Netflix reinvents TV – tomorrow happening today

6th February 2013

One of the big ideas that has drawn me to semiotics (the art of understanding cultural context, kidnapped by marketing in a bid to better understand ‘consumers’) is its core premise. Semiotics assert that the future is present in our world today, but is poorly distributed. This has acted as an ongoing incentive for me to keep my eyes peeled: perhaps I am staring at the world as it will become, and just don’t have the nous to recognise it?

Well, let me call it right now. The future of television is to be seen in House of Cards – and it can be viewed at your leisure on for the modest sum of around €7 per month. Alongside 1000’s of hours of other, non Netflix-created content, of course.

Television has been inspired by the Dickensian approach to novel writing. From his 19th century industrial fiefdom, Dickens dispensed chapters of his stories to be published in monthly periodicals, keeping readers on tenterhooks regarding the fate of Oliver, Mrs Sparsitt and Little Nell. His marketing paradigm was a basic but strong one: keep the cliffhangers coming, and keep the punters hungry for more.

Publishing has long-since moved beyond the instalment model. (Although, in fairness, JK Rowling perhaps had it both ways by signalling that seven books would be required to trace Harry’s arc). And yet, overall, it is true that most of culture hardly keeps us panting for anything. The prevailing model is simply to make things available; completely, even urgently.

With the exception of television. Here, Dickens reigns – and the drip, drip of controlled feeding keeps viewers, supposedly, baying for more. (I am driven demented by the Facebook keening of my American friends only now discovering the latest death knell from the Abbey of Downton).

This is why Netflix’s House of Cards is so exciting. The innovation is not that its production is a 26 episode, $100m investment by an internet service provider, although this is indeed new. Rather, the show’s entire first season (all 13 episodes) was made available simultaneously, on February 1st 2013. Just like that. No teasers, no must-see appointments, no scheduling of the DVD. Thus, an ostensibly TV-esque experience over the internet becomes something different, akin to a DVD boxset without the wait.

True to Netflix’s core brand proposition of consumer empowerment, the viewer is given full control in how much he and she wants to see, and when. Suddenly, programming becomes more bespoke, more individual. As the NYT points out, it suddenly gives the prospect and meaning of spoilers added vigour. Overall, it has the ability to change the way we engage with programming and perceive its experience.

Media analysts are abuzz with its possible implications. (I particularly like Slate’s Culture Gabfest’s handling of the matter)

Either way, it feels like a new model is upon us. My first responsibility, as a viewer, is to decide whether House of Cards is any good. Our first responsibility, as marketing professionals, is to consider Netflix’s initiative and its ramifications.

Happily, I can form a pretty robust point of view on the former in 13 hours flat. It may take us a little more time than that to figure out the latter. Perhaps it is time to kidnap a semiotician.


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