movies TV

Never unintentional: my brain on linear TV vs. Netflix

<!––>We typically spend the late-year holidays visiting my in-law’s home in Pennsylvania. It’s a welcome downshift from our usual, frantic pace. On many of these visits, I’ve watched more traditional, linear-programmed cable TV in one long weekend than I have in the rest of the year combined.

There’s a warm, zombified state that settles in after so watching many Property Brothers episodes. My body falls into sleepy hibernation, lying motionless on the couch for hours on end. My metabolism enters ‘slow burn’ mode, expecting a steady stream of pumpkin pie and sugar cookies. And my brain quiets, barely registering when one hour of bad TV bleeds into the next. The day rolls by.

However, in more recent holiday seasons, these cable TV binges have grown less frequent, for at least two reasons. First, we have a daughter now, and she prefers that her parents be play partners, rather than comatose couch potatoes.

Another reason I don’t binge on cable quite as often? The internet has fundamentally changed my relationship to content, and it’s hard to go back. I’ve grown accustomed to programming my own playlists, and I’ve grown resistant to “choice-less” consumption.

This change isn’t just about Netflix versus cable. Terrestrial radio’s bland playlists and brash commercials also turn me off; give me my podcasts instead. The satellite TV feeds offered on my recent cross-country flights didn’t tempt me in the slightest. I turned to my phone instead, which was chock-full of favorite vlogs, TV series, and movies. Even magazines bore me; why read fluffed-up filler, when I can hand-pick the best of the web?

There’s a huge difference in mindset for these two consumption methods. One, the traditional model, makes me passive and powerless. Someone else steers the ship, and I get sucked into its current. Linear TV puts me at the mercy of the least common denominator; I unintentionally wind up watching formulaic, overproduced reality TV.

In contrast, the internet makes content consumption more purposeful. I watch shows that I actually want to watch. I gravitate to shows with great writing and production values: content that delights me, thrills me, or makes me think. And when a show is bad? I’m just engaged enough that I don’t keep watching mindlessly. Instead I’ll switch and watch watch something else. Or I’ll turn off the gadgets and (gasp!) actually head outside.

(I still bring along the cookies.) ■

apple TV

Does ‘Planet of the Apps’ mean that Apple is bad at producing TV?

On a recent episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber argued that Apple’s potential as a TV content producer shouldn’t be judged by its first two (underwhelming) efforts, Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke. “What was Netflix’s first show?” he asked, “No one fucking remembers, right?”

On the one hand, citing Netflix undermines Gruber’s argument. Netflix’s first original series was House of Cards, whose excellent first season premiered to universal acclaim. Weighed against that show, Planet of the Apps comes up wanting. Apple’s reality show debut hasn’t attracted enough critical attention to be scored by Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, but those reviewers who bothered to weigh in panned the show.

On the other hand, there is precedent for a streaming service achieving success after mediocre first efforts at original content. Hulu’s first few web-only shows generated hardly a ripple of interest. But The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian drama from Hulu that debuted earlier this year, just won the Emmy for best drama series—the first and only streaming series to win that honor.

Presumably, Apple’s hoping to follow in Hulu’s footsteps. First, produce a few low-budget, under-the-radar web series. Then, once you’ve debugged the content production assembly line, hire more proven talent and pump in the cash. Time will tell whether Planet of the Apps has primed the pump for Apple’s future television success.

For comparison’s sake, here are the Metacritic scores for several streaming services’ first original series:

Company First original streaming series Premiere First season Metacritic rating
Hulu If I Can Dream March 2010 N/A
Netflix House of Cards February 2013 76
Amazon Betas April 2013 69
CBS All Access The Good Fight February 2017 80
Apple Planet of the Apps June 2017 N/A

internet TV

Letterman’s moving to Netflix. Who’s next?

From a Netflix press release:

“David Letterman, the longest-serving host in U.S. late night television – the original host of Late Night (NBC) and The Late Show (CBS) – is returning to television for a new series for Netflix.

The yet-to-be-named, six-episode series has Letterman combining two interests for which he is renowned: in-depth conversations with extraordinary people, and in-the-field segments expressing his curiosity and humor.”

