13 Episodes at a Time

The concept behind Netflix’s ventures into original TV programming for 2013, including Arrested Development and the David Fincher/Kevin Spacey remake of House of Cards, is the idea of making a complete TV season and releasing all the episodes at once. So House of Cards has made 13 episodes, which will be released next year, and as the episodes are being released, the crew will be working on the second season.

The idea is sort of the fulfilment of an idea that was kicked around a few years ago but never came to pass. When TV on DVD was big, and shows like Family Guy and Firefly were big in that format, there was talk of the possibility of doing direct-to-DVD seasons: making enough episodes to fill out another box set. It didn’t happen because TV-on-DVD was never quite big enough, as a market, to support even reduced budgets for complete seasons. (The closest anyone came was Futurama doing direct-to-DVD movies that could be split up into multi-part episodes, but I think single-disc movies were easier to finance and sell. Multi-disc sets of original episodes didn’t happen.) But with Netflix deriving a lot of its traffic and popularity from complete seasons of TV shows, they’re attempting to use the same idea with regard to their original shows. Releasing episodes one week at a time doesn’t make a lot of sense in this format, which is set up to encourage binge viewing: if there’s only one or two episodes available, there’s nothing to binge on. So the block-release form makes sense. It’s the complete-season format that was talked about in the TV-on-DVD era, finally made sort of financially viable.

It’s still too early to tell exactly how financially viable all this is, especially when it comes to the thing fans hope for the most: using new media to revive their favourite series. Arrested Development is happening, but more as a series of interconnected, big-budget webisodes. For a season actually re-assembling the original cast all at the same time (in other words, with the budget to hire them away from other projects), we’ll have to wait and see how these new projects do.

The other question is whether this idea of dumping 13 episodes on us at once will change the way we watch television (just as DVD and streaming have already encouraged us to think more in terms of seasons, rather than individual episodes). I personally still like the idea of keeping episodes somewhat separate, probably mostly because that’s what I’m used to, but also because I think the attachment to a show can be stronger when it takes some time to grow on you, and you slowly notice you’re addicted. However, that’s an argument for not watching too many episodes at a time. It doesn’t mean content providers are bound by tradition to force us to wait a week for every episode, whether or not we like watching television that way. (Besides, the one-episode-a-week format has never truly been standard: there have been daily shows since the beginning of the format. One episode a week is the standard format because of the business model, not necessarily because there’s anything special about it.) The choice to watch one episode at a time, or watch in bulk, is probably a good choice to have.

Dumping all the episodes on us at once has one potential disadvantage for a content provider. The disadvantage is that when all the episodes are available in bulk, it tends to discourage discussion on Social Media™. When only one episode is available at a time, it focuses discussion on that episode and that one alone, even if people aren’t all watching it at once. But that may not be an issue for a subscription service like Netflix, which is more interested in attracting subscribers than in attracting buzz to any individual production.