around critically investigating everyday digital practices in order to unveil power relations and bring attention to precarious human conditions. Maximilian currently holds a BA in Digital Media and E-Business from the Leuphana University, Lüneburg, Germany. Jason A. Smith is a recent doctoral graduate in Public Sociology at George Mason University whose research centers on the areas of race, institutions, and media studies. His dissertation examines the Federal Communications Commission and policy decisions regarding diversity for communities of color and women in the media landscape. Previous research has appeared in the Journal of Black Studies, the International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, Studies in Media & Communication, and Ethnic & Racial Studies. He is a co-editor of the volume Race and Contention in Twenty-first Century US Media (Routledge, 2016). Additionally, he has coedited special sections and issues in journals such as the International Journal of Communication (2015) and Information, Communication & Society (2018). He is on Twitter occasionally (@jasonsm55). Simona Stavrova is a researcher of information studies and digital culture. Her research focuses on how identity practices are constrained and enabled by digital platforms, algorithms and other structural aspects of the internet. Simona is currently working in global digital marketing in the corporate sector. She received an MSc in Information Studies and an MA in international business communication from Aarhus University, Denmark. Christian Rafael Suero is a doctoral student in Public Sociology and a Resident Director at George Mason University. His primary research interests
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include sociology of education, inequality, first-generation college students, as well as research methods and design. Vanessa Amália D. Valiati has a doctorate in Communication and Information (UFRGS), with a master’s degree in Social Communication (PUCRS) and specialization in Culture Economy (UFRGS). She works as a Professor in Journalism, Advertising and Audiovisual Production at Feevale University (Novo Hamburgo/RS/Brazil), where she is also the academic coordinator of the lato-sensu postgraduate course in Digital Content Production and Management and collaborates with the Laboratory of Creativity. She is a member of the Laboratory of Computer-Mediated Interaction (LIMC/UFRGS) and participates in the Observatory of Creative Economy (OBEC-RS). Her research areas include digital consumption, creative content, creative industries, and audiences. Jana Zündel earned her BA from Bauhaus University in Weimar, and MA in Media Studies at the University of Bonn. She currently works as a research fellow at Bonn University. Her dissertation deals with side phenomena of television series as symptoms of diversified television. Recent publications: Der Wandel des Fernsehens im Spiegel des Serienintros [The transformation of television as reflected in serial intros]. Montage AV 27(2), 2018 (forthcoming); Netflix und die Remediatisierung des Fernsehens auf Streaming-Plattformen [Netflix and the remediation of television on streaming platforms]. Montage AV 26(1), 2017 pp. 29−43.
mented and much debated in the popular press and in academic circles as an industry disrupter, while also blamed for ending TV’s “Golden Age.” For academic researchers, Netflix exists at the nexus of multiple fields: internet research, information studies, media studies, and television and has an impact on the creation of culture and how individuals relate to the media they consume. Netflix at the Nexus examines Netflix’s broad impact on technology and television from multiple perspectives, including the interface, the content, and user experiences. Chapters by leading international scholars in television and internet studies provide a transnational perspective on Netflix’s changing role in the media landscape. As a whole, this collection provides a comprehensive consideration of the impact of streaming television.
NETFLIX AT THE NEXUS
Netflix’s meteoric rise as an online content provider has been well docu-
Content, Practice, and Production in the Age of Streaming Television
Theo Plothe is Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at Savannah State University. He received a PhD in comin G|A|M|E and Kinephanos Journal. Amber M. Buck is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alabama. She received a PhD in English and writing studies from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and her work has been published in Research in the Teaching of English and Computers and Composition.
Edited by Plothe & Buck
munication from American University, and his work has been published
Cover design by Ming Lee
Edited by Theo Plothe & Amber M. Buck