In the words of one young Youtube entrepreneur, Netflix Canada (Netflix.ca), “kinda sucks.” The video-streaming service costs just $7.99 a month, and before you think this is yet another example of the truism, “You get what you pay for,” it’s not quite that simple. Netflix provides unlimited viewing of any fare offered on the site, but our young capitalist makes the above comment in comparing the limited selection of movies and TV shows available from Netflix Canada to the vastly greater supply available from Netflix USA. (Netflix also provides a DVD rental mailing service, but that much is not the subject of this post.) Our hero offers this assessment, by the by, before then telling you how to subvert the restriction on Netflix merchandise in Canada and gain access to Netflix USA, and there are any number of other videos on Youtube instructing you on how to do the same, sometimes for free, with adverts, sometimes for a low monthly fee. God bless the youthful rebellious heart of the internet.
This international supply discrepancy may be nothing more than the math involved with 300+ million people potentially paying $7.99 a month versus 30+ million potential customers paying same amount. Or maybe the folks at Netflix just didn’t bother including the Canadian marketplace in many of the deals they originally signed with distributors for their product; Canada is hardly a big slice of the North American pie.
Then too there is the political element. Canadian broadcasters and cable providers are up in arms about the expansion of Netflix into Canada. They point out that Netflix is sucking a fair chunk of change out of Canada, into their Los Gatos, California corporate headquarters, without putting much back in, save for the licensing of a few typically older Canadian shows. They are not required, as are the broadcasters, to invest in the creation of new Canadian product.
The aggrieved broadcasters—whom no one in their right mind should ever feel sorry for—tried taking their complaint to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (the CRTC), but the federal regulator, in predictably ponderous bureaucratic fashion, has thus far not been swayed. That’s only partly because they are ponderously bureaucratic; the fact is that they, like many people, haven’t quite fully awakened to the impact Netflix is having, and will have on the future of television.
Before saying more about that impact, it should be reiterated that Netflix does indeed provide a dodgy product in Canada. Much of it is mediocre, nearly all of it is older, and the way it is provided is odd and shifty as well. Worthy titles are buried beneath layers of ‘More Like This,’ and certain of them seem to come and go. I once noted with pleasure, as I was trolling through the product, that Truffaut’s superb 400 Blows was available. I made a mental note to watch that on a later occasion, but when that occasion arose I was nonplussed to find it no longer offered. Netflix in Canada is far, far from fabulous, but it is just good enough to last, and ultimately prosper.
If it hasn’t already, Netflix will fundamentally change your television viewing experience. My teenage daughter has never watched conventional TV, but us boomers grew up doing so, and the habit for me continued, albeit increasingly selectively, until recent years. Not any more.
At this point in my life, the idea of watching television (with the sole exception of live sports) riddled with advertisements is just not something I’m prepared to face. Yes a few ads are clever and entertaining—the first time—but nearly all of them are irritating, banal and predictable, if not insulting. And of course they are an unwanted interruption. Netflix comes free of all this, comes to the ‘act break’ of an television episode, flickers briefly to black, then marvelously resumes a second later. How much better is that?
Internet moguls complain as loudly as their broadcaster brethren about how many advertising dollars remain in the broadcast pot, despite the audience numbers flowing steadily to the web. But this too will change. 60% of PVR users fast forward through the ads, and sooner or later advertising execs are going to wake up to such factoids. It amazes me that anybody is still watching conventional, ad-laden TV, with the exception of live news and sports.
But none of this illuminates the truly critical difference with Netflix: Netflix takes long form viewing to a new level. I think I first grasped the value of series long form storytelling in watching BBC shows like Brideshead Revisited and Upstairs Downstairs back in the 70s—longer story arcs, from the beginning to end of a 13-part series for instance, as opposed to from the beginning to end of an hour-long episode, had so much more depth, so much more space to develop characters and themes, and the nuances of both. These series could track with much greater validity through long periods of time, setting the appropriate pace, and doing so in a way that was more telling, resonant, complete.
Despite these quality exceptions back in the day, as a movie critic friend of mine said to me not long ago, if anyone had said to me, back in the 70s, that there would come a day when I would be generally more interested in watching television shows than I would movies, I’d have thought said speaker was sadly not far removed from a complete psychological breakdown. Not any more. For my money, the quality of storytelling extant in a current series like Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead is notably superior to almost all the fare being produced by mainstream Hollywood these days. There are numerous reasons for that—television has always been a more writer-friendly environment—but chief among them is the ability to exploit the long form story potential of series versus one-offs.
And of course, not only does Netflix offer an ad-free, long form viewing experience, Netflix offers these shows at your own personal viewing schedule. No waiting until next week for the succeeding episode, no obligation to watch until the credits roll in order to know how the current conflict is resolved. Netflix will hold that show, at precisely the point where you pushed the stop button, ready for you to resume watching at your convenience.
The leap from episode to series story arcs has been a tough one for dramatic TV producer/writers to make. Many of them still have not been able to summon the requisite courage. (Hello, the team at Justified!) Focus groups from out of the hoary past have told these creators that they didn’t want unresolved episode endings; they wanted story closure now, not next week, or at the end of the season. Netflix changes that, forever. That unresolved episode end is now just a couple of clicks away from the tale resuming.
The best television shows are the ones that embrace long form storytelling wholeheartedly, and Netflix allows you to in turn embrace these series at your leisure. Enjoy. You’ll never look back.