Television has always been a medium that brings people together. Even when watched alone, it is simulcast into millions of locations, bonding far-flung audiences in a shared zeitgeist. The idea of ‘water-cooler TV’ captures the sense in which we’ve understood TV as a medium experienced simultaneously and reflected upon immediately, among people whose social ties are otherwise loose.
Digital technology has multiplied and amplified these loose ties. Social media enable new relationships for us to tend through shared TV moments, and they invite us to familiarise ourselves with a broader range of programming so we can participate in more online discussions. The accompanying reviews, recaps and commentaries we consume are also increasingly published digitally, for international audiences.
But keeping up with the international TV zeitgeist while living in Australia has long felt like pressing our faces against a window from the outside. Historically, a mix of protectionism, laggardly network infrastructure and the relatively small size of the Australian TV market has forced us to wait longer, pay more or turn to piracy in order to participate in ‘golden age’ cultural conversations.
The advent of streaming promised to set Australian viewers free. No more settling for the shows our free-to-air networks had to offer, at a pace and timeslot they dictated; no more rushing home to turn on the TV at the appointed hour; no more suffering through ads; no more fiddling with VCRs and DVRs, or scouring shops for overpriced box sets.
Catch-up TV platforms and subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) streaming services also acknowledged the time pressures elsewhere in our lives and promised to compensate for them. At last, we could navigate programming worlds based on our own individual tastes and work schedules, browsing frictionlessly through a vast electronic wellspring of viewing material. We could watch whatever we wanted, whenever it suited us.
The irony of streaming TV, however, is that it is a neoliberal practice through which we struggle to evade the effects of neoliberalism. We grasp at individualistic post-broadcast mechanisms in order to belong and bond with others, and to unwind in an era when much more of life feels like work. Yet this same neoliberalism also posits TV viewers as atomised, flexible, self-interested individuals, inviting us to abandon shared values to ‘optimise’ the ‘productivity’ of our viewing.
From greenfield to silo
Neoliberalism is an economic ideology that recasts all social relationships and creative choices as acts of competitive consumption within a deregulated market. The neoliberal subject is ‘free’ in the sense that their agency comes from leaving behind any affiliation with or accountability to others. If they succeed, the doctrine claims, it’s because they worked harder; if they fail, they didn’t work hard enough.
Because institutions of all sorts have been operating under neoliberal principles for the last forty-odd years, surrendering governance to free-market forces, this has come to seem like ‘just the way things are’ – a natural rather than ideological force. Like the proverbial slow-boiling frogs, we have adapted to an economic system based on ‘agile’, ‘flexible’ work, the cultural normalisation of presenteeism, and the technological extension of work availability outside traditional workspaces. Neoliberalism has eroded our capacity to predict our leisure time in advance, and has even destabilised the distinctions between work and leisure.
It’s a neoliberal belief that we should be able to watch whatever TV shows we personally want, whenever we want them, as long as we pay and someone is selling. More broadly, entertainment media are shifting away from public, communal spaces – theatres, cinemas, live music venues – towards private, domestic spaces, and the even tinier individual scale of tablets, phones and headphones.
What we still call ‘television’ has become a series of content silos – some accessible without charge, others as SVOD services – that don’t eliminate traditional viewing models so much as emulate them for an individual online user. In Australia, with the exception of ABC iview, the traditional broadcast networks’ catch-up services – SBS On Demand, 7plus, 9Now and 10 play – are still supported by advertising. Meanwhile, SVOD services such as Netflix, Stan, Foxtel, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube Premium and Fetch require monthly payments.
‘Something has become clear,’ wrote David Sims in the Atlantic in June 2019: ‘The past decade or so of online-streaming television was the medium’s wild-west era.’ In other words, a time when lots of great movies and series from major studios and creative producers were abundantly available for low prices, because everyone was still figuring out the future of their business models.
‘The siloed age of television has arrived,’ he continued gloomily, ‘a time when people will be paying six or seven different monthly fees, if not more, to keep abreast of pop culture.’
TV is still creatively excellent and abundant, but expensive and exclusive. The consumer freedom that streaming putatively enables is really only a choice of whom, and how much, to pay. This is why peer-to-peer piracy poses TV providers such an existential challenge: torrenting represents a shared, collective exchange outside of the streaming market.
Poignantly, we still want to be part of a viewing community, and we still use TV shows as rallying points for shared identities. The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies galvanise feminism; Please Like Me, Jessica Jones and Lady Dynamite realistically depict mental illness; Girls and Broad City capture a youthful zeitgeist; Cleverman, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat tackle race issues; Orange is the New Black, Vida and Pose allow queer, non-white audiences to feel ‘seen’ as they watch. Streaming providers have packaged these communal desires and marketed them back to us as FOMO-led subscription pushes.