This makes sense. Letterman has occasionally expressed admiration for Jerry Seinfeld’s highly successful web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which recently announced its own transition to Netflix).

Conan should have gone online-only when NBC fired him back in 2010.

So… comedians are leading the Internet TV charge. One other star I’d like to see join the fray? Conan O’Brien, who should have gone online-only when NBC fired him back in 2010. Instead, he transplanted his network show to basic cable, where he continues to rehearse the tired late-night talk show model. But his absurd, amazing remote bits would work well as a standalone short-form web series. ■


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Streaming TV wins—except on Thanksgiving.

Like many millennials, I don’t subscribe to traditional TV. Cable companies overcharge for an inferior, viewer-hostile product. Once you get used to streaming, you can’t go back to TV’s linear air times, limited programming options, and endless sponsor breaks.

… Except during Thanksgiving. Combine extra vacation time with an extended family’s varied tastes, and streaming has some downsides. Its chief appeal—the ability to choose—suddenly becomes a burden. The tribe gathers around TV’s warm, glowing, warming glow, then spends twenty frustrating minutes browsing Netflix. You scroll hopelessly past shows recommended for you—but not for Grandma Marigold. If someone proposes a program, stubborn vetoes and frustrated groans arise from all corners. Some family members play the passive-aggressive card (“Oh, that movie? Well, I can always go in the other room”). Eventually, the feuding factions brook a compromise: a movie everyone can stomach but no one really likes.

Contrast that to cable, where there are fewer disagreements and no tough decisions. The entire family knows that the shows are trash. Everyone resigns themselves to low-quality entertainment: faux-“reality” TV, bastardized movie edits, over-sponsored sports.

There’s something nice about traditional TV’s limitations. One hour flows seamlessly into the next—often, another episode of the same show. Your brain shuts down, and you table your worries: the dead-end job, the mortgage payment, your lonely social life. TV doesn’t make you feel good, exactly, but it drowns out the bad thoughts. A wired, buzzy sensation sets in; it’s—not happiness, exactly, but close. Combine TV with a steady intake of holiday leftovers, and the experience is kind of wonderful.

Kind of. Eventually, your Thanksgiving bender ends, and the hangover sets in. Your head feels hollow. Your eyes ache. You look back in horror at what you’ve done (“I wasted four days watching Property Brothers?!”). Ashamed, you swear never to binge on TV ever again.

But don’t kid yourself. Christmas break is coming, and that 72-hour Mythbusters marathon ain’t gonna watch itself.

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Netflix credits-skipping

Netflix makes it easy to binge. By auto-playing the next episode, and by stripping out the commercial breaks, the streaming service removes the interruptions that typically prompt you to get a snack or go to bed.

But there’s still one vestige of broadcast TV that invites you to stop watching: interminable opening credits sequences. Star Trek’s theme song is retro-catchy the first ten times. After that, it’s tedious and irritating. Or consider House of Cards, whose melancholy opening sequence lasts nearly two full minutes(!). There’s only so many times I can watch those DC time lapses.

So why can’t Netflix automatically skip these opening titles for me? Assign an intern to flag the start and finish of each episode’s credits sequence. Then offer users a preference in settings: always skip credits, never skip, or skip after the first five episodes.

Maybe Netflix’s license agreements prevent them from showing modified versions of the shows. If so, its brokers should negotiate less user-hostile deals. And that explanation wouldn’t apply to Netflix’s own in-house programs, right? As I mentioned above, House of Cards is the chief long-credits offender!

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When will home theaters kill the multiplex?

Year by year, the gap between home theaters and the local multiplex narrows. You can buy an impressive big-screen TV and a kick-ass speaker system for less than $2000. Even an entry-level system (i.e. <$1000) compares favorably to your local cinema. Toss in a comfy couch or a few recliners, and you’ve essentially duplicated an evening at the marquee.

Now, many theater operators contend that “authentic” movie-watching can’t happen at home:

There’s something magical (we’re told) about the “shared experience” of the movie theater. This is bunk. We don’t like “sharing the experience” with strangers. We sit as far as possible from each other. We don’t interact with our neighbors, unless we’re giving them the stink-eye for whispering or texting. We’d gladly forgo this communal “experience” in favor of some peace and quiet.

