Netflix: the shape of the future?

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Watching moving pictures has changed for good. Beau Willimon, the man behind the Netflix Original series House of Cards, has been quoted as saying that “television is a word that has lost all meaning”. This is a man who would know, and it is time we took notice of the potential of this new broadcasting landscape.

While old-fashioned television sets are clinging on for the moment, once Netflix completes its transition from niche streaming service to broadcasting behemoth, the whole paradigm of recorded film will be radically different. And for the better. 

Last month, Netflix production The Squarea documentary about Egypt’s Tahrir Square, was placed in the final five nominees for ‘Best Original Documentary Feature’ at the Academy Awards, and earlier this year Netflix’s House of Cards was awarded a Golden Globe. This success is telling for the future. Although media giants such as HBO continue to commission big budget, highly successful serials, other organisations like Netflix, without a base in the proverbial airwaves, are muscling in and demanding to be taken seriously. 

The Los Gatos based brand is redefining how we experience recorded drama. The company began way back in 1997 as an American mailorder version of the dearly departed Blockbuster. Yet, for most, it is the exciting prospect of on-demand movie streaming that marks out Netflix’s move from impressive start-up to fully paid-up members of the tech-glitterati. 

To understand quite how revolutionary Netflix is, we ought to consider the technology it utilises. I’m not simply talking about the graphics or the streaming software but the astonishing scale of personalisation and trendanalysis Netflix offers. Recent research by The Atlantic found that the Netflix website offers over 70,000 different personalised genres of film, highlighting the extent to which the company have created an intimate relationship between broadcaster and viewer.

Disconcerting as this is, I really can’t see a drawback in the fact that Netflix now knows that I enjoy watching ‘understated dramas
from the 1960s’. It’s convenient! 

Moreover, ‘Netflix Originals’ as a concept is a game-changer. The site is able to employ its market-reading technology in order to cater for the desires of its user-base in a way traditional media distributors can’t compete with. Take the revival of cult US comedy Arrested Development. The show, which starred Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, and a young Michael Cera to name but three, was originally dropped by Fox after just three seasons back in 2006. But last year Netfllix revived it, much to the delight of its niche, but vocal fanbase.

House of Cards is a show which capitalises upon the public’s interest in political thrillers and a general love for Kevin Spacey, but it is Orange is the New Black which best illustrates Netflix’s potential. A show set in a female-only prison and involving a multitude of LGBTQ characters in thought-provoking storylines is groundbreaking. Credit must go primarily to the show’s creator Jenji Kohan, but this is also a multimillion dollar corporation endorsing positive televisual attempts at articulating progressive ideas about gender.

The question is, would a show like Orange is the New Black ever have been commissioned by a traditional company? I cannot imagine regular broadcast channels backing such a radical concept. This highlights exactly how exciting this altered form of media might be. No longer are we limited to television which is bound by the conventions of being, for example, advert-friendly. These days everything from episodic drama to niche art-house films can be targeted at those who’d appreciate it.

What’s fascinating is that sites like Netflix are making millions, despite the thriving world of pirated television available online, by truly offering audiences what they want. It seems a long time ago that we were panicking about recording that episode of Neighbours over The Simpsons on video. The Internet, with Netflix its vanguard, has changed all of that, and we’re only just catching on.

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