Feb. 12, 2013 -- "There are two kinds of pain," the protagonist of the Netflix series "House of Cards," Francis Underwood, tells us in the show's opening scene. There's "the sort of pain that makes you strong -- or useless pain, the sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things."
And with that, Underwood performs a mercy killing on a dog, as Netflix performs its own killing of the way we've been accustomed to watch TV. It is releasing all 13 episodes of the first season of a brand new show at once, and only for the streaming video service. By disrupting the way we watch, Netflix introduces a new content programming paradigm -- which may stand if we can get a new structure in place to redefine how we'll watch it together.
Netflix's iPad Moment
Remember when the iPad first came out? You were probably skeptical of it. After all, we already had a laptop and a smartphone. What use did we have for a third computer?
Of course now we know that not only did people line up to buy the iPad, the tablet market is forecast to eclipse personal computer sales by 2020.
The iPad bent our notion of what a personal computer was -- a step to accommodate the way we were using our personal computers. In the same way, Netflix's new model for releasing "House of Cards" all at once bends the rules to accommodate the way we choose to watch. Even though I wasn't up against any clock, I went on a two-day "House of Cards" bender, and I wasn't alone. I bent my notion of watching a program because it's how I wanted to watch it.
It seems odd for Netflix to release 13 hours of program, but only if you try to fit it into either of the two predominant molds we know: the movie, and the television show. Netflix's new format offers us a third mold, much as the iPad did.
The Way We Watch
This new type of mold is more like a book than a TV show or a film. It's long enough that you may not read it cover-to-cover in just one sitting, but you're likely to read more than one chapter at a time. And you probably won't pick up an entirely different book until you're finished with it (unless it's bad). It presents a serial-monogamy type of relationship with content, a committed focus that's likely to spark the interest of advertisers looking for a viewers' long gaze through things like product placement.
And this new type of format may morph to become even more distinct from either of the two formats we've traditionally known. With its upcoming release of a brand-new slew of "Arrested Development" episodes, for instance, Netflix is said to be planning an experiment. Not only will it release them all at once, it won't tell you the sequence in which to watch them. It's a "choose your own adventure" format for video.
The Way We Watch Together
This new type of program didn't come out of nowhere; as soon as we could record programs on VHS or DVR -- or rent them on DVD (traditionally part of Netflix's offering) -- we were watching a show's episodes whenever we wanted or could.
But, as many have pointed out recently, having access to what is traditionally thought of as a full season's episodes -- vs. staggering a season's episodes over, well, the length of a season -- strips the show of a pace that has arguably been instrumental in drumming up momentum and viewership of television programs.
Without a forced break between episodes, viewers aren't provided with a shared rhythm to fit their conversations around it -- and word of mouth, amplified with services like Twitter, can feel chaotic and disruptive. If they're not watching in tandem with others, viewers risk falling on either side of the spoiler alert. Removing the seemingly small function of the synchronized pause collapses the proverbial house of cards that is our shared viewing experience.
A House of Cards Built by Both
But what role does the social viewing experience fit in our own personal enjoyment of a show? Isn't the way we enjoy a show independent of how others feel about it? Not necessarily. Our brains, through what is known as our limbic resonance, may actually rely to a certain extent on the way others feel about what we watch in deciding how we feel about it.
Limbic resonance may be why we have viewing parties for premieres of shows, and why we still enjoy going to movie theaters or catching premieres of films at film festivals like Sundance. Entrepreneur and MIT Media Labs assistant professor Kevin Slavin suggests limbic resonance is the reason behind the emergence of things like the laugh track on sitcoms and the TV-show backchannel chatter on Twitter (so pronounced it's led to its own Nielsen rating).
So perhaps while Netflix's new video format bends to the way we watch, it doesn't bend to the way we watch together. At least not yet. Netflix's challenge -- and perhaps ours too -- will be to reinvent the shared viewing experience.
A Social Viewing Structure
Netflix has a lot of options. It can use the viewing data it collects, alongside its sophisticated recommendation algorithm, to surface and recommend the programs and chapters of which a viewer's trusted circle of friends is enjoying. Or it can grant access to forums for discussion based on one's completion of a chapter or program. Doing things like allowing my friend to see what chapter I'm on in a given show we're both watching allows them to easily see whether or not they should wait to talk to me about that episode they're dying to talk about.
For Netflix, the question of whether it will develop this critical new structure of shared experience to accompany its new programming -- or else allow its new paradigm to collapse -- remains to be seen. We'll have to stay tuned.