How long do you spend wondering what to watch on Netflix? The time people spend scrolling through seemingly endless lists of thumbnails just keeps going up—a 2016 study said Netflix users take 17.8 minutes to choose what to watch, and in a 2017 Ericsson ConsumerLab Media Report pegged 45-51 minutes a day as the amount of time spent searching for the next binge. We have all faced the selection void, our scrolling dictated not only by the thought of what we might enjoy watching, but by the anxiety of missing out on watching something even better. And so we scroll a bit longer…
Netflix—whose CEO Reed Hastings famously said that they “actually compete with sleep”—is naturally perturbed by this dormant time that could be used to foster new addictions. The company has taken a potentially ingenious step ahead, even though it does admittedly resemble a step back. Netflix France has been rolling out a new feature (for limited users, and for now available on the computer browser only) called Netflix Direct, a service that would function like a traditional linear television channel. Something, in short, you could just gaze at passively.
“Choice is absolutely fundamental to well-being,” wrote Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox Of Choice. “On the other hand, the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better.” Too much choice can be a dangerous thing, which is why there’s a big friendly button labelled “I’m Feeling Lucky” on the Google home page intended to give us one result for our searches instead of drowning us in links. Then again, when’s the last time we clicked on that?
I’m intrigued by the idea of a Netflix “channel” because, if done right, it could genuinely surprise us. Of course it would show far too many Friends reruns, but it would also throw up new things we may not often try, while allowing Netflix to prominently feature shows and films that deserve a wider audience. Naturally they will feed us titles they have spent the most money on, but some of those (hits more than a season old, and those with big stars) won’t need the leg-up. Cooler offbeat content could be showcased.
The appeal of watching something alongside people in unison is immediate. If some of us (choose to) watch some things at the same time as some others, it enables discussions and changes the dynamic. If Netflix decides, for instance, to show action movies every Tuesday night at 9, we will soon be curious about the less usual suspects. Taking another leaf out of the traditional book, they could even premiere episodes of major shows weekly on the channel before adding them to the binge-list, thereby making each instalment feel like more of an event. This would also mean less pressure to immediately binge on seasons of edgy new shows to avoid being hit by a spoiler.
This is how television programming has always worked, except for one crucial—and thrilling—detail: For the first time, people in nearly 200 countries may be able to tune in to the same channel. That is the real disruption here, the possibility that a network could unite us all so immediately, in such unprecedented fashion. I’m certain Netflix France and Netflix UK and Netflix India will all have separate “channels” which will show what works best for each territory, but they could choose to premiere certain shows and films across the board, turn them into live events, let us all surround the same water-cooler for a bit.
The always-on channel should take up a part of the Netflix selection screen even as we browsed for stuff. The viewer, chancing upon a raucous enough gag or a spectacular enough chase, may pivot to the channel instead.
Not that anyone asked, but here’s how I personally would programme a Netflix channel. Start the day with sitcom reruns (like The IT Crowd and Archer, funny as self-contained episodes while also clever enough to make the viewer curious to try more), then something subtitled and immediately compelling (Borgen and Dark, shows everyone would watch), a hit comedy for lunch (like Ocean’s Eleven, with something for everyone), then Netflix originals that deserve more attention (American Vandal, Oktoberfest: Beer & Blood, GLOW) alongside justified Netflix hits (Sex Education, Better Call Saul, one less devastating episode of BoJack Horseman), then blockbusters at night (for Action Tuesdays, this could be one proper genre film like John Wick, then something lighter like Pain & Gain). Finally, one truly great film (Angamaly Diaries, Inglourious Basterds), after which I would queue up Morty episodes till morning, alternated with crime shows (Peaky Blinders, Delhi Crime, Mindhunter).
That’s just my playlist—but does that mean there may one day be endless playlists to choose from? There we go again.
In his 1970 classic Future Shock, the futurist Alvin Toffler had written, “Change and novelty boost the psychic price of decision making.” Forty years later, on the book’s anniversary, he said “In the past, you made a decision and that was it. Now, you make a decision and you say, ‘What happens next?’ There’s always a next.”
How do we halt the march, or stop worrying about whether we’re marching fast enough? That brings me to the fundamental concern with the Netflix channel proposition. Are we ready to go back to television we cannot pause?
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.