Friday, 22 March 2013

A brave new (media) world



In a special post published both here and also on Taking the Short View, bloggers Andrew Lewin and John Hood discuss some of the new developments in media consumption – from binge viewing to 3D, Blu-ray to streaming media, and the effect of social media on how we watch what we watch…

Andrew:

Having seen your recent Facebook posts and excited tweets as you speed-watched Netflix's first foray into original programming, it seems to me that House of Cards is a watershed in more ways than one - not least because it's the first time that anyone has expressly created a show for people to consume all in one gulp, rather than in the measured doses that we get with broadcast networks' weekly schedules.

Is this the way things are going to go? Will we all be binging from this point on, guzzling down entire 13-part series in one weekend as fast as we can stuff them into our eyes?

John:

So-called 'binge-viewing' isn't a new phenomenon!

In the mid-to-late 1990s, I’d regularly watch back-to-back episodes of The X-Files, recorded off-air, from Sky. However, with Netflix’s House of Cards remake, helmed by lauded auteurist David Fincher (The Social Network), binge-viewing has reached its zenith.

One cold Friday in February all 13-episodes, of this lavish multi-million dollar drama, were made available to stream to an international audience. Serendipity. I won a free 6-month subscription from Netflix on Twitter. No deferring gratification...

Andrew:

Yes, but why watch them all at once, that's why I'm wondering? I was a huge fan of The X-Files in the 1990s as well, and have been known to have an evening of back-to-back 'best of' viewing with friends, but that was more a social kind of sharing experience rather than just a matter of watching a series as fast as I possibly could in a 'binge'.

John:

There was an innate tendency for friends and myself to ‘binge’ on junk food and talk all over the episodes (whilst some of us swooned over Gillian Anderson).

Andrew:

Mmmm, Gillian Anderson ... Sorry, what were we talking about? Oh. Right. Yes. Binge viewing.

I'm just getting into the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation at the moment, having finally acquired the series 1 boxset. I absolutely love it, and it arguably should be perfect binge fodder - ten one-hour-long episodes, what could be better to knock back in one weekend's sitting? But I don't.

John:

Which boxset did you go for - DVD or the Blu-ray disc release? The HD transfer is reference material and packs an emotive DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Incidentally, my home cinema odyssey began with the release of James Cameron’s The Abyss: Special Edition on VHS.

Andrew:

The Abyss is probably top of my list for films that I'm still eagerly waiting to see released on Blu-ray!

John:

James Cameron is usually at the forefront of monetizing back catalogues on emerging formats: albeit with a degree of frame-by-frame finesse.

Andrew:

Shame he's taking so long on this one.

John:

Possibly distracted by pre-production on his two Avatar sequels? The only movie I enjoyed in 3D.

Andrew:

Don't get me started on 3D!

John:

A subject we broadly agree on. JJ Abrams resisted 3D for his first Star Trek sequel, but acquiesced to pressure from Paramount. Hopefully, he’ll fare better with the new Star Wars trilogy at Disney.

Andrew:

Let's hope, or I'll have to wait till the 2D home release to see it.

But you're right about the Game of Thrones Blu-ray, it really is reference material. Seriously, it's as good as any box office blockbuster film and I'm quite amazed that HBO achieved it on a TV budget. Online streaming couldn't possibly do it justice.

John:

The advent of Super HD from Netflix (only available to ISPs that are part of the Open Connect network) ushers in an era of Full 1080p to rival Blu-ray disc! The higher bit rate (requiring a minimum connection of 5Mbps) affords greater detail - pictures pop - and a lush Dolby Digital Plus multichannel soundtrack as evidenced in House of Cards.

Andrew:

But even this so-called 'Super HD' still can't match hard media, surely? An hour on Blu-ray takes up to around 15Gb of storage space and even if my ISP could deliver that they would start to throttle my connection for 'unfair use' after a couple of episodes.