Or theater-owners will gush about their superior technology. Sure, your local multiplex has 3D, but who really likes the crummy effect or its irritating glasses? It’s the same story with surround sound, rumbling seats, smell-o-vision, and the like. Technological gimmicks don’t significantly improve the experience over your own living room. Even the cinema’s huge, “immersive” screen falls short. At home, you sit closer to the display; your HDTV seems plenty big, relative to your field of view.

Plus, there are other perks to staying home. There, you sit in your own favorite chair—which has never been soaked in Diet Cherry Coke or toddler urine. Your feet won’t stick to the floors, and you won’t find chewed gum under your armrest. At home, you can pause the film any time you like—to take a bathroom break or to explain the plot to your husband. Your pantry’s snacks don’t come with a 300% mark-up, and you can stock your favorite guilty pleasures. There’s no thirty-minute ad loop pre-roll. Finally, those noisy, mallrat teenagers who spoil the show? They’re not allowed inside your living room (well, unless they’re your noisy mallrats).

If the home viewing experience already beats the multiplex, why do we keep going? Three words: artificial release dates. Theaters have exclusive rights over the big tentpole movies for months, and we’re too impatient to wait for the Blu-Ray release.

But how long can this release date cycle last, in an on-demand media world? Netflix already debuts entire TV seasons, all at once (e.g. House of Cards, Arrested Development). Why not release feature-length, big-budget films, directly to consumers?[1] The documentary industry already operates this way. Is it really that far-fetched to imagine other genres going the same route? How long can the film industry refuse to give us what we want: a night “at the movies”—at home?

UPDATE: Disney just made its hit animated feature Frozen available via iTunes. This, less than three months after the film’s box office debut—and before the movie even leaves the theaters. Signs of progress?

  1. What if new releases cost more to rent? The studios could charge $50 or $100 to stream a blockbuster at home. Invite a few friends over and ask them to chip in. It wouldn’t take many guests to beat the multiplex’s per-ticket price.  ↩
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Why video piracy won’t die.

These days, piracy is king. Anyone with basic Internet skills, a broadband connection, and a low-end PC can watch every TV show and movie ever produced. Hours after a new episode premieres, it’s uploaded to a dozen different services that allow instant playback. Even live sports streams aren’t hard to find.

Of course, content producers try to shut down these streaming sites. They lobby the feds to seize pirates’ domain names. They petition Google to remove links to the unsanctioned content.

But piracy prevention often seems like Whack-A-Mole. Shut down one site, and it resurrects itself the next day under new branding. Similarly, you can excise the Google links, but Google isn’t the only way to browse the web. Finally, the more “traditional” piracy options—Usenet and torrents, for example—continue to thrive. Video piracy just won’t die.

In some ways, today’s Internet TV mess resembles the music landscape, circa 2000. Back then, Napster and Kazaa made it simple to download entire music catalogs. And once music fans grew accustomed to downloading MP3s, they refused to return to the studios’ lucrative $18-per-CD business model. Napster had opened Pandora’s box, and the damage couldn’t be undone.

Eventually, the piracy problem forced the music studios to cut distribution deals with Apple. They made every album and every track available for purchase, legitimately, through a single vendor. Sales soared. iTunes’ success proved that customers would pay for reasonably-priced, conveniently-available digital content. Eventually, new business models—including paid streaming services like Spotify—began to surface.

Is the music industry as profitable as it was twenty years ago? No. But it’s far better off than it would have been, had the studios stubbornly refused to adapt.

Video content-makers must adapt, as well. Customers want a legitimate alternative to illegal streaming, and the studios haven’t provided one. The average viewer hates the recent trend of requiring a cable contract to stream shows online. And nobody likes hunting for a particular show across a dozen different online services (e.g. Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, etc.), each with a different catalog.

Why can’t TV and movie studios give their customers what they want? One easy-to-use, on-demand service for all the content ever produced. Every movie ever filmed. Every TV show, from the smash hit to the obscure cult favorite. And every game from every sport, broadcast live.

