Pitching to Netflix: The Poetics of Bingewatching
I n her dissertation, Casey McCormick quotes Ted Sarandos who “praises the unique possibilities afforded to the writers of Netflix original series, such as the lack of a need for recaps or forced cliffhangers: ‘[Y]ou really do get more storytelling, more richness.’”
Netflix’s interface, and its “encouraged mode of” bingewatching, offers a flexible format for narratives to unfold at their own pace, which allows for slower expositions and deeper character developments. For example, Beau Willimon considers House of Cards a “13-hour movie.” Willimon explains,
“On a lot of other shows, you have to play the ratings game. Even great shows in the first half of their first seasons may implement these artificial cliffhangers to keep people coming back because they’re fighting for their survival. […] Our hope was people would want to immediately watch the next episode, not because we instituted some sort of superficial cliffhanger, but because they’re so invested in the complex story and characters, that’s what draws them back.”
In the series I am pitching, I explore how Netflix poetics influence the crafting of a narrative. The breaks between episodes are less marked than in primetime serials, and the episodes follow a looser structure than the poetics of broadcasted television.
The Flexibility of Netflix Poetics: The Viewer’s Choice to Engage
Netflix originals go from sitcoms like Grace and Frankie to reboots, to the docu-series Making a Murderer, and animated shows like BoJack Horseman.
Within these different formats, Netflix features genres such as political drama (House of Cards), superhero (Jessica Jones, Daredevil), science-fiction (Sense8), crime drama (Narcos), and thrillers (Bloodline).
Most importantly, these series’ episodes vary in length. Within House of Cards, episodes last between 46–58 minutes, while for Orange is the New Black, they are between 51–92 minutes. Likewise, broadcasted sitcoms are a standard 22 minutes due to commercial breaks, whereas Netflix’s sitcoms go from 23–36 minutes.
Netflix’s interface prioritizes bingewatching. By making full seasons directly available on their platform, viewers aren’t limited to a weekly television programming, which gives them complete control over when they watch, and how much they watch. This means the length of episodes don’t matter because viewers are creating their own continuous flow.
As Michael Z. Newman states, “Television is a story machine” that relies on “a poetics of television form” revolving around commercial breaks to shape narratives. On the other hand, because of their format’s reliance on bingewatching, Netflix originals offer a new mode of storytelling, and develop their own set of poetics.
Commercial breaks structure prime time serials as their interruption of the flow of content translates into curtains on the narrative level. According to Newman, “its curtains function to rivet the audience on the screen.” Netflix poetics don’t need to rely on curtains as heavily because their ability to rivet audiences is inherent in the practice of binge-watching. Netflix poetics consequently follow a loose act structure, which softens the pattern of beats and curtains within episodes. “Following a narrative is a process of accumulating information,” and binge-watching offers a greater access to this process, thus increasing viewers’ engagement.
Beyond Sight: Synopsis, Trailer, and the Interface of Netflix Poetics
In the 1960s, the wife of a lowly mob member decides to run off with her friend after losing her sight in a car crash. As they set out on a road trip to escape their past lives, they must adapt to survive in a world with no rules.
M y pitch to Netflix draws from its poetics of storytelling to build a strong foundational exposition, and develop a close bond between viewers and characters. As Newman argues, “Watching on a binge intensifies the continuity of character arcs.” Netflix poetics increase the investment in characters by slowing down their arc. For example, it isn’t until the fourth episode of Beyond Sight that its protagonists decide to run away despite the fact that it is the premise of the season.
The series follows the succession of choices its heroines, Daphne and Frances, make. Their progressive transgression of moral (and legal) boundaries increases the stakes and viewers’ immersion in the narrative.
The series starts when Daphne, who is married to a low-ranking launderer, is involved in a car accident. At the hospital, her husband Mick admits he staged the hit-and-run to punish her for trying to leave him. Daphne must come to terms with this revelation or face more abuse. Her husband then hires a woman, Frances, to care after her as she adjusts to her blindness. Mick’s ulterior objective is for Frances to have Daphne confide in her, and report back to him.
Far from being defeated by her loss of sight, Daphne seeks to use it as an advantage. She relentlessly challenges herself to navigate in new environments. During this time, Frances and her develop a close friendship. Their decision to leave their lives behind marks a turning point in the first season. After scheming to steal from Mick, they spiral in a fugitive lifestyle that spans over the second half of the season.
The season slowly builds its narrative by establishing the backstory of each character and their dynamics. Similarly to the original series Love, the first few episodes of Beyond Sight work with bingewatching to gradually expose the action while increasing viewers’ investment. Its first three episodes could be considered the three acts of a single prime time serial episode. The steady progression encourages viewers to watch more in a shorter time period. Netflix poetics thus solidify episodes into one continuous experience. According to McCormick, “Bingeviewing changes the stakes of narrative engagement by reframing the temporality of viewing experiences to optimize emotional intensity and story immersion.”
In addition, while cable networks offer deals based on the pilot, Netflix buys the rights to an entire season or more. Because of this, its series are thought-out and constructed on a long term basis. The trailer I made to pitch the show covers content from its first two seasons, and is consequently longer than standard trailers. I also used several songs that change the pace of the trailer itself and go from varying levels of intensity to show the trailer’s own flexible poetics.
To illustrate the pace of the narrative, and to give Netflix an idea of what the series would entail in the long run, I wrote short blurbs for the first two seasons. These blurbs not only exemplify Beyond Sight’s overall poetics and the construction of its narrative world, but also gave me the opportunity to represent how the series would appear in Netflix’s interface. For McCormick, “Narrative structures and digital interfaces combine to create binge experiences.” The instantaneous access Netflix provides is thus directly represented at the level of its interface.
Netflix poetics establish a complex narrative that unfolds on a longer span while condensing it within the process of binge-watching. As a result, viewers are more engaged in thematic parallels and character arcs without needing as much emphasis on suspense, closure, and recapping as prime time serials.
McCormick, Casey. “‘Forward is the Battle Cry’: Binge-Viewing Netflix’s House of Cards.” The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century. Ed. Kevin McDonald, Daniel Smith-Rowsey. Bloomsbury Academic (forthcoming).
Jenner, Mareike. “Is This TVIV? On Netflix, TVIII and Binge-watching.” New Media & Society 18.2 (2014): 257–73. Sage Journals. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
Newman, Michael Z. “From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative.” The Velvet Light Trap 58.1 (2006): 16–28. Project MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP]. Web. 29 Jan. 2016.