It’s not TV…It’s Netflix

What am I watching? It’s the nature of the beast to find yourself in front of the television asking this very question. But usually when we ask we know exactly what we’re watching. It’s generally a comment on the poor quality of the programme we ended up watching or a realisation we drifted into something we didn’t choose to watch (like the time I accidentally turned over from The Terminator to Ordinary People and kept waiting for the robots to turn up). However, watching the Netflix series of Arrested Development, I found myself asking this question and genuinely not knowing.

‘Arrested Development’ delivered in one block.

I’ve grappled before with the question of whether content designed primarily for internet distribution can be considered television. When teaching media studies, I used to debate with students whether programmes that had all the characteristics of television but were being seen online-like the live coverage of Felix Baumgartner space jump-still qualified as TV. Since people are going to the internet to watch this content, on first impression it would seem not. But it’s the case with much television today that people will see it first-and often only-online. So is all the TV that is watched online disqualified too?

Impressive…but is it TV?

With internet content that originated online, you can argue it both ways. However, content that was previously a television programme but subsequently moved online should be a pretty clear cut case of television, right? Well, that’s what I thought until I saw the 15 30-minute episodes of Arrested Development released on Netflix last Saturday night. The series, a revival of a Fox sitcom from the mid-2000s, heralds a new way of telling stories online, adopts a style based on how information is presented on internet devices and is fit-to-burst with points of reference from consuming media content via web technologies.

Flashbacks provided by Showstealer Pro!

It’s a lot to do with how the episodes are delivered to the viewer. Instead of 1 or more episodes broadcast once a week until the run is complete, Netflix make all episodes of the series available at once. Of course, this is a way of watching derived from the possibility of consuming TV series all at once that has arisen from DVD, on-demand services and internet file-sharing. But that was always an option not the primary port of call. The producers of Arrested Development have clearly identified the difference this makes to how viewers are likely to watch the series.

‘Arrested Development’…full stream ahead!

Each episode has been constructed in the knowledge that viewers are able to watch each of the instalments out of order and expect some gratification for watching the concurrently available episodes in their entirety. The full story of what happens is revealed fragment by fragment and at different stages of the series depending on which of the endless combinations of chronologies the viewer chooses. Whatever journey you take, you’ll encounter non-sequiturs which will eventually become comprehensible while what you’re seeing is clarifying an enigma in another later or earlier episode. However, this all assumes viewers will take advantage of the potential for viewing episodes in a random, non-chronological order. In the end, it’s the old Jurassic Park question; of course you can but should you?

TV from the Great Dark Period!

I’m guessing that most viewers wouldn’t know to watch the episodes piñata-style without having been told in advance. Pre-publicity made a big deal of the chronology-optional viewing pleasures, and we’ve been hearing about the revival for some time, but I’m not sure it would be most people’s natural inclination to watch the show like Tarantino storyboarding Pulp Fiction. Sure, Netflix’s catalogues of full series allow for cherry-picking episode highlights, but at the point of selection we’re still in the dark about what episodes these might be. Basically, watching through is as good a way as any of getting to the end.

Who’s story do you want to see first?

In its network TV days, Arrested Development made a big deal of what it meant to be on Fox, and the Netflix revival seems as keen on reminding viewers that it is now internet content. Flashbacks and cut-aways come in the form of online videos, hacked TV-rip software and Prezi-esque slideshows. At times we think we’re looking at the world through a camera only to find we’re looking through someone’s eyes at a webpage. Network TV is still there in the background, with spot-on sideswipes at CBS’ This Morning and NBC’s To Catch a Predator. But you don’t feel like you’re surrounded by the flow of US TV entertainment and news anymore, you feel like you’ve plucked what you’re watching from the annals of cyberspace.

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