For Netflix, Binge-Viewing Isn't the Answer

I'm an Arrested Development fan. I really did love those first three seasons and have watched them more than once. So it would make sense that I should be excited for the new season just out on Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX  ) . But honestly, I've been more skeptical than anything else. 

To be a skeptic
I'll chalk my skepticism up to any number of reasons. Seven years have passed since the series wrapped up, which is a long time. Part of the genius of the show from the beginning for me was the writing, and I just have a hard time coming to grips with the new season being anything more than simply an effort to get a few more episodes out. For me the hurdle was very high to begin with; sometimes it's OK to just pull a Paul McCartney and let it be. 

I'm not one to pay much attention to critics, but when I read in The New York Times, "If you truly loved (the first three seasons of 'Arrested Development'), it's hard to imagine being anything but disappointed with this new rendition," I realized that I was thinking that before it ever even came out. Ay caramba indeed.

I'm sure I'll end up checking it out at some point or another, but it'll be awhile. I'm not even a Netflix subscriber. Netflix has nothing I want or need, so why subscribe to it? No, I haven't seen House of Cards. I've been busy watching Time Warner's HBO. But this all leads me to my greater point: Netflix may want to seriously rethink their binge-viewing strategy, as it could most certainly come back to bite them.

Trouble in binge-ville?
Here's the thing: Binge-viewing does work... for some shows. Older shows that have already been around the block are perfect for binge-viewing if that's your thing. But if Netflix's strategy is to develop more original content in order to differentiate themselves (and I agree with this move... they need to do something because they are becoming less and less special every day given the competition that's growing out there), they are going to need to think about stretching out the lives of these things. 

House of Cards is a good example. I'm sure the show is fine. It certainly received great reviews. But that's over now. Nobody's talking about it anymore. Anywhere. Viewers are going to have to wait until, like, next March to see new episodes. That takes the entire life out of the show as far as I can see it. It was like a season in a week. Doneski.

Let's look at other end of the spectrum. Game of Thrones (or we can go with Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey -- you get my point). These shows are living long and healthy lives as linear shows on a weekly schedule. Of course, you can binge-view older seasons. You can also just wait for the new stuff to eventually come out on Netflix, Amazon's Prime service or Apple's iTunes. And there's no question that some shows have benefited from being on these platforms as they've become accessible to many who might not have seen them otherwise.

But Game of Thrones et al are shows that actually benefit from the linear schedule. It gives them (and hence their developers) longer lives; it keeps people interested and tuned in longer. People talk about these shows every week in my office. House of Cards, not so much. Given the following that Downton Abbey continues to grow, it certainly makes Amazon's move to gain exclusive rights to that show look shrewd indeed.

This is the point, right here
If I can watch all of Arrested Development in one night, then bam! -- it's over. One freaking night and an entire season of "original" (and not cheap) content is done. So what this potentially leads Netflix to is having to produce more stuff. A lot more stuff. And it costs a lot of money to produce a lot of stuff (at least stuff worth watching). This works out great for subscribers because, hey, they're getting more stuff and paying a measly $7.99 a month. But investors may be getting the short end of the stick here. The company will issue more debt to produce more stuff, and when they release it all at once, then they'll need to make even more stuff. Again, great if you're a subscriber paying $7.99 per month. But all things considered, I've got zero interest in investing in Netflix, particularly at today's prices. And by the way, I am calling it now: They will be issuing more debt within the year.

Two things to take away
I wholeheartedly admit that I could be totally wrong about all of this. CEO Reed Hastings knows a heck of a lot more about this business than I do. Netflix is a good business and Hastings is a smart guy with some great ideas. But Netflix needs to do two things in my estimation (and that may not be all). It needs to start seriously thinking about how it can raise prices and it needs to seriously rethink releasing all of its original content at once. It's just a nasty pace to have to keep up with and I wouldn't want to count on being able to do it indefinitely. Again, great for subscribers; but scary as hell for investors.

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  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2013, at 2:10 AM, TheCabbageMan wrote:

    Good Article Jason!

    Valid points to consider. Definitely risky and expensive. I don't think Netflix has a choice with the competition they have. I also think the value of these shows are not going to play out in the near term, despite the hype. I think the real value is in the long term. Releasing the season doesn't build the buzz that HBO or cables show do, but it may pull in a few new subs.

    In a few years, there will be several hit shows that NEW subscribers can binge watch on that are fully owned by Netflix. I think Reed and Co might be thinking in terms of draw for new subscribers in several years. "Watch all 6 seasons of Arrested Development" or "Watch all 3 Seasons of House of cards, exclusively on Netflix!"

  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2013, at 4:07 AM, AceInMySleeve wrote:

    Binge viewing fresh content is a new phenomenon. People will learn to pace themselves. I rather plowed through AD faster than I should have. And watching a second time I see things I missed from binge fatigue. I'll learn eventually, and so will others. But it's a 'once you get this priviledge [to binge]' you won't want to give it up.

    There is always a resistance to new things. This also applies to the content of the show itself. I would be willing to wager that this season grows in reputation over time because it was quite innovative, very clever, and very well thought out. What it wasn't, was the same AD of the past 3 seasons. But not liking it for that reason is really just not liking change.

    So both binge viewing and this season of AD will look better as time passes. Particularly if a new AD is built up on this one in the form of movies or season 5.

    ...and I thought Hemlock was horrible (although not exactly targetted for me) and House of Cards while better was vastly overrated.

  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2013, at 8:48 AM, TMFJMo wrote:

    Thanks for the comments!

    @TheCabbageMan, your points are well taken. The one thing to be careful of here is that Netflix doesn't actually own the exclusive rights to House of Cards for example. That's why you can order the DVDs now on Amazon. So while they won't be able to rely on that this time around, it's also certainly not to say that they won't be able to work those kinds of deals with future shows. It will cost them though.

    @AceInMySleeve, thanks for your thoughts on those shows. I always appreciate reading opinions, especially when they go against the grain of most of what we've been hearing. And "binge-fatigue"...never heard that before. Love it!

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