Want concrete proof of how quickly fortunes and narratives can change in our accelerated media culture these days? You need look no further than one little word -- Netflix. What started out as a cool way to get DVDs delivered to your door -- what mortally wounded Blockbuster -- and eventually became one of the innovators in streaming content via the internet was nearly on its death bed just a couple of years ago. After the highly publicized bad decision to separate its DVD delivery from its content streaming service, the online media provider lost nearly a million subscribers. But not only did it bounce back quickly, two years later it has completely redefined the way we see movies and watch television.
Sure, maybe it's been doing that for a while, but things have really been taken to a whole new level over just the last year-and-a-half. It's kind of shocking when you think about the fact that in 2013 House of Cards was one of the most honored TV shows of the year nomination-wise at the Emmys and it isn't even really a TV show in the traditional sense. Streamed, on-demand movies and shows were always the future of at-home media, but what no one predicted was how quickly Netflix would branch out from its library of third-party produced content and its brilliantly intuitive viewer preferences algorithm into the realm of becoming a full-fledged producer of its own original material.
What's fascinating about Netflix when it comes to the way it's changed how people watch TV is that it's actually learned from those changes. It's adopted the viewing habits it itself has created and is now using that as a model for the way it produces its own programming. Netflix knows that thanks to its service, Americans binge watch entire series they might have missed -- and so when the provider signs programming like House of Cards it doesn't go the traditional route of ordering a pilot and buying the series if it likes what it sees. No, Netflix agrees to produce an entire season of programming -- ordering a full complement of episodes -- based on a production and writing team's pitch and "Show Bible." As you know, the finished product gets dumped all at once into the listings, allowing viewers at home to watch as little or as much as they like at a time. It's entirely up to them how they watch it.
While this sounds like an incredibly innovative way to produce "TV shows," there's also something wonderfully old school about it because it means that viewers get a chance to actually watch several episodes of a show and, hopefully, allow themselves to grow fond of the characters and story. This is in contrast to the way networks notoriously do it these days: they put a couple of episodes out there and if nobody watches, that's it -- show's over. It was the ability to go back and carefully watch Breaking Bad that wound up making it such a hit as the new episodes showed up on AMC. Its popularity, and its steady rise in the ratings as the seasons passed, is owed almost exclusively to Netflix allowing people to "catch up" at their leisure once word-of-mouth clued everyone in to how good it was. Had Starz not criminally pulled the plug on its relationship with Netflix, a good show like Magic City -- which was shot in my hometown of Miami -- probably would've had a much better chance of finding an audience and flourishing.
Now that Netflix has conquered TV, it may be about to move into the realm of film. Again, it already traffics in third-party-produced movies and documentaries, but just the past couple of weeks the company has said that it wants to begin producing its own films that it would debut both in theaters and at personal platforms across the country on the same day -- and it's also said that it wants to try to work out a deal where even movies it hasn't produced, first-run blockbusters, would finally be made available at home the same day as in theaters. The paradigm shift this would mean when it comes to how we watch movies in this country would be impossible to overestimate. Netflix is already moving in this direction, too, given that it just acquired the rights to the 2013 documentary The Square, which is a frontrunner for an Oscar next year.
Netflix is already a major player in "TV shows," having upended the traditional model, but if it can change the way film is distributed in the same way then we could see a revolution on par with the introduction of sound and color to movies. This time, though, you'll be able to witness the revolution from your living room couch.