The rise (and potential hazards) of a life on Netflix
Perhaps it was the “x”, but in 1997 the new word sounded sci-fi cute.
More than a product or a service, “Netflix” seemed to promise some cultural-technological infinity in which we were all a part, just as once we might have been citizens in a nation or a society — or fish in the sea.
“Netflix” whispered that there was a “net” out there, an ambience or a togetherness, in which “flicks” (that quaint name for movies) could be a way of being or a discourse.
No one delved too deeply into what a “net” was. The word overpowered thought. But it was assumed that it was a safety net: a benign container, a merry trampoline, a kindness or a comfort, that kept us all in place.
An older irony was passed over, or forgotten, that a net was only a set of holes tied together by string. Fish know that nets are not always kind or comforting.
Of course, Netflix is a stunning success story and we are raised to honour that phenomenon, even if we are so stunned we may be concussed.
Two men brought the idea to life: Reed Hastings (born 1960) and Marc Randolph (born 1958).
Hastings had been in the Peace Corps, teaching maths in Swaziland, before he got a master’s in computer science at Stanford University, and then entered the business of making systems to detect bugs in software.
Marc Randolph’s degree was in geology, but he was the great nephew of Edward Bernays (himself a nephew to Sigmund Freud), a central figure in translating principles of psychology to mass marketing and public relations. They made a special team.
It was not that they liked movies especially; no more than the ordinary person. But they were impressed by a few things breaking in the Nineties: the appearance of Amazon (in 1994), selling books on the internet, bypassing booksellers; and the development of DVDs, at that date the most portable form that movies had ever found.
So they started Netflix, as a post-office through which the public could purchase or rent DVDs. They had an angle: they understood how much we hated late fees on video rentals from stores.
Indeed, they saw the video store itself as an institution that would die as quickly as it had come into being. If the public subscribed to Netflix then they could order titles from a list or a catalogue, get rapid delivery by mail and keep the disc as long as they liked.
Send it back intact and you would have your next selection. I don’t think they fully imagined the larger possibility: that we might one day grow weary of movie theatres and want to watch at home. It was enough that the video rental habit caught on.
We the People made Netflix a success. Those modest paper sleeves (tougher than they looked) would become the chief item of business for US Mail. Today, you don’t need to be reminded of this. But that’s no reason not to think about it. For the culture was shifting in profound ways.
Just because Netflix was a soaring business — a simple, knockout idea — it was easier to overlook the implications of what was happening. This was a start-up that redefined the contest.
Much the same thing had occurred at the time of World War I when a group of young hustlers, out of Eastern Europe, without much education, but all chutzpah, had created the movie business. Once projectors turned over, society had to follow.
But when the wheels go round so smoothly, and with such instant excitement, we can lose sight of the real revolution. Hastings and Randolph were smart, appealing and generous guys, lifting a kid enterprise to a business level of $8.8bn annual revenue (the 2016 figure).
They were icons for a new age in which pioneer entrepreneurs were cultural heroes (even if they had a few flaws; those flaws could be humanising if the heroes ever got their own movies). That billionaire’s list includes Warren Buffett (the Santa Claus of “clean” money), Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg.
Think of those careers and you realise what an ugly cuckoo, a wretched failure and an old-fashioned gangster Donald Trump is at that court. (But, remember: our gangster hero was invented by the movies.)
The red, white and black envelopes still ride the mail, but their flow is much reduced, just as Hastings anticipated, as Netflix started streaming (about 10 years ago). This was in keeping with show business history.
Those old movie studios 100 years ago had been in the business of exhibition and distribution, until they realised there was no reliable flow of “good” material. So they decided to make movies themselves and the monopoly laws didn’t catch up with them for 30 years.
Netflix is now more celebrated for shows it has initiated, or picked up early in the game. When streams were still pretty, rural photo opportunities, in Britain in 1990 there had been a TV series, House of Cards, based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, with Ian Richardson, saturnine and endearingly nasty as Francis Urquhart, a conniving politician.