Customers would gladly pay for such a service. If one company offered viewers all the content, instantly and reliably, viewers would abandon their illegal streams and fork over a fat monthly subscription.[1]

Of course, this is naive. Content deals are notoriously difficult, and no one service can negotiate with every studio. But until paying for content is at least as easy as stealing it, video piracy will live on.

  1. After all, very few consumers want to pirate. It’s dangerous, for one thing; if the studios catch you torrenting, you may face a hefty lawsuit. And streaming is unpleasant, since it forces you to wade through malware-infested, ad-plastered scam sites.  ↩

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Netflix, our hero!

The telcos are doubly damned.

On the one hand, American telecommunications companies continue to hold back TV’s natural evolution. Television service hasn’t improved for decades. To watch your favorite programs, you still have to buy overpriced packages of channels you hate. Even now, when pervasive broadband invites infinite distribution alternatives, the telcos ruthlessly stymie innovation and strong-arm content providers into antiquated deals.[1]

On the other hand, the telcos seem intent on breaking the Internet. Verizon recently won a court case against the FCC, invalidating rules that prevented ISPs from discriminating against traffic. Net neutrality—so key to free speech and healthy competition—is now on death watch. And because telcos own local monopolies in so many markets, Americans may have no choice but to accept it. We’ll pay whatever the ISP demands, accept whatever speeds are available, and put up with whatever crippled version of the Internet they deign to offer.

One company is uniquely impacted by both telco sins. Netflix, the one-time DVD-by-mail startup and current king of streaming video, has a stake in both TV’s evolution and net neutrality.

On the one hand, Netflix represents the future of television. Watch what you want, when you want it, at one low price. Give your customer a simple, intuitive interface, available on any device, anywhere in the world. Just compare Netflix’s clean design to your cable box’s tangled, unresponsive, janky mess of a menu.

Of course, Netflix depends on content providers who sit under the telcos’ thumb. At any time, the streaming service could lose its content deals, leaving behind a wasteland of straight-to-DVD movies and outdated TV shows.

That’s why it’s so important that Netflix develop its own content. House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Arrested Development aren’t just fun side-projects. They represent Netflix’s future and the future of TV. Let the telcos lock down traditional programming. It won’t matter, if you produce original shows that the viewers adore.

Netflix also stands to be victimized by the second ISP sin: hobbling the Internet. Netflix currently accounts for a huge chunk of U.S. Internet traffic. If the telcos target anyone for “traffic shaping,” they’ll target Netflix. Imagine a world where Verizon slows Netflix to a crawl (“Buffering… buffering…”), but lets its own streaming service scream through the pipes.

That’s why Netflix has already taken a preemptive, offensive stance against traffic shaping. Soon after the FCC lost its net neutrality case against Verizon, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings posted a strongly-worded letter to investors. He vowed to fight any attempt by the ISPs to slow down Internet video. In response, Hastings warned, Netflix would “vigorously protest and encourage our members to demand the open Internet.” Want to see someone get angry? Interrupt their Breaking Bad binge.

American telcos own the infrastructure that links us to the wider Internet. But they don’t own the Internet itself. They can’t hold back new TV business models forever. They can’t escape the fact that their customers just want a big, fat, wide-open connection to the wider network. Hopefully, the telcos accept their “dumb pipe” destiny quietly. But if they can’t (or won’t), let’s hope that Netflix flexes its muscles.

  1. And even when the content companies do stream online, they often require a cable or satellite subscription. In other words, they’re scared of losing their lucrative telco contracts.  ↩

TV Uncategorized

How TV’s renewal / cancellation cycle hobbles great shows

TV’s annual, stop-and-start production schedule hobbles its best shows. Because a programs’s creators never know how many seasons they’ll get, they must pace themselves for a race that could end at any moment. Some plot lines get rushed, as the writers scramble to tell it in the current season. Others arcs get stretched to absurdity, as the writers try to delay the choicest bits ’til the series finale.

For example, Parks and Recreation, network TV’s smartest sitcom, flirts with cancellation every spring. Because the writers don’t know whether they’ll get more time to tell the story, every season ends with a finale satisfying enough to close out the entire series. This approach works, but it’s hardly ideal.

