It’s something of an indictment against this country that the 1996 Christmas special of Only Fools And Horses is liable to remain one of the pinnacles of British television. It’s worse still that an episode of Eastenders from a decade earlier will likely stand above it. But both hold records that will quite probably never be broken, having attracted the country’s highest recorded television audiences excluding news and sports, the former without repeats.
Last week Netflix made a play to euthanise the traditional broadcasting model, buying up the entire season of Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards and uploading each episode for immediate streaming for subscribers. Streaming television is not new – we’ve been binging through box sets and digital services for years – but always after the event, after the billboards and the trails have lured us like flies to the butcher’s light, gathering at the scheduled time to receive whichever drip-feed of content we were to be allocated next.
Some of us may have defied this, sure, torrenting ahead from some other region, but in the main we adhered to the system, accepting the pace that the broadcasters set because, generally, it was easier than trying to fight it. But the Netflix model is easier still: subscribers can access their library from browsers and tablets, smart televisions, mobile phones and games consoles, each format remembering where users left off and pushing content to us relentlessly. Sitcoms and dramas and documentaries and films, thousands of hours of them, arrayed as an unbroken assemblage of scrolling thumbnails accessible for far, far less than the average £47 a month that Sky take from their subscribers. But the real devious genius of Netflix, perhaps, is in its facilitation of gapless playback for entire seasons of shows, hour after hour of programming presented without pause from just a single inaugural button press. An episode ends and the next automatically begins by default: it’s more effort to stop the flow of sound and image than it is to merely continue to consume it, slack-jawed and drooling into the sofa arm as muscle turns to fat and skin becomes dust, nights becoming morning with only the rising number on the episode tag to mark the passage of time.
The downside, of course, is that all this content has been to a degree secondhand: chances are that if we’d have really, really wanted to see most of this stuff then we already would have, whether in cinemas or at the time of broadcast. For most of us Netflix, along with Lovefilm and Blinkbox and Mubi and so on, has acted primarily as a kind of memory hole, a means of catching-up on all that media that other people have already talked about to exhaustion, that’s been pored over and dissected and applauded and since forgotten. Streaming services do not drive culture, they merely archive it.
But Netflix’s move overturns this role, pushing streaming services towards the vanguard and threatening the “end of an era,” as drama producer and director Peter Kosminsky put it earlier this week, for linear television. It’s unsurprising that the BBC have just announced their own plans for iPlayer-first content dissemination, with the BBC Trust approving a 12-month trial just one week after the House Of Cards release.
Much has been written about what we gain from this method of access – the respite from advertisers, the ability to spread our viewing between multiple devices, the instant sating of our impatient desires – but not so much on what we lose. We do lose something from user-defined scheduling: communality. Television entertains us but it also binds us together, providing a glue for conversation and debate and a catalyst for shared ideas. It’s a focal point for commentary and a springboard for the consideration of wider issues, social and political, environmental and international. But television content can only contribute to the agenda if enough of us are paying attention: we can’t gather around a discussion from within our own individual bubbles.
There’s little doubt that having our media fit around us is, increasingly, what we want. But that’s a symptom of a wider shift, our cultural experiences becoming as atomised and insular as society more generally. We hurry home past the neighbours that we don’t know to trade opinions in 140 characters, looking to the binary others for some validation of ourselves. 2012’s big media buzz-term was second screen viewing, with the rise of a digital community formed around shared television consumption: anyone wanting a preview of what tomorrow’s watercooler banter will comprise need only look at what’s trending at primetime.
What future for the second screen without that shared consumption? It may remain for a niche group of binge-viewers, downing Pro-Plus and calling in sick so as to get through a series before the spoilers emerge, but for the rest of us we risk losing yet another of the thin threads that bind us, our culture becoming evermore staggered and fragmented and we’re all thrown out of sync. As The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage commented on Twitter a week on from the release, “I wish House of Cards was on regular TV. Not being able to go ‘Did you just see THAT?’ is killing me.” Best get used to it.