It was four 55-minute episodes; tidy, funny and a hit in the UK and in the US. The show was modern in its cynicism, but ancient in its narrative structures (this was the template of The Godfather).
In America, Media Rights Capital saw it and thought House of Cards could translate to Washington DC. HBO and Showtime didn’t fancy it, but the new Netflix liked the idea and the prospects for a series that would “stream” on TV.
Sit on the couch, press the button and there it would be — hours of it, at your bidding, to suit your schedule — a season of 13 episodes. Urquhart was too damned English (or Scottish), so Francis became Underwood, and Kevin Spacey — an uninhibited Richard III on stage — was lined up to play him as the new Machiavelli.
Top director David Fincher had seen the light and the new day in which movie people might have to depend on TV for a livelihood — if you were content to call it “TV”.
Fincher was fascinated by a cultural shift. “The world of 7.30pm on Tuesday nights, that’s dead,” he said. “A stake has been driven through its heart. Its head has been cut off and its mouth has been stuffed with garlic. The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there’s reason to believe they will do it.”
That came just a few years after Fincher had asked audiences to go see his Zodiac in cinemas — at some Tuesday 7.30pm or another — and the box office take had barely crawled above production costs. So Fincher directed the first two episodes of House of Cards, resuming his creative relationship with Spacey (they had done Se7en together in 1995).
House of Cards is a street now, or a neighbourhood, a prize-winning show where until recently cable was looked on as an upstart. It has also been a worldwide money-maker and an effortless inducement to us all to see that politics is a filthy game, a spectator sport and a nifty, shameless adaptation of the gangster spirit. Don’t lose sight of this possibility: that House of Cards has only encouraged our Underwoods to go armed and dangerous.
House of Cards may be the greatest hit Netflix has had so far, but the system has also delivered Orange is the New Black and Joon-ho Bong’s feature movie, Okja, which was a focus for protests at Cannes in 2017 on the grounds that streaming and on-line delivery were shocking intrusions on the theatrical movie business. That lost cause.
Netflix has had failures, like any film production house, and the company has never had enough love of film to endure failures. Sentimentalists were inclined to see its start-up as a miraculous doorway to the great archive of world film.
But it was quickly proven that Netflix carried the films we wanted to see. They craved popularity. That can seem democratic, but it ignores the way some of us have no idea how many good movies there are out there, because we have never heard of them.
And if Netflix ran the archival show, then they could turn our ignorance into orthodoxy and a revised interpretation of history. If you are a cinephile or a film buff, you need Amazon, the Criterion Collection or your own library of lovingly assembled DVDs — for as long as disc players are still available and the discs don’t fade. In other words, preserving film history and making it available are not part of the Netflix business plan.
So, what is the plan for streaming? And what is the stream doing to our ground? “Stream” is a precious word; it renews our bond with nature, and it seems to suggest that we have all of nature to choose from.
In a dream world, a stream tumbles down from the snow-capped Sierra to feed the land. It carries fish, foliage, current, volume, swimming, rafting… as well as drowning, toxins and water snakes.
The stream can’t help that, and it expects us to be alert and mindful while we’re enjoying ourselves. Instead of just bingeing like indulged customers. You have to take responsibility for streams, rivers and everything else that is valuable. You shouldn’t trust gravity or “the system”.
Why not consider “bingeing” while you’re about it, the word we are in the new habit of applying to ourselves. Bingeing is not always OK: as it refers to drink, to food, to shopping, to sex, it has drawbacks.
I’m all for poetry, but I’m wary of binge poets if they can’t make breakfast or take out the rubbish. Breakfast and rubbish have poetry in them. But binge watching is almost
de rigueur now. And I worry.
Suppose this essay has got you interested in Orange Is The New Black — strong female cast, prison, sass? That sounds likely, but you’ve never got around to it so far.
