Lