This being a film blog, we have more occasion to talk about screenwriter and novelist Rafael Yglesias than his son, Matt, who writes about economics for Slate. But there’s an insight in the younger Yglesias’ column that’s worth plucking out of the analysis about HBO and Netflix’s respective profit margins. (That’s not to say you should skip the other stuff, just that I’m out of my depth commenting on it.)
Some critics have lamented the way Netflix’s all-at-once release strategy disrupts the comfortable rhythms established by a weekly TV show. Though there’s still some debate, it’s generally agreed that it’s all right to talk about a given episode of Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead the following morning: As a parlor game, watch the specificity of social-media headlines escalate the day after a major plot twist: “Last night’s shocking Scandal” becomes “Liv’s Family Life Gets Complicated” becomes “Mama Pope is back!” But with House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black, there’s no road map, no collective agreement on when it’s okay to discuss that shocking thing that happens in the first episode of season 2 (although it’s okay to turn it into a GIF).
But Yglesias argues that this is, at least from Netflix’s point of view, a feature, not a bug:
Releasing a whole big batch of episodes all at once is clearly a smart business strategy. Encouraging a show’s biggest fans to gorge on episodes builds more buzz and sets off the kind of social cascades that make hits more likely. In other words, all the people binging on Season 2 of House of Cards — and talking about their binging — inspired me to finally go back and start binging on Season 1. It also helps to disable critical thinking about how compelling the content really is.
Binge-watching is Netflix’s brand, so it’s only logical that they use their original content to hammer that point home. The second season of House of Cards — or rather episodes 14 to 26, as they’re labeled — opens with what amounts to a slap in the face for viewers who don’t remember exactly where we left off (or maybe that should be, in the spirit of Francis Underwood’s birthday cufflinks, an F.U.). After Francis and his wife, Claire, come home from the jog they set off on at the end of the first season, Francis is met with an update from his right-hand man, Doug Stamper, which sounds like gobbledegook unless you’re up to date:
DOUG: Christina — I just spoke to her.FRANCIS: Did Zoe…?DOUG: Yeah. And that’s not all. She tracked down Rachel, too.FRANCIS: Anyone else involved?DOUG: Just Janine and Zoe. They asked about Russo’s arrest and they know we went to see Kapeniak. I assume that’s as far as they’ve gotten.