You’re busy: you have a spouse, two kids, a dog, a job you’re clinging on to, and a bad back; you are many streams. But your fancy has been tickled and you ask where should you begin.
Well, Orange Is The New Black is poised to go to a sixth season. That’s 65 episodes in the stream already at about 45 minutes a pop. I’m not sure I could fit that in, not while I am emotionally booked to keep up with Homeland (six seasons now), Peaky Blinders, the Premier League season, Ken Burns’ magnificent documentary series The Vietnam War (that’s 18 hours), and tracking MSNBC’s nightly coverage of the mad egotist in the White House.
I was exhausted before I started writing this essay — is sleep a stream? (I think it is, it has to be.)
There’s another problem. I like a lot of these long-form TV shows that go on for years. I try not to miss an episode; I have done Breaking Bad, the box set, in a long weekend; I binge, baby.
But I feel a tug of war in these series. They seem to be stories, a form with a beginning and an end, also known as resolution.
Breaking Bad went on for five years, but Walter White got it in the end and that show had a satisfying shapeliness akin to what you can find in Anna Karenina, or George Gershwin’s song, “Our Love is Here to Stay”.
That finite format, the closure, is a matter of creative responsibility; I loved The Sopranos, but its creator David Chase let himself off the hook, finally. He didn’t quite want to off Tony.
After all, he and the others on the show had spent several years trying to have it go on and on because there was money in that renewal. It is the string that makes the holes into a net. But great stories and dramatic characters need to meet their fate, if only to teach us how brief and fatal life is.
Here’s a larger question. The new golden age of long-form television has been with us 20 years now, so it would be crazy of Netflix or Amazon, or anyone, to think it will last forever. Nothing does in show business: streams become oceans, or they dry up.
I can’t prove this, but I have a hunch the public is getting worn out by all the shows that require binge sessions. I’ve been at parties where innocent people dissolve in helpless mirth at all the shows strangers recommend.
They’d rather settle for the dog, the Premier League and having a bad back. And what is that place I can see outside? Isn’t that what they used to call a garden? Is that a stream at the end of it?
I’m hoping to make you smile, and I want to ask, “Hasn’t television always been a binge?” There was a time (it was the era of your grandparents maybe) when some people saw three movies a week — call that six hours’ screen time.
Some scolds thought that was ruinous in 1945–’50. But then television came into being and soon it was apparent that some people were watching six hours a day.
Now, “watching” was not quite the word, not if you mean it to cover a Roman sentry on the walls in Mesopotamia peering to see the barbarian hordes advancing by night. Television taught us that we did not have to “follow” everything. Attention was one of the first deficits in the new age.
While the TV idled, we could take a phone call, eat dinner, do some of the sweet nothings that beloveds do; we could leave the room, secure in the knowledge that the “telly” was on, and keeping us in touch with… the global village, the streams, the power source… the net?
That’s where that name Netflix was so cunning. It half understood that the idea of a net was going to be imposed upon us and that we needed to be comfortable with it… or stand up and say something like, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
You see — I’ll break it to you gently — I am not happy with the philosophy of the net and streaming. I remain convinced there is a thing called reality, or nature, or society, or time, that will not endure it.
Let me be clear, Reed Hastings was touched by genius and Netflix can be hours of fun. I do prefer the name of its chief rival, Amazon (more than a rival: in 2015, Amazon had revenue of $136bn).
Choosing that name could seem surreal and un-business-like, but Jeff Bezos and his cohorts liked that exotic daring and I like the thought of an energy that winds throughout life, full of oozing mud, islands, spirits and piranha.
We’ve seen movies about the Amazon — we know what to expect. And while I realise that names are brands and forgivable, still I would rather have a wild, dangerous river than these jittery trickles.
Fancy a paddle? Or, if you recall the captive audience that David Fincher told us was gone, maybe it’s here still, in captivity, lonely and dysfunctional, in a trance called streaming. Maybe it’s us.
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