Conversely, when showrunners know their series’ precise lifespan, they can do some remarkable things. Take LOST, for example. By its third season, the sci-fi mystery had floundered, spinning its wheels. The writers just weren’t sure how long they’d be on the air. But once ABC agreed to grant the show exactly six full seasons, things came together nicely. Those final seasons, though alternately absurd and schmaltzy, had a certain satisfying rhythm.

Now, imagine if LOST‘s creative heads knew they’d get six seasons, even before the pilot aired? They might have woven the series’ mythology more tightly. Big payoffs could have been set up in season one, then finally cashed in during the last few episodes.

Instead, all shows—even ones that are expected to be hits—walk on thin ice. They opt for short-term, intra-season thrills, instead of mind-blowing, series-long plot arcs.

Fortunately for viewers, there are signs that this production model has started to give way. Streaming services like Netflix allow shows to build audiences over time (instead of following the studios’ impatient schedules). As Andrew Wallenstein points out, Netflix helped catapult Breaking Bad from cult favorite to ratings juggernaut, years after that show’s premiere.

Maybe the studio suits will agree to loosen the leash for other shows—guaranteeing them time to tell their stories well.

TV Uncategorized

Parks and Rec: the rewards (and perils) of a fleshed-out sitcom world

NBC’s Parks and Recreation goes out of its way to create a consistent fictional world, with recurring characters and odd local lore. For example, Li’l Sebastian, the beloved mini-horse of Pawnee, Indiana, doesn’t just headline a single funny episode. He comes up again and again, even after his untimely death. He’s the star of the town’s Harvest Festival; his demise is mourned in an elaborate town-wide memorial service. The next season, one character gives another a Li’l Sebastian plush toy. Years afterward, the parks department plans a memorial fountain in the tiny equine’s honor.

Recurrent guest stars also contribute to Parks and Rec’s faux-realism. Take the town’s local media personalities, for example. Rather than just substitute in a generic reporter every time the plot calls for it, the show takes pains to bring back Perd Hapley, Joan Callamezzo, and Shauna Malway-Tweep, familiar local celebrities (each with their own quirks).

A third example of the show’s fleshed-out imaginary world: Pawnee’s Town Hall is decorated with murals depicting famous scenes from hometown history. Unfortunately, most of these historic episodes are grotesque, shameful, and, therefore, hilarious. For example, one wall-sized masterpiece portrays a traveling magician (and his rabbit) being burned at the stake for witchcraft… in 1973. The murals typically get introduced in a single episode, but as set decoration, they appear again and again as backdrop to scenes set in City Hall.

This self-referential approach gives the show (at least the illusion of) depth, and rewards those fans who pay close enough attention to pick up on the recurring jokes. Not coincidentally, then, the show has earned a dedicated (if small) cult following. And it’s in good company; 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and The Simpsons have colored in their own fictional worlds; all three shows enjoy a devoted horde of fans.

There’s a danger to this self-referential approach, however. Layer things too deeply, and your show becomes too obtuse to approach. If a channel-surfer can’t decipher a show’s call-backs and inside jokes, she’s likely to keep on flipping. Shallow, “jokey” sitcoms like Big Bang Theory (which has often shared a timeslot with Parks and Rec) set a far lower bar for entry. Not surprisingly, then, Parks and Rec has flirted with cancellation every spring. The similarly heady Arrested Development got canned after three short seasons.[1]

On the other hand, maybe shows can afford to challenge their viewers these days. The broadcast model, which encouraged episodic plot lines and broad accessibility, is dying. The Netflix era has arrived. Now, an individual episode serves as the bait; capture the new viewer’s attention, then get them to gorge, binging on entire seasons at a time. Before long, they’ve seen every episode, and you’ve added one more cult member, humming along to “5000 Candles in the Wind” (a Li’l Sebastian tribute), or craning their heads to take in Pawnee’s magnificent murals.

  1. Arrested Development doubled down on inscrutability with Season 4, recently released via Netflix. Even devotees of the show have had trouble following the tightly-knotted plot.  ↩