Netflix / WIRED
At a 2015 conference in Berlin, Netflix’s co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings compared traditional ‘linear’ television programming to using horses as a mode of transport. In his analogy, of course, Netflix was the shiny automobile revolutionising the market.
Hastings predicted that linear television – where networks pick what time and when shows are going to air – would decline “every year for the next 20 years”, while on-demand TV would only increase in popularity. He went on to list the advantages of internet TV: “You can watch it whenever you want; you can watch it on any screen; it’s customised; it’s personalisable”.
This month, Netflix launched a linear television channel called Netflix Direct that does the opposite of every one of those points. The channel, which is only available in France for the moment, launched on November 6. It broadcasts films and series from Netflix’s own catalogue on a fixed schedule, 24 hours a day, and is only accessible from a computer – not yet on a tablet or mobile phone. Not every French Netflix customer has access to the service yet: it’s being rolled out incrementally in the country, but Netflix plans to make it available nationwide by December 6.
The company has presented the service as a remedy for those moments when you cannot decide what to watch. “Maybe you’re not in the mood to decide, or you’re new and finding your way around, or you just want to be surprised by something new and different,” the firm said in a blog post. “Instead of choosing what to watch, you just want to start watching.” But why has it done such a drastic u-turn?
“Netflix has always offered a style of watching heavily rooted in viewer involvement,” says Marie-France Chambat-Houillon, a director of studies in communication and media at Paris’s Sorbonne-Nouvelle University. Direct offers what Netflix has dubbed the “lean-back experience,” relieving users of the need to make a decision on what to watch.
According to Chambat-Houillon, this is a logical next step for the company. First, Netflix streaming provided content through its catalogue. Then it began to produce its own content with Netflix Originals. “Now, we’re seeing the third step: Netflix becoming a television programmer. It’s no longer about simply providing access to content, but managing the when and how of the viewer experience,” she says.
Netflix Direct hasn’t totally done away with all of the typical trappings of an on-demand service, however: the channel often posts up to five episodes of the same series back-to-back, making binge-watching still a part of the channel’s DNA. Think five episodes of Wallander, followed by five episodes of Paranormal, followed by five episodes of Ragnarok.
For the first time, Direct enables Netflix to directly curate what its viewers watch, and that opens up a number of possibilities for the platform, including using Direct as a promotional tool for underperforming content. If a new series isn’t getting the audience numbers hoped for, Netflix can line up several episodes on Direct to see if that succeeds in raking in more viewers, or at least piquing their interest.
Chambat-Houillon suggested that Direct could also be used in the future to turn the release of hotly-anticipated episodes into a fixed-time event, in much the same way that in the UK, viewers across the nation tune in simultaneously to watch the latest Strictly Come Dancing or the Great British Bake Off.
“There have been a lot of clues recently that platforms are coming back to this idea of gathering together at a specific time [to watch something],” agrees François Jost, the director of the magazine Télévision and a professor in information science. “Even for the latest series of The Crown, which in France we have been impatiently waiting for, Netflix announced what day we would be able to watch it,” he says. “The internet disperses the audience, but television unites it.”
But don’t expect Direct to immediately roll out across all markets. Although Brits love event television, there are unique circumstances that make France the perfect place for Netflix to experiment. France is a country where traditional television programming is still extremely popular: 94 per cent of French households have a television, and in 2019 French people watched on average three and half hours of television a day (during the lockdown in spring this year, that jumped to four hours and 40 minutes a day).
“In France, linear television has mounted a kind of resistance [to on-demand streaming platforms],” says Chambat-Houillon. The country’s successive lockdowns have actually cemented TV’s market dominance, with audience numbers for television channels rising 35 per cent compared to the year before.
Netflix trialling Direct in the country could indicate the company’s efforts to wrench some of those audience numbers away from the nation’s traditional public and private channels, such as TF1, M6 or France 2, and launching Direct during the country’s second lockdown means it can already start to reap some of those benefits. “French television channels have very strong media identities,” explains Chambat-Houillon. “This is perhaps a way for Netflix to create its own identity in France, a way for it to be seen not just as the national branch of an American company, but to create values that are closer to its audience”.
Diversifying into a television channel can also work as a tactic to hoover up possible viewers who are not yet subscribed to Netflix. Frédéric, the creator of French-language podcast ‘Netflixers’ (he refused to give his last name), thinks that Netflix Direct is part of a larger growth strategy in the country: “They’ve perhaps realised that they have already reached the maximum number of people they can hope to have in terms of subscribers. [Netflix Direct is] a way of attracting the interest of a very different type of audience”. In January 2020, Hastings revealed during a visit to Paris to inaugurate new offices that there were 6.7 million subscribers in France.
If Netflix can repurpose itself, at least partly, as a television channel, that could also grant it certain regulatory benefits in France. Were Netflix Direct to be classified separately as a television channel, it could eventually be included in the television bundles of telecoms companies, allowing the company to corner a previously-unreached part of the French market: those who only access television through their telecoms provider and not via the internet.
It would also have a better ‘media chronology’ – this is the name given to a regulatory framework in France that determines when a platform has the rights to show a film after its release in cinemas. For instance, a film can be released on DVD or Blu-Ray just four months after being in cinemas, but cannot be broadcast on free television channels until 22 months afterwards and not for 36 months afterwards for streaming platforms like Netflix. If Netflix reclassified itself as a linear TV channel, it would – theoretically, at least – be able to bump its way up that list and release films on its platform sooner.
A bill reforming the law for audio-visual platforms is currently in the works in France, after a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. The new rules are born from an EU-wide directive designed to take into account the rapid upheaval of the market wrought by streaming platforms.
At the moment in France, ‘generalist’ television channels pay a tax on their revenue that goes towards supporting French and European cinema and TV production. The new regulation would now require Netflix and other SVOD platforms to invest between 20 and 25 per cent of their revenue to the same ends – and doing so could get them a more advantageous ranking in their media chronology. So, hypothetically, Netflix Direct could be used as a loophole in the long term: a way for the company to pay less in its obligations towards French cinema and TV.
When contacted, Netflix France refused to comment on if the company planned to roll out the service in other countries, insisting that for the moment it was just being tested in France.
It seems logical that introducing the “lean-back experience” would be successful in other markets: feeling indecisive over what to watch in the evenings isn’t a solely French phenomenon. But there is perhaps less incentive for the company to develop Netflix Direct in countries that don’t have a similar regulatory environment to France, as this roll-out could be part of a longer-term plan to eke out benefits for Netflix further down the road.
Netflix has always been sharply competitive, seeing competition in not just its own streaming rivals or linear TV, but even in consumers “enjoying a glass of wine with their partner”. But that sense of competition may not extend to a country like the UK, where linear television poses less of a threat to Netflix’s market penetration.
It may seem strange for the king of à la carte to suddenly start offering a set menu, but in a traditional country such as France where viewers still have a strong attachment to linear television, it might be the only way to capture the whole market.
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