But what you’re paying for – on-demand access to a vast streaming library – has turned out to be less liberating than expected.
You better work
Television has always nurtured ambitions to ‘quality’ within a programming environment generally dismissed as trashy and disposable. Since its earliest days, the ‘boob tube’ and ‘idiot box’ has screened anthology shows filmed live like plays; innovative sci-fi and comedy; nuanced explorations of crime, politics and social issues; and big-budget ‘event’ miniseries. Importantly, a lot of very successful television is still trashy and disposable. But the rise of streaming has coincided with the rise of social media, which provides a parallel commentary track. And this narrative is that movies are the new trash, ruled by reboots, sequels and comic-book superheroes, most of which are controlled by Disney and enjoyed by idiots. Discerning audiences are exhorted to stay home and seek narrative art in ‘prestige TV’.
Social media is a quantified arena for the competitive performance of atomised selves, so it’s perfectly suited to lionise series creators and showrunners as the new auteurs, and to claim they capture the human condition. But what neoliberalism has really altered is the viewer’s relationship to what we watch. Prestige TV viewing is a form of cognitive and emotional labour: we aren’t just passively entertained, but actively work to receive the show as something intentionally moving and revelatory.
In his 1995 book Consumption and Identity at Work, sociologist Paul du Gay observed the ways in which neoliberal management practices were encouraging workers to develop neoliberal subjectivities: ‘enterprising selves’ that were autonomous, self-reliant and calculating. ‘Paid work and consumption are just different playing grounds for the same activity,’ du Gay writes – ‘that is, different terrains upon which the enterprising self seeks to master, better and fulfil itself’.
Simply watching a show is only the first step in a process of enterprising self-cultivation via pop culture. Next you reflect on your response to the show, coming to an understanding of yourself as a discerning, engaged viewer. Then you perform this knowing self by talking about the show online, or even creating paratexts such as reviews, recaps, video essays, memes, cosplay and fan fiction.
Unlike broadcasts, and with much less logistical investment than box sets, streams can be revisited again and again, screencapped and GIFed, allowing us to work harder at noticing and appreciating fresh details of script, performance and mise en scène with each viewing. Discussing TV has become respectable, a portmanteau of literary and film criticism – and, inevitably, a way to highlight the hours devoted to unpicking complex, thematically rich narratives and situating them within genre, oeuvre and social context.
This kind of work used to be divided between two groups: professionals, such as academics and journalists, whose culture work was intellectual, detached and contextual; and fans, whose expertise was enthusiastic, immersed in the text and shared for free. In recent years, however, those groups have dovetailed in all the worst ways. Pop-culture journalism is booming online, yet it offers very few secure, paid jobs. Freelance critics, who once had journalism backgrounds, are now frequently humanities graduates and postgraduates, or enterprising fans who work day jobs and pitch stories about their favourite shows on the side.
Indeed, much of the writing in online pop-culture media combines the phraseology and key concepts of critical theory with deeply personal attachments to the show being discussed. In a neoliberal media marketplace, atomised critics compete with one another for the hottest take and readers’ attentions. Currently, the best way to garner more online traffic – on which these websites depend for their financial survival – is a hyperbolic rave or pan that deploys a rhetoric of power and politics, framed by the critic’s own identity and experience.
But even if we aren’t actually parlaying our viewing into careers in the content mines, ‘being across’ all the acclaimed TV shows can feel overwhelming in the same way a workload does. On a pragmatic level we know nobody can watch, read or have an opinion on absolutely everything. But our social networks act like panoptical bosses, to whom our enterprising identities are always visible and so must constantly be tended. We find it hard to admit to friends, family and colleagues that there’s labour in our leisure, because everyone except us seems to be having fun watching the latest hot show.
Neoliberal working conditions offer plenty of horrible examples of this state of being, such as driving for Uber with fastidious false cheer in order to secure five-star ratings from drunks, or staffing an Amazon warehouse stuffed with assorted goods that must be fetched at a robotically fast pace. It is up to the enterprising worker to compensate for shifts in the pace of technology using strategies to manage presence, affect and time.
One such strategy is binge watching. My friend’s sister decided to watch all eight seasons of Game of Thrones in less than a fortnight, in order to be ‘caught up’ for the series finale in May 2019. She drew up a strict viewing schedule: one episode over lunch, and then five to six on weeknights, seven to eight on Friday nights and ten to thirteen episodes on Saturdays and Sundays. ‘Don’t hang out with me, don’t ring me,’ she posted on Instagram. ‘I will not respond until next Tuesday.’
We often think of SVOD services as binge engines, enabling entire seasons of a TV show to be devoured in long, immersive sessions. Their affordances create a seamless viewing experience: the next episode begins automatically, and credit and recap sequences can be skipped. Binge watching predates streaming, of course, but Netflix popularised this viewing mode in 2013, when it simultaneously released all thirteen episodes of House of Cards.
Much discussion of prestige TV has focused on the way binge watching has enabled such shows to be received as thematically dense, long-form single texts rather than as serial storytelling in the older broadcast sense. Liberated from the requirements of network seasons, streaming-first shows have shorter episode runs and more leisurely pacing. But as anyone who has ever gone deep on a particular show will understand, the delirious attachment isn’t inherent to the text or facilitated by the screening platform: it comes from the viewer’s own time investment and cognitive labour.
Back in 2016, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, explained to entertainment news website HitFix that the company’s policy of not staggering episodes was guided by data on its users’ viewing habits, which suggested that they preferred to watch one series at a time. ‘If you decide tomorrow you want to watch Breaking Bad, you are going to spend the next two months watching all of Breaking Bad before you move on to something else,’ Sarandos said. ‘Which is radically different than, you know, a show-a-night viewing the way people used to do.’
Yet streaming providers are increasingly finding more value in old-fashioned appointment television. Much of the hype and prestige that attaches to HBO shows such as Mad Men, Game of Thrones and Big Little Lies comes from the network’s practice of drip-feeding weekly episodes, which creates space for viewers to perform their work of commentary and analysis, but is effectively just as monolithic and dictatorial as the old habit of rushing home to catch a broadcast.
And why is Netflix investing in its own programming? Because many of its most popular shows are licensed from other companies, which are beginning to recognise the value of hoarding their intellectual property to become streaming providers in their own right.
Netflix doesn’t release ratings, but in August 2019 the analytics firm Jumpshot released statistics showing the provider’s most popular programs were not its own prestige Originals, but long-running broadcast TV series streamed under licence: The Office, Friends, Parks and Recreation, Grey’s Anatomy, New Girl, Supernatural, Criminal Minds, NCIS, Gilmore Girls and Frasier.
Watching these old, familiar shows is comfort viewing. ‘I think I started watching [Modern Family] again when I was going through a particularly bad time at work,’ a 29-year-old policy analyst named Ciaran told The Guardian. ‘I got addicted to the warmth, and then I got addicted to just feeling good about myself.’
Meanwhile, Lucy, 28, plays old Gilmore Girls episodes at home in the background, or uses the show to autoplay her to sleep. ‘I find it more relaxing to rewatch, as I don’t have to join in on the hot takes and social threads that surround the “big new series” or worry about spoilers,’ she said.
It is striking, and sad, to see streaming TV so clearly acknowledged as work, yet also as a kind of emotional medicine for work’s alienating effects. We use streaming TV to adapt to the demands neoliberal capitalism makes on our time, attempting to carve out leisure. Yet we end up emulating the machinic pace of streaming, and fuelling the online discussion it requires to be legitimised as art.
The invisible hand holding the remote
In 2013, I wrote an essay for Junkee about being a ‘TV bystander’, in which I argued that the availability of streaming frees viewers from the pressure of feeling they need to watch popular shows when they are brand new: ‘The pleasures they offer haven’t evaporated with their original, zeitgeisty moments. They are still ripe with deferred enjoyment. Knowing I could watch them if I chose – but am choosing not to right now – is comforting, rather than bewildering.’
It’s far less comforting, however, to be reminded that this choice isn’t entirely in my own hands. By eschewing physical home-entertainment media, viewers are relinquishing control over what they watch to the companies that run streaming services. We’re dimly aware of the way that these companies surveil us, keeping tabs not just on what we watch, but also how long we watch and where we pause our viewing sessions. But we don’t often consider just how calculatingly this data shapes what we are given to watch, because we frame our viewing in terms of neoliberal agency – chosen solely by us, guided solely by our tastes.
Browsing a streaming library often brings a sense of faint frustration, as if the full extent of the catalogue is hidden from you, the supposedly in-charge user. The same shows always seem to appear repeatedly in the browsing screen. If you want to watch something in particular – something that isn’t being heavily pushed as part of a self-promotional ‘prestige TV’ strategy or a synergistic licensing deal – it’s sometimes frustratingly unavailable across any of the available services. And even if it’s available now, it won’t always be.
Both traditional broadcasting and physical home entertainment can preserve cultural memory in a way that streaming cannot: videocassettes and DVDs can be archived and retrieved, while the sheer volume of hours that need to be filled on broadcast television – especially in the era of multichannelling – makes re-runs a cornerstone of programming, enabling series to find new audiences years, and even decades, after their original airing.
As I write, SBS is currently re-running The X-Files from the beginning. I discovered this by accident and embarked upon the distinctly contemporary pleasure of bingeing the episodes in chronological order. But I simply couldn’t keep up: the episodes would vanish from SBS On Demand before I’d had a chance to watch them. A network show’s success was once judged by its longevity – as the joke from Community goes, ‘Six seasons and a movie!’ The X-Files originally ran for nine seasons of between 20 and 24 episodes, enabling it to develop rich characters and a complex mythology; in many ways, its narrative emphasis on mystery made it a forerunner of today’s prestige puzzle-box shows. But streaming television’s commercial fulcrum is its novelty and ephemerality. Its business model is to lure viewers with trial subscriptions, then keep them hooked with a constant churn of new stuff to watch.
In early June 2019, Sarandos laid down a commissioning formula to a group of company executives: the cost of a series versus the number of viewers it brings in. After two successful seasons, having built a loyal, stable audience, most creative teams want to renegotiate their contracts to provide better pay; but without new subscribers to offset these increased costs, the thriftier decision is to cancel the show.
This is why so many well-made, well-reviewed Netflix shows have been axed after two or three seasons. And, as industry website Deadline speculated in March 2019, those shows aren’t being picked up by competing networks because Netflix contracts have no-compete clauses that stipulate ‘blackout periods’ of as long as seven years – long enough for any buzz surrounding the show to have safely dissipated, and its audience to have drifted away.
The market imperatives that guide streaming are singularly terrible at preserving TV history. For every old show an SVOD rescues, it quietly consigns others to digital memory holes. Prestige cinema streaming service FilmStruck, which had one of the internet’s deepest archives of classic movies, plus the streaming rights to the Criterion Collection, went out of business in 2018, despite the protests of prominent directors and the anguished cries of Twitter.
Meanwhile, in September 2018, Apple was forced to admit the possibility of video content purchased from iTunes – not just rented, but bought outright, like virtual box sets – to disappear from users’ iTunes libraries if Apple ever changes its licensing agreements with film studios and distributors.
Before Netflix began to operate officially in Australia in 2015, Australians were forced to use virtual private networks (VPNs) as workarounds to sign up for the service. Now, 50 per cent of Australian adults currently access Netflix, but we don’t get the same range of shows for our subscription fees that American subscribers do. This may be video on demand – but we can’t demand what we don’t even know we’re missing out on.
Disney’s vast vault of film and television – including its popular Marvel and Star Wars brands – is currently available in Australia via Stan, but Disney has since announced its own proprietary streaming service, Disney Plus, which will launch here on 11 December 2019. Disney’s recent purchase of 21st Century Fox also means it now takes control of Fox and NBC’s on-demand network Hulu, thus tearing the intricate fabric of distribution deals that have seen Hulu series pop up in Australia on Foxtel, Stan, Amazon Prime Video and SBS – sometimes months or seasons behind their US release.
The ruthless exploitation of familiar intellectual property is often bemoaned for its lack of originality and creativity; but what’s more troubling is that it economically exploits viewers’ yearning for a breathing space away from the market. Streaming providers frequently revive old network favourites, sometimes with their original casts – for example, The X-Files was revived in 2016 for two mini-seasons that screened on Amazon and Hulu. Other zombie faves include Gilmore Girls, The Twilight Zone, Will & Grace, Full House and the troubled Roseanne. To the streaming providers, these are Goldilocks shows: they are comfortingly familiar, but for all intents and purposes, they count as ‘new’ shows.
The triumph of neoliberalism as an economic ideology is in the quiet, capillary way it has crept into our everyday habits and ideas about ourselves. Despite its brave rhetoric of rugged individualism and laissez-faire market forces, it actually depends upon ruthless surveillance of and intervention in people’s choices, and is succoured by a hidden substructure of institutional power relationships. In the case of streaming television, these are the contracts and deals that decide who gets paid and for how long, and the algorithmic mechanisms that strip control from viewers even as they claim to empower us.
A socialist utopia certainly won’t be found by scrutinising TV shows for subversive political resonances. But perhaps one way to seize the streams of production is to champion a world of physical media and in-person conversation. We need to enmesh TV in the fabric of real life, not online life.
Have you ever wandered quiet suburban streets on grand final day and heard the muffled ocean-roar of many people in many houses, separately but unanimously, celebrating the winning goal? We need more TV like that.
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