Over the weekend, Netflix unfurled another great show. I would love to chat with you about it, but we — all of us, this sprawling TV-watching nation — have implicitly signed the same secret pact: #nospoilers.
Here is what I can say: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the newest vessel of glee from Tina Fey, is a remarkable bit of programming— a clever traditional comedy in an era when clever traditional comedies are scarce. Also, it stars the delightful Ellie Kemper. What else? Um… there are 13 half-hour episodes.
But now, I must stop talking. If I say anything more, the spoiler pact would be broken, and only those few who have watched the entire season would continue reading. At that point, this treatise would become a recap — an ugly word for these confusing times.
House of Cards is an even more volatile situation. The new season of that enthralling series has been available for nearly two weeks, but no one dares speak of its plot details on Twitter. Trust me: You will need to enter the witness protection program if you mention that Claire Underwood is now the sitting vice president of Russia.
Haha — not even true!
But you see the problem: We can’t talk about buzzy Netflix shows because our schedules are out of sync. The rough expectations for knowing if your friends are on episode 12 or episode 1 have been destroyed. Netflix thinks it has performed a noble act by releasing the entire season en masse, but it has actually wreaked havoc on the best part of television: talking about television.
We have seen this happen before: In attempting to fix something, technology actually broke something. Netflix broke the unbreakable social rules for how we talk about television in the age of social media.
The Great Spoiler War of 2010
This is not the first time a broken viewing window has sparked conflict. Back in the aughts, we survived a similar crisis, when two cultural events coincided:
- The quality of television programming suddenly got much better.
- The conversations around television exploded on social media.
The collision of these trends triggered a nuclear reaction — a pop culture fission, spewing immense heat. People got very, very serious about The Spoiler Alert.
The burgeoning recap society, in particular, was put under immense scrutiny. The fracas reached peak intensity when The New York Times revealed the plot details of unaired episodes of Mad Men. Fans of the show were outraged. It was bad — so bad, the critic was exiled deep into the Highbrow / Despicable quadrant. The worst quadrant!
Meanwhile, critics were mounting their own backlash to the backlash.
And then, after much fright, the dust settled. We found peace.
We pulled back from the brink through negotiation. Tensions eased as the rules were defined: Any commentary about last night’s episode must be clearly identified. SPOILER ALERT labels bore the sanctity of the Geneva Convention as sites like Vulture, Gawker, CollegeHumor, and EW published Spoiler Etiquette Guides.
Finally, after years of strife, the digital hazmat suits came off: We could once again talk about television on Twitter without mutually ensuring annihilation. We figured it out! Détente!
But then came the binge.
A New Foe: The Binge
At first, new television distribution platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu were just that — distribution. They made it easy to watch shows that already aired. (No one freaked out if you live-Tweeted season seven of Hill Street Blues.)
The problems arose when those platforms started to develop their own programming. The new shows were quite good, but they weren’t that different from what you might find on HBO or NBC. So, as startups are wont to do, they devised ways to distance themselves from the past. The boardroom chatter is easy to image:
How do we differentiate ourselves?, a shiny suit at Netflix probably asked.
Let’s just release all the episodes at once!, another suit offered.
Genius! People will love it!, the room cheered. To be fair, it probably seemed like a good idea.
It is not a good idea and people do not love it. Breaking the schedule broke how we talk about television. Television writers and recappers, in particular, are flummoxed about how to publish their writing — all at once? in groups of episodes? at all?
If no one can talk about House of Cards, did it even happen?
Amazon: The Prime Problem
Imagine being given the first episode of LOST before anyone else. After watching the plane crash onto a deserted island, you were told to stop. You can’t watch more — not now, maybe someday, but most likely never.
That’s how Amazon’s pilot program works. One episode of a new show is produced, plopped online, and voted on. If it gets enough votes, Amazon makes more of the show. If not, you just wasted your time.
It is immensely irritating.
Last summer, for instance, Amazon released the pilot to The Cosmopolitans, created by the revered director Whit Stillman. The episode is good — it will instantly rekindle your love for the characters he created in films like Barcelona, Metropolitan, and The Last Days of Disco.
But should you go watch it? I certainly won’t tell you to! There is only one episode — and it remains unclear if more will ever be made. Why waste your time on something that’s incomplete? It’s like being shown a movie trailer to a movie you can’t watch.
Again, a shiny suit probably devised this pernicious idea. A “crowd-sourced focus group” sounds like the brainchild of a fresh-faced MBA who thinks he’s disrupting Hollywood. But he merely created a new frustration.
The best example: Amazon Prime recently released the pilot to The Man in the High Castle, based on the Philip K. Dick novel. It’s very good — so good that Amazon has decided to finance a full season. But you don’t get to watch the full season until 2016. I shouldn’t even be telling you about a show that you can’t watch for a year, but that’s the unfortunate situation that Amazon has created. And by the time that you can watch the show, I will have forgotten to tell you. It’s a lose-lose game.
If Netflix broke the old system, Amazon smashed the remaining pieces to bits.
A New Treaty: A Modest Proposal
In attempting to fix an outdated system (the weekly release calendar), technology has created a new problem (silencing discussion). But surely, we can solve this dilemma.
First, let’s concede this: No one wants to return to television’s paleolithic age, when episodes were released on a weekly schedule. That is an unnecessary device of torture.
So can we devise a method for enabling conversation without creating agonizing viewing windows? From the past, we can find an answer to the future.
Way back in 1977, ABC created a television event that captured the public’s attention like nothing ever has. Every night, for eight consecutive nights, a new episode of the miniseries Roots aired. The show garnered 130 million viewers — more than half the U.S. population at the time. And long before the DVR, over 90% of those viewers watched the entire series.
This, I propose, is what Netflix, Amazon, and HBO should do. They need to bring back the schedule, updated to modern lives. That schedule should be:
Every day, a new episode is released,
always at the same time, and blind to time zones.
Imagine if House of Cards had played out over two weeks, like a mini-series. Today, we would be finishing up the 13-day marathon from when the show first dropped:
Marathon — such a better metaphor than our current term, binge.
Can you imagine? The conversation around this viewing window would be massive, almost unbearable. Fans would feel compelled to catch up every night, so as to be involved in tomorrow’s discussion. And if you missed a day or two, catching up would be painless.
A resurrected, reconfigured schedule — modelled on the miniseries, but contemporized for real-time culture — would unleash the potential for conversation. The lost art of appointment viewing could return. (Potential downside: Congress might have to go into recess — not much downside!)
One company is already tinkering with the viewing windows. A little upstart called HBO announced yesterday that the new season of Game of Thrones will be simulcast around the entire globe. Finally, the show is being treated as the real-time global event it is — like the World Cup or the Olympics. It’s a step in the right direction, putting everyone on the same clock and embracing real-time events.
Now, we just need to convince HBO to release an episode every day. That would be huge. It might even stop winter from coming.