The Netflix Effect
Infinite choice vs. the TV schedule
When I was a young boy I had a dream: I dreamed of an infinite entertainment catalogue, the library of everything-ever-made, one that would cater for my every whim or chance discovery. I would be the master of ceremonies, the wizard before the machine, pulling levers and turning cogs, eliciting inspiration from the database.
It was a slot machine I would always win at.
I was at an age, perhaps twelve or thirteen, when I really started to enjoy films and TV. I’d been given my first television set by my parents and I was eagerly (and surreptitiously) exploring new movies and late night scheduling with a genuine sense of discovery. It was also the moment when I came to understand that some things on TV are better than others. So I began to get excited about what else there was out there: What else had this actor appeared in? What else had this director made?
The Internet was not yet ready. The world of entertainment was dominated by trips to the video store and most especially the TV schedule.
I’m old enough to remember a time when TV schedules were sacrosanct; by which I mean, not only did they rule over my family’s habits and routines, but also inspired in me a belief in something greater. A bigger plan, a sense of mightier forces which could affect the habits of large swathes of the population.
TV schedules even shaped the way I experienced a day and a week. I’m not exaggerating when I say that TV schedules helped to teach me about the shape of time.
This idea has taken a fresh turn for me recently since my young nephew, who has just turned five years old, has begun to ask the sort of probing questions about the nature of time that adults tend to take for granted.
For instance, he doesn’t yet understand what a “week” is, but he wonders when Friday is coming, a day which he has learnt has pleasurable significance as the end of his school time.
He has also pondered on the meaning of “yesterday”, though for him it might mean any time in the past. Similarly “tomorrow” is any time in the future, unless tomorrow is Friday in which case he knows it is the beginning of something special.
What he will probably miss out on, though, is the vital instruction provided by the rules of the TV schedule. The Netflix effect has replaced the TV schedule with a marvelous alternative — and yet at a curious cost.
If you tune into YouTube or Netflix or Amazon, then the old rules no longer apply. The beauty of the TV schedule — if I may take a moment to reminisce — lay in the perusing and the planning. Some people do it with a pen and paper; for me I did it by memory, letting the TV schedule form my mental landscape of what the next week would bring.
One had to be patient. Waiting a week between episodes of you favourite programme was normal. You couldn’t skip around — there was no such thing as ‘pause’ or ‘resume’. You had to be there, on the sofa, at the allotted time. Otherwise you missed it.
(Unless you set the video-record timer — which, alas, was notoriously easy to mess-up, cutting off the beginning or end of show, or recording the wrong channel altogether.)
Moreover, the routines of predictable programming, by which I could get my bearings, was abetted by specific scheduling highlights. I was aware that Monday TV was different to Friday TV, and that Saturday and Sunday swept away all the regularities of the week. Saturday was generally far more colorful and entertaining, whereas Sunday usually tended towards the well-behaved, sedate and sometimes very boring.
Even daily news bulletins, scheduled at 1pm, 6pm and 10pm, were reliable stakes in the landscape of time that, whilst as a child I had no interest in, nonetheless offered dependable way-markers.
When schedules changed, say for a charity gala night or an all-over-coverage sporting event, the sense of disarray bothered me. It was a sort of betrayal, like being told I wasn’t allowed to see my friends or that the toy shop had unexpectedly closed. Where was my programme? I never consented to this!
At Christmas the TV schedule took on a new gloss. It was like the TV stations were offering gifts: the latest films and TV specials were allowed to take exclusive place beneath the tree, as it were. At Christmas I never minded the schedule disruption.
The Netflix effect does away with all this. Time is only relevant in the question of whether you have enough of it to watch another episode or film sequel.
Otherwise — and this is the point — you dictate the schedule according to your own preferences.
It is, in many respects, the vision I had as a child, only far better designed.
What I never counted on was the distraction of choice, nor did I realized there were so many things I didn’t want to watch. These two shortcomings are really the opposite sides of the same coin, since how one chooses what to watch inevitably comes down to choosing what rule out.
As such, entertainment has turned into a new kind of personal project: the eye peruses the grid, the finger triggers the remote. Channel-hopping is now an old-fashioned vice; its replacement is box-set browsing whereby a thumbnail image and a star rating can determine how you spend your next 50 hours of recreation time. Get it wrong and there’s no one to blame but you.
Then there are the “Because you watched…” algorithms that are successful only to the extent of knowing why you chose to watch a particular title in the first place. Films or TV series tagged with the same keywords (or however the algorithm works: actually it’s more complicated than that, so complicated in fact that in 2006 Netflix famously offered a prize of $1 million to anyone who could improve on the algorithm) are lined up in front of you, and help normalize the process of one-thing-leading-to-another.
By reducing the number of steps between titles, the experience is of being served, as if being waited on at a restaurant. We are never deprived of anything — if you can’t find something to watch, that’s because you haven’t read the menu properly.
The principles of user-experience tell us that ease-of-use is always a benefit. But it falls down in one crucial respect: it deters us from the chance discovery in the very best sense.
I realize now that what I hoped for as a child was the impossible concoction: the infinite catalogue that also kept the best things hidden from me.
The rule of supply and demand stays true: abundance and value remain inversely proportional. The TV schedule offered up its best material only in meager morsels, which is why I enjoyed them all the more.
I miss that. Oh well, you know what they say about cake and eating it.