"There are two kinds of pain," the protagonist of the Netflix series "House of Cards," Francis Underwood, tells us in the show's opening scene. There's "the sort of pain that makes you strong -- or useless pain, the sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things."
And with that, Underwood performs a mercy killing on a dog, as Netflix performs its own killing of the way we've been accustomed to watch TV. It is releasing all 13 episodes of the first season of a brand new show at once, and only for the streaming video service. By disrupting the way we watch, Netflix introduces a new content programming paradigm -- which may stand if we can get a new structure in place to redefine how we'll watch it together.
Netflix's iPad Moment
Remember when the iPad first came out? You were probably skeptical of it. After all, we already had a laptop and a smartphone. What use did we have for a third computer?
Of course now we know that not only did people line up to buy the iPad, the tablet market is forecast to eclipse personal computer sales by 2020.
The iPad bent our notion of what a personal computer was -- a step to accommodate the way we were using our personal computers. In the same way, Netflix's new model for releasing "House of Cards" all at once bends the rules to accommodate the way we choose to watch. Even though I wasn't up against any clock, I went on a two-day "House of Cards" bender, and I wasn't alone. I bent my notion of watching a program because it's how I wanted to watch it.
It seems odd for Netflix to release 13 hours of program, but only if you try to fit it into either of the two predominant molds we know: the movie, and the television show. Netflix's new format offers us a third mold, much as the iPad did.
The Way We Watch
This new type of mold is more like a book than a TV show or a film. It's long enough that you may not read it cover-to-cover in just one sitting, but you're likely to read more than one chapter at a time. And you probably won't pick up an entirely different book until you're finished with it (unless it's bad). It presents a serial-monogamy type of relationship with content, a committed focus that's likely to spark the interest of advertisers looking for a viewers' long gaze through things like product placement.
And this new type of format may morph to become even more distinct from either of the two formats we've traditionally known. With its upcoming release of a brand-new slew of "Arrested Development" episodes, for instance, Netflix is said to be planning an experiment. Not only will it release them all at once, it won't tell you the sequence in which to watch them. It's a "choose your own adventure" format for video.
The Way We Watch Together
This new type of program didn't come out of nowhere; as soon as we could record programs on VHS or DVR -- or rent them on DVD (traditionally part of Netflix's offering) -- we were watching a show's episodes whenever we wanted or could.
But, as many have pointed out recently, having access to what is traditionally thought of as a full season's episodes -- vs. staggering a season's episodes over, well, the length of a season -- strips the show of a pace that has arguably been instrumental in drumming up momentum and viewership of television programs.