Monday, June 17, 2013

"If that's such a good idea, why hasn't anyone else done it?"

 I have really mixed feelings about that question. It can discourage creativity and kill fresh ideas and it can and generally should make you feel like a bit of an ass when you ask it, but sometimes someone really needs to say it.

Case in point, the decision by Netflix not only to release original programming in a binge-ready format, but to sell this format as a major feature.

Though the basic idea (in the form of programming marathons) goes back for decades, binge viewing as we think of it now became practical around the mid to late Nineties with the widespread availability of DVDs and the rise of the internet (the two technologies that made Netflix viable).

Prerecorded television shows were a very small part of the home video wave of the Eighties, largely due to the bulkiness of the VHS medium and the inconvenience of the short-window rental model. With the introduction of DVDs in the mid-Nineties and the shift to a retail rather than a rental model, the economics shifted and TV shows soon occupied as much shelf space in the big box stores as did movies. The concept of burning through an entire season of a show in two or three sittings caught on almost immediately.

There was, however, one area where series never caught up with movies -- direct-to-video. Though boxed sets of shows like Seinfeld and Star Trek:[fill in the blank] were popular (sometimes to the extent that people would forgo watching a new season of their favorite show till it came out on video) and direct-to-video movies were a large and lucrative market and direct-to-syndication was a proven model, no one, to my knowledge, ever attempted a serious launch of direct-to-DVD series box set.

Why did this one channel remain unexplored? Part of the answer may lie in the way television shows develop their relationships with viewers.

Smart companies look at lifecycles, both of products and of customers and plan marketing and pricing accordingly. With successful TV shows, there seem to be only a few common lifecycles and (this part is important) it has proven extraordinarily difficult to influence those lifecycles through advertising and PR. Up until now, binging has always occurred late in these lifecycles after these products have established themselves.

There are, of course, differences, but Reed Hasting is basically trying the equivalent of using massive advertising and PR to try to sell box sets of new series. What's more, he's doing it after the advent of social media which works better with incremental release schedules (Twitter, in particular, thrives on shared events).

Of course, none of this means that direct-to-binge is a bad idea, but it does give one something to think about.

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