Netflix has taken its shareholders on a roller coaster ride in recent years, but then that’s to be expected when a company makes such brash moves into that treacherous, unexplored terrain beyond live television.
“Everything we have done as a company has been about trying to figure out consumer needs and desires, and deliver on it,” said Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix.
Bidding to reinvent the release model for new shows with a binge viewing strategy, Netflix debuted all 13 episodes at once of the Kevin Spacey-fronted “House of Cards” in February. But to many, the even bolder move occurred after the fact, when the streaming service declined to release any of the show’s metrics or performance numbers. Filling the gap, broadband technology firm Procera Networks stepped in to monitor traffic on the show’s release day and has said that across one unnamed broadband network that comprised a large portion of viewership, about 2% of Netflix subscribers watched an episode of “Cards,” which amounts to about 540,000 viewers. And those figures don’t account for other broadband networks or the days following the February 1 release date.
“We’re thrilled with the performance,” Sarandos said, though he was quick to emphasize that Netflix isn’t necessarily promoting binge viewing. “We’re promoting consumer choice and among those is the opportunity to binge if you want. Many people love doing that and it’s every bit as enjoyable as watching one episode at a time.”
To promote the release of “House of Cards,” Netflix ran an ad in “The New York Times,” as well as on billboards in London, New York and Los Angeles, also relying on its home page to drive awareness. In addition, Netflix turned to its own personalization tools to deliver different trailers based on viewing habits. Someone who’d watched “Thelma & Louise,” for instance, might have seen a trailer focusing on the female lead, Robin Wright, while a viewer who’d seen “Margin Call” would see a trailer with star Kevin Spacey front and center.
“The goal is to help position Netflix as a source of high-quality original programming as much as it’s a source of archived TV shows and movies,” said Will Richmond, industry analyst and expert with VideoNuze, and a fan of the all-at-once viewing strategy because “it turns the traditional TV programming model on its head and it’s right in synch with what viewers expect these days.”
The all-at-once approach also gives creators freedom to move away from traditional storytelling tools such as weekly cliffhangers. “I don’t buy into the notion that waiting a week is half the fun,” said Sarandos. “That’s pre-Internet and the problem with cliffhangers is it creates an artificial storytelling means.”
The big cliffhanger for those hungry for more Netflix news is that the company won’t release another original series until April with horror show “Hemlock Grove.” Then an even bigger test comes in May when Emmy winner and cult favorite “Arrested Development” returns to air with a new slate of episodes exclusively for Netflix. Both series will continue the trend of debuting all their episodes at the same time. Meanwhile, analysts will be watching to see if the trend of high viewership continues as well, and if Netflix’s new model has what it takes to compete with HBO and other cable network providers of high-quality original content.