John:

A salient point regarding broadband and its, inherent, limitations. My ISP (Virgin Media) is part of the Open Connect network and I haven’t noticed anything deleterious with adaptive streaming. Super HD shines with up-to-date films and television series! Whether’s its Lost or a guilty pleasure such as 90210.

Andrew:

Hmm, okay. I remain to be truly convinced, but you're a discerning sort so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt for now!

John:

Humbled.

Andrew

The other advantage of the Blu-ray release is the extras. Game of Thrones not only has a full load of audio commentaries, but some very well-implemented interactive features providing all the backstory from the novels that just can't fit in the TV running time. I could spend hours looking through all this extra material alone. I assume you don't get any extras from Netflix for House of Cards?

John:

Currently, there’s no extra content available on Netflix. HBO Go has enabled second-screen support for Xbox SmartGlass devices (including iOS): Game of Thrones viewers can browse maps and explore the show’s rich universe and characters, while watching. This is something Netflix could, and should, explore to add-value. Otherwise they’ll be beaten to the punch by rivals such as LOVEFiLM or, more likely, Sky in the UK. PS3 owners can use their iPad to control Netflix for PS3! A very cool Easter Egg.

Lamented not having the option to watch the extended edition of The Hunger Games on Netflix! Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class) delivers a virtuoso performance as Katniss Everdeen and the film is a genre gem. Much like the superlative Tomb Raider reboot, I craved more...

Andrew:

So it seems that in the extras department at least, discs might have the edge. Even so, I must say I'm very surprised to see Amazon listing the new House of Cards series for sale on DVD and Blu-ray. I thought it would be at least a year before Netflix were done leveraging their investment in the show by keeping it exclusive in return for subscriber sign-ups.

I can understand that they need to recoup their investment, but this seems very early. Can we determine anything about the success or otherwise of the on-demand streaming from this, do you think?

John:

Movies are increasingly bowing on Blu-ray disc and pay-per-view within months of theatrical release. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey arrives on Blu-ray disc in time for Easter and will be available to stream, on Netflix first, later this year.

Andrew:

The window for film releases has definitely been getting shorter and shorter. It's just that I thought Netflix would want to leverage their exclusivity on this one for a lot longer, like Sky Atlantic want each season of Game of Thrones to themselves for a full year before it comes out to the hoi polloi to drive Sky sign-ups.

John:

Not forgetting those alluring Sky Free Pass Weekends!

Andrew:

Okay, so here's my problem: insisting on 'old media' rather than streaming, and eking out episodes by watching them pretty much one a week just like the old TV model: am I just being weird and old-fashioned?

John:

Not at all. It simply offers another means of consumption, much like a DVD or Blu-ray disc boxset, and you can savour the taste so to speak. I’m known for an obsessive attention to detail: deconstructing the mise-en-scène (I am a media production graduate for the record): and sometimes replay a film or television series in quick succession.

Andrew:

That's another difference between us, then: I find it hard to rewatch something again too soon, even things that are huge favourites. Once I've watched it, it's usually years before I'll want or need to see it again. Unfortunately that means that after I finish a season it's a long wait till I can get a new fix either way, so eking things out means I don't get to that terrible moment where I finish the whole lot and have months or even years to wait for the next hit!

John:

Finishing one binge just makes room for the next! To typify my adoration for all-things Fincher (he was name-checked in my university applications), which began with his lavish pop video promos for Madonna and Michael Jackson.

I immediately noticed Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) bore an uncanny resemblance to Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo), paused the season premiere, and reached for my second-screen (iPad) to further investigate. They were, indeed, siblings. Excellent; curiosity satiated; press play and resume.

Andrew:

So binging just makes room for more binging, in other words? You make House of Cards sound like it's a gateway drug to lure you into ever-increasing amounts of Netflix streaming!

John:

An eloquent summation!

Andrew:

Heh! Don't get me wrong, I totally understand the appeal of time-shifting things and not wanting to be stuck to a specific broadcast time every week when you're forced to tune in. Who actually does that anymore, after all?

