TV is dead. Long live TV!

CULTURE | Mark Hadley

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Netflix describes itself as, “The world’s leading internet television network.” This is no idle boast. During peak hours Netflix users account for more than 30 per cent of all internet down-streaming traffic in the United States. Is there any doubt its arrival in Australia means big changes on the way?

I’m not the first critic to consider this a brave new day for broadcasting. News services and print publications are currently weighed down with praise for streaming video services like Netflix, including local services Stan and Presto that provide instant access to every episode of everything interesting on TV, all at once. Phrases like “golden age” have been bandied about to describe the new state of affairs. Yet few pundits are looking to the horizon – this is not just an entertainment revolution but also a social one. The amazing catalogues of Netflix & Co. will eventually become commonplace, but the implications for how we view them will be with us for a lot longer.

Make no mistake, what we are looking at is the triumph of greed over greed.

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Commercial television networks survive on the basis of delivering eyeballs to audiences, and this has proved to be a lucrative business. Greed led to the creation of three, five and seven minute commercial blocks as Seven, Nine and Ten mined the audience for all they were worth. The commercial networks even created artificial scarcity to string those same audiences along, holding back on international releases so that they would only be delivered when it was most convenient to their bottom lines. But the steady development of ad-free alternatives is stealing the network’s lunch. Seven and Nine managed to increase ad revenues in 2014, but only at Ten’s expense. The Australian reports the metropolitan free-to-air advertising market contracted by 3 per cent overall in the second half of that year. Yet ad breaks are lengthening even as audience frustration is growing. Is it any wonder Australians are opting for less abusive alternatives? 

Netflix, Stan and Presto are the new paramours offering the same great shows and better ones, without the bother. Australian ISPs marked as much as 50 per cent increases in usage – yes, half the internet traffic again – from the very day Netflix arrived. And this figure continues to grow, demonstrating we are about to begin a new love affair with this different form of television.

But, as I said, this is a triumph of greed over greed.

The way that Australians have responded to the ability to devour entire seasons in one sitting has required the creation of a new descriptor: binge viewing. We eat through our DVD box sets and television menus so fast now that there is little time to digest anything we see. Waiting a whole week to watch the next episode of our favourite show might have been artificial but it had the side-benefit of giving us time to think through, discuss and even challenge what it was we were seeing. The lessons at the end of story-arcs could be savoured; now they are skipped as we move back to the menu to select the next chapter. If you’ve signed up for Netflix you don’t even have to bother. The next episode will play automatically in 15 seconds …

Of course not everything is as HD-rosy as it seems. Firstly, it’s worth realising that we may simply be exchanging one set of masters for another. The exclusive rights to flagship programs – Netflix owns House of Cards, Stan owns Better Call Saul and Presto owns Modern Family – means we may end up paying for multiple services in the same way we funded multiple commercial channels to watch what we want. Secondly, those new masters might end up being the old masters in new clothes. Free-to-air revenues might be punished by this seismic shift in viewers but Seven and Nine are also heavily invested in Presto and Stan respectively and the logos may change but the game remains the same. Yet my greatest fears are for the viewer who can finally have everything they want, when they want it, without interruption. I’m concerned for the “on demand” Australians, particularly if they call themselves Christian. This is a good time to remember the Bible’s lessons on gluttony.

Traditionally we’ve associated the sin of gluttony with over-filling the stomach. However the Apostle Paul warned that any desire we allow to rule over us, however thrilling, threatens to sow a seed that will blossom in destruction – even amongst the seemingly saved:

“For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:18-19)

Sign up for video on demand; it’s not a bad thing. You can certainly use it to program around much of the sinful rubbish broadcasters serve. But watch your remote, watch yourself. When the ability to view becomes the compulsion to devour then desire has given birth to gluttony, and that’s a new god that subtly threatens your sense of where you belong. Our citizenship is in heaven, not in the lounge room, and we eagerly await our saviour Jesus Christ, not the fourth season of House of Cards.

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