Is Netflix Destroying Our Culture?

Netflix. It’s impossible not to be familiar with the term by now, whether because you have indulged in the practice or your newsfeed was spammed with the famous Netflix and Chill idiom. Once a DVD subscription based service, it has quickly, and somewhat frighteningly, taken over the internet as the powerhouse media streaming service. Producing its own movie and shows (over 600 hours of original content is planned for this year alone) as well as offering many currently popular hits, the company has made it easier than ever before to access a vast collection of entertainment at a cheap price. It is now ever more appealing to skip the cinema and stay on the couch instead. And the effect is noticeable, with over 85 million people subscribed to the service according to CNBC. As both cinema ticket prices and the quality of television are on the rise, cinemas have concentrated their efforts onto technologically upgrading their rooms to offer the best audiovisual movie-going experience. Yet Netflix poses another problem. With so much quality content at our fingertips, will we be truly capable of appreciating the worth of what we are watching? It is no secret that Netflix has fueled an unquenchable ‘binge-watching’ culture in which shows are watched by the season and Friday movie nights turn into Friday movie marathons.

It is now ever more appealing to skip the cinema and stay on the couch instead.

The so-called Netflix Effect is part of a greater economic theory known as creative destruction. Coined by economist Joseph Schumpter in the 40’s, creative destruction is the incessant product and process innovation mechanism by which something new replaces the obsolete and outdated. Creative Destruction is pretty much the beating heart of capitalism, fueling the process of innovation and growth, and Netflix has taken it to full effect. The movie releasing formula whereby a movie would get released in the cinemas for a period of time before it arrived on the home screen was a long-built tradition. Now Netflix has penetrated the monopoly that cinemas once enjoyed by providing a convenient platform where its users can get access to a huge array of content and take advantage of the convenience and monetary savings of watching at home. While currently cinemas and streaming services like Netflix are co-existing, it cannot last forever. By the look at Netflix’s current uncontrolled rate of growth coupled with cinema ticket price hikes, it looks like the streaming giant will turn cinemas obsolete just like it did with DVD rentals.

However, Netflix doesn’t pose just a business problem, it promulgates an even greater cultural one. Encouraging the unhealthy binge-watching syndrome, Netflix has shaped its platform to accommodate the mass consumption of entertainment in relatively short periods of time. The Vice President for original content at Netflix commented on recent findings from a study stating that users consume the first season of a new series in approximately 4 and a half days, and subsequent seasons even faster. No longer having to wait every week for the next episode to your favorite show, Netflix now releases them by the season, leaving its subscribers wanting more. It’s become a mass consumer drug with a $8.99-a-month prescription and the withdrawal symptoms are quite real. This erratic behavioral change has altered the way in which we perceive and appreciate what we watch, and the change will inevitably be strongest for young people still developing their viewing habits. Film student Clara Scholl at the Fine Arts Royal Academy of Ghent points to “a ‘brain-emptying’ quality to binge watching that can be very relaxing and enjoyable after a long day. But ultimately it takes away an important part of movies, which is their ability to make you think, and question”. Scholl encapsulates this idea as “You only see the movie, instead of living it.” If Netflix has become the ‘fast-food’ of entertainment, will it prevent true viewer appreciation? Fargo composer Jeff Russo described at the annual Film Ghent Fest how watching series back-to-back allowed composers to play with subtleties – such as letting them associate recurring characters with certain themes to create an immersive sphere. But if the viewer never truly appreciates what they’re watching, then what purpose does it serve? Will cinematography, body language, production designs and all the other small intricate details that define a film be forever ignored over the cheesy one-liners and action-popping fight scenes that quench our binge cravings? It has become socially acceptable to isolate yourself in your home and attach your eyes to the screen as you glaze through countless shows and movies. But in promoting this unhealthy culture we are implicitly condoning an individual’s detachment from reality, choosing instead reliance on these virtual worlds.

It’s become a mass consumer drug with a $8.99-a-month prescription and the withdrawal symptoms are quite real.

This is not to deny that Netflix has advantages, as it continues to increase the standard of innovation and quality of entertainment which fuel the competitive industry and have rightfully bestowed on it the name of king of entertainment distribution. However, these have come at a cost, a cost which strips away the style in how we watch and goes straight for the purity of the substance of what we watch. Are we really willing to kill the experience for the extra dose?