I'm just not convinced by streaming at the moment, but perhaps I'm being unfair and asking the wrong questions. Instead of debating which aspects of traditional broadcasting or DVD/Blu-rays it is that streaming can't quite adequately replace at the moment, what about things that Netflix is doing that couldn't be delivered any other way?

John:

Tellingly, I rarely watch free-to-air (FTA) or satellite! Instead favouring my Xbox 360 and its impressive video on demand (VOD) bouquet. The PS3 is my goto device for Netflix due to Super HD support.

It's maybe worth noting that Netflix is trialling Ultra HD (4K) and 3D streaming in the US.

I applaud Netflix for embracing the opportunity to produce episodes of varying lengths. This gives scenes time to breath amidst the subliminal Apple, BlackBerry, Dell and PlayStation product placement - did I succumb to the reality distortion field? Incidentally, Sony Pictures Television is a distribution partner, which may explain the Blu-ray disc release this summer.

There’s a consistency throughout the series as directors as diverse as Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys) take over directing chores. The glue that keeps all this together is Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). The imperious Robin Wright (The Princess Bride) deserves an Emmy.

Andrew:

It does sound like House of Cards is a very impressive production, and would be whether it was delivered by streaming, boxset or old-fashioned broadcasting. I look forward to seeing it, now I know it'll be out on Blu-ray in June!

Even so, the idea of just watching one episode after another after another just seems ... I don't know, somehow disrespectful to the show? That we're not giving it the proper time and respect to appreciate it before rushing on to the next episode? That's okay for something as essentially throwaway popcorn as 24, but I wouldn't want to do that with Game of Thrones which I'm regarding as something of a masterpiece.

John:

When Modern Family arrived on Netflix. I watched episodes back-to-back between tears of laughter.

Andrew:

I guess I'd put Modern Family more in the 'popcorn' category - and I don't mean anything derogatory by that in the slightest. I just figured that since you're such a Fincher fan (I'm also a great admirer of his films, incidentally) then each episode of House of Cards would similarly require a lot more time for you to obsessively attend to all that detail, not to mention getting your hands dirty with the lovely mise-en-scène deconstruction? Rather than charging on to the next instalment?

John:

A photographic memory means I can watch something once and cogitate at my leisure.

Andrew:

A photographic memory, yet you're the one who likes to rewatch and replay things in short order? You are truly an enigma wrapped up in a contrary puzzle, my friend!

John:

This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been described thus and I’ll take it as a compliment. But, I tend to rewatch episodes and films that resonate. Conversely, I rarely revisit beloved television series years later! Buffy, Doctor Who and The X-Files have not been excluded from this fate.

Andrew:

Just goes to show we're all a big pile of contradictions, I guess.

Okay, back on target: does binge viewing actually add anything to the experience for you as a viewer over the old one-at-a-time approach? Does it get more immersive? For me when I try it, it just starts to become a bit of a confusing blur if I'm honest, and I stop paying attention and I miss things as a result. Does that not happen to you?

John:

Binge viewing could reduce a viewer’s attention! For example The X-Files blurred into an ongoing occult theme, which led to derisive comments from friends and myself.

Andrew:

Hang on, it's starting to sound like I'm turning you round to my way of thinking! Are you having second thoughts - do you regret binging on House of Cards now?

John:

No regrets per se. The 13-episode story arc is so compelling; a page turner. However, I did suffer from House of Cards withdrawal symptoms! When would I get another televisual date with Zoe Barnes (the social network equivalent of Doctor Who's Soufflé Girl)?

Andrew:

Heh - anyone who follows you on Twitter or Facebook will be all too keenly aware what a crush you currently have on Soufflé Girl!

John: Now everyone knows I’m besotted with the ‘impossible girl’...

You mentioned that part of the inspiration for this post were my tweets and Facebook status updates when I was watching it. Ironically, my social media musings were limited to non-spoiler tweets and Facebook status updates for fear of alienating followers and friends. Silenced for being too social?

Andrew:

The social aspect of watching TV these days could be even more of a game changer (and salvation?) for television than Netflix's binge appeal. Being able to see what people are saying about a programme, as it's being broadcast, is almost half the appeal of watching something live these days.

John:

Agreed. Transmedia storytelling (a term Steve Berry used at Channel Four) encourages active participation in the narrative or conversation. Broadcasters' effectiveness varies as evidenced by Glee and Mad Men’s move from Channel Four and BBC 2, respectively, to Sky channels, and social media ‘radio silence’ thereafter...

Netflix’s newly-minted mantra to ‘Watch Responsibly’ compares favourably with Apple’s ‘Think Different’ campaign. Irreverently riffing on a memorable quote from House of Cards.

Andrew:

But surely you don't get that when you're self-scheduling and binge viewing - everyone's at a different point, so as you point out you feel almost silenced by what you can and can't tweet or post about it for fear of ruining it for someone else.

John:

It's something I’ve done, unintentionally, in the past during regular TV broadcasts of Doctor Who and Mad Men. The latter series was enriched, immeasurably, by simulcast tweets. So much so I stopped watching season five as there was little or no buzz in the social media space.

Netflix does have an opt-in for sharing content on Facebook (recently enabled in the US). This affords a less-spoiler-prone conversation with friends who maybe interested in a particular episode of a series.

Andrew:

That's interesting - Netflix gives you a way of 'ring fencing' your social media posts so that they're only shared with people who are at the same point as you are?

John:

Alas, there’s no granular control for sharing to Facebook beyond an option to ‘unshare’ (permanently at this time) a film or television series. Cynical minds might argue so-called social sharing is unpaid marketing, mostly. However, a more nuanced, case-by-case, approach can generate compelling conversations.

Andrew:

I guess it shows that not only is social media a fundamental part of the viewing experience these days, but it's just another aspect of TV - like the weekly broadcast model itself - that needs serious rethinking if it's going to be fit for purpose for the next decade.

So do you think all viewing will be replaced by streaming over the next decade? Would you approve if it did? I'm not sure I would, but maybe that's just be bring cranky and past it.

John:

Streaming will become increasingly prevalent as evinced by the surge of interest in this space since Netflix arrived in the UK in 2012. LOVEFiLM and Sky have responded rapidly to the new kid on the block playing in their backyard. But, is unlikely to supplant existing broadcasting platforms and nor should it. It’s imperative that individuals are not excluded.

Andrew:

I think there was some talk in Parliament recently about actually ending broadcast TV in the near future as they figured everyone could just switch to Internet viewing instead. Which just hows how little Westminster understands about the online media scene, and the realities of people's access to the Internet not to mention how badly the UK network infrastructure is struggling under existing traffic even before adding millions of people doing 'regular viewing' on top.

But it'll happen in the end. And as long as people have the choice, I can't say I'll really mind or care if I'm watching a Smart TV, Apple TV set-top box or some-such that allows me to choose what to watch anytime I want it, meaning that scheduled network channels cease to exist altogether. But even if I have all 13 (or more) episodes of a programme available - like House of Cards on Netflix - I can't imagine actually wanting to binge on them all in one go. Unless I'm just so fed up with having something in the queue that I just want it done and out of the way - hardly a high recommendation!

John:

Interesting! Accessibility for all is key and monopolies must be avoided in favour of media plurality. Otherwise there’s a danger we’ll all be watching ‘Borg TV’ and looking like those poor Podlings in The Dark Crystal...

Andrew:

What a thought! Is resistance futile? Just the bombshell on which to adjourn our musings for this outing.

House of Cards is available to watch via streaming on Netflix now. It will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on June 10, 2013. Game of Thrones seasons 1 and 2 are out on Blu-ray and DVD, and in the UK season 3 starts on Sky Atlantic on April 1 2013.