Netflix originals – do we want episodic content or the “box set” hit?

BBC Four started airing Lilyhammer a week or so ago, and I tuned in to the first episode to see what it was like. Lilyhammer is exciting because it’s a Netflix original – the DVD and streaming company put their hands in their pockets and paid for this show to be created. It’s a bold new move from them, rather than sitting back and waiting for deals to be done with existing production teams, they got on and did it themselves.

I’ve only seen the first episode so far, and it was okay. Not magical, but reasonable enough entertainment. It’s clearly cashing in on the popularity of Scandinavian culture at the moment, but is thankfully doing things a bit differently. It’s a new twist on the existing formula and for that, I thought it was good. The foreign language aspect is presumably why BBC Four picked it up, and that’s also okay by me otherwise I wouldn’t have got to see it.

The interesting debate that this causes, and it’s one that has been discussed many times on Frame Rate (a TWiT show presented by Tom Merritt and Brian Brushwood all about the onward progression of the moving picture business), is that if Netflix are in the business of pushing out original content – are they going to put these things out all at once or in the familiar once a week format?

There’s an argument to be had both ways. The once-weekly schedule allows for the hype and excitement of a programme to be extended over a longer period of time. It ups the anticipation and builds to a crescendo for the finale. If it’s a programme that warrants conspiracy theories and speculation, it allows a lot of time for fans to dig in and give it some thought.

On the flip side, more and more people are giving up on episodic installments, and waiting for the “box set”. Part of the charm of Netflix is that if you find a TV show you want to watch on there, you’re almost certain to uncover a full series at a time. Having all the episodes at once is the epitome of the on-demand culture that we’re cheering for. You can watch what you want, when you want, how you want. If you want to wait and watch it weekly, you can, and if you want to consume it all in one mega-marathon, that is possible too.

There’s a lot that is lost with abandoning the week by week format, but it tends to be things that are dying anyway. That watercooler conversation is mired by the popularity of the iPlayer and the +1 channels. No one tends to be on the same televisual page anymore, and everyone tends to be more wary of spoilers. There’s also a question to be asked where if you are consuming the full 6, 13 or 24 episodes of a series in one go, what’s the point of them being split into the smaller episode format?

Each option has its own merits, and perhaps it is not a case of choosing one over the other. Perhaps it is that we need both. I watch Doctor Who week on week because I need to see it as soon as it is available. It captures my full attention and then I write a blog post about it afterwards. I watch Netflix when I am doing other things and either rewatching something I like or catching up with a series I have missed somewhere along the way.

Would I want to give up the week by week “appointment viewing” as it’s called, in favour of having a big hit all at once? I’m not so sure. That would be a lot of blog posts in one go. But I have been known to rewatch Doctor Who episodes on Netflix, because it’s there, because I like it, and because I can pick and choose. I can and do watch the whole of a series in one go sometimes, but it’s usually where the programme is older and has already lost momentum – so that no matter how I view it, it’s probably only me that is watching it.

This particular problem hasn’t reached us in the UK yet, as Lilyhammer wasn’t available on my Netflix and is only viewable as and when the BBC decide to schedule it. But it’s a discussion point that might be around for a few years yet, and I’m still not sure which side of the debate I fall on.