As a scholar of all things transmedia, the news that Netflix is teaming up with Marvel Comics to produce a series of shows based upon several comic book properties provides valuable insight into the way in which television is adapting to a shift in delivery. In 2015, Netflix subscribers will be able to watch Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage as 13-part TV series with the option to extend the episode count. This will culminate in another series (what comic book fans call a ‘crossover’ event), The Defenders, which features the four characters as part of a super-team similar to the way in which Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America combined forces for The Avengers on the cinematic stage.
In Convergence Culture (2006), Henry Jenkins envisioned that the explosion in information technologies would not simply replace old platforms but, instead, would see a combination of both old and new paradigms. Netflix stands at the vanguard of this shift and is setting the standard for a new kind of television, one which is streamed via the internet rather than broadcast by cable, satellite or so-called freeview technologies (which have all but replaced traditional analogue transmissions).
But is Netflix really TV?
To be sure, the method of delivery is different compared with the traditional model. Netflix is a subscription-based model where a monthly membership fee is required that allows entry to a vast online catalogue of films and TV texts that can then be streamed to PC, laptop or onto a TV screen via entertainment devices such as: the Sony Playstation 3 (and, from this week, the Playstation 4); Smart TV boxes which connect directly to televisions which facilitate streaming; and through HDMI cables that allow tablets, laptops and, in some cases, mobile phones to be connected directly to ‘new generation’ televisions that have High Definition facilities. In the UK, online services such as BBC iPlayer or ITV Player means that you do not have to miss a TV programme again as you can stream a ‘repeat’ via any of the devices listed above. Some television sets come equipped with streaming services on-board already.
The way we watch television in this digital realm has shifted in significant ways. Perhaps you set your Sky-Plus or Tivo to ‘record’ your favourite shows in advance and watch them at a later, more convenient time? This allows people to effectively construct their own programming schedule while also fostering the luxury of fast-forwarding through increasingly lengthy commercials (which, I might add, has become a migraine-inducing concern for advertisers and TV networks as they struggle to find efficient ways to sell their wares). The ability to ignore traditional television scheduling parameters and watch your favourite shows at your leisure is nothing remarkably new, of course: the VCR explosion in the late ‘70s and ‘80s was widely considered to mark the death of TV, just as TV ostensibly sounded the death knell for cinema some three decades earlier. These days, however, the ease that technology allows us to record, save and store archives of material is a considerable challenge to Raymond Williams’ notion of flow. We are now authors of our own flow.
Netflix represents another challenge to the traditional model. You cannot record it. I hesitate to say that you cannot download it illegally as software exists that allows one (not me, I assure you) to download the contents of Netflix as a file (AVI, DivX or other) which can then be played on laptops, tablets or DVD/ Blu-Ray Players that allow playback of these files, often through a USB key or external hard-drive (which makes it easier once again as these do not have to be burned to disc). A quick search on Google illustrates that torrent websites have this content available to download, once again, illegally. Despite these caveats, one cannot set Sky Plus to record from Netflix as Netflix is not broadcast but acts as an online container or archive for a member to stream at their command.
Subscription services are also nothing new. In the United States, HBO and Showtime operate outside of traditional network parameters and one must subscribe to receive the channels as a part of an entertainment package.
So, then, how does Netflix differ from these models?
Like HBO and Showtime, Netflix has recently started producing its own Original Series which become available to subscribers to stream to their device of choice. The remake of British drama, House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey was a critical darling and set the standard for future Netflix series (a second series is scheduled for release in early 2014). Hemlock Grove, a horror series produced by Eli Roth (Hostel) did not fare as well in critical quarters, but this did not prevent it being picked up for a second season. Orange is the New Black, a prison comedy/drama based upon the memoirs of Piper Kerman, saw a massive surge in Netflix membership subscriptions stateside as 660,000 people signed up for the service based upon initial reports and positive criticism. More importantly, the show further challenged the traditional delivery model by placing the entire season’s contents online at once which dovetails with cultures of so-called ‘binge-watching’ that up until this point could only be achieved by waiting for the series to end and be released as DVD/ Blu-Ray box sets (illegal downloads aside). Finally, a fourth season of Arrested Development was produced by Netflix in 2013 despite the show’s previous cancellation by the Fox network due to low viewing numbers. The programme was critically acclaimed, however, with a large fan contingent and Netflix has taken a risk with a product that had previously failed which may add a cachet of cultural capital to its auratic prestige.
Following the news that Netflix would produce four new series for 2015 with Marvel Studios based upon comic book properties soon became the talking point online with many commentators citing this as a historic occasion which changed the landscape overnight. As Marvel continues to construct the largest serial narrative universe in cinema history which recently expanded into television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, I, for one, am incredibly interested in how this will all turn out. Marvel’s bête noire, DC, have struggled in comparison although recent announcements about a TV series based upon The Flashwhich will begin in current show Arrow and spin-off from that may indicate that they are striving to follow the new Marvel method of world-building in the twenty-first century. DC have also announced that Batman will feature in the Man of Steel sequel as will characters Nightwing (formerly Robin) and, rumour has it, Wonder Woman; while a new TV series, Gotham, will explore the early years of Commissioner Gordon prior to Batman’s first appearance. How this will shape up regarding serial interconnectivity remains to be seen.
Comic books have been committed to the principle of serial continuity for decades now with multiple characters occupying the same spatiotemporal environment in ways that TV can never hope to emulate. But by linking film, television and now streaming TV into a transmedia hyperdiegesis, one can only watch and marvel at the worlds that are being built.
Is Netflix, therefore, TV?
On July 18th, 2013, the Emmy Awards – TV’s version of the Oscars – created a new category for ‘original online only web television’ with Netflix receiving fourteen nominations (YouTube and MySpace also produce web television but Netflix is leading the pack significantly). Netflix is described as ‘the world’s leading Internet television network’ which implies that it is television, but paradoxically only available on cyberspace. Let us not forget that even Netflix series will be eventually released on DVD/ Blu-Ray which problematises the notion that one must be a subscriber. I am not a subscriber but I have viewed all available material in some form or other.
Legally, of course.
This is a paradigm where ‘old and new media collide’ in interesting ways and, I am certain, will be a model that is replicated across the terrain in the coming years. The question is not, ‘Is Netflix TV?’ but, more pointedly, ‘Is TV still TV?’ This question requires more attention and analytical focus than I can attempt here. Historically, both medium and technology have been explicitly linked. Perhaps television as the set in the corner is now as defunct as television as broadcast medium only.
It is TV…but not as we know it.
William Proctor is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sunderland. His thesis investigates the reboot phenomenon in serial fiction (comic books, film and TV). William has published articles on the reboot in Scope: An Online Journal of Film and TV Studies (‘Regeneration and Rebirth: Anatomy of the Reboot’) and Scan: The Journal of Media Arts Culture (‘Beginning Again: The Reboot Phenomenon in Comics and Film’). Additionally, he has published articles in Participations: The International Journal of Audience Studies which explores fan reactions to the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney (‘“Holy Crap! More Star Wars! More Star Wars? What if They’re Crap!” Disney, Lucasfilm, and Star Wars Online Fandom in the 21st Century’); in the edited collection Batman: Fan Phenomena (‘Dark Knight Triumphant: Fandom, Hegemony and the Rebirth of the Batman on Film’); and the forthcoming Remake TV: Reboot, Reuse, Recycle (‘Interrogating The Walking Dead: Adaptation, Transmediality and the Zombie Matrix’). William is also creator and editor of the blog, ‘Infinite Earths’ [infiniteearths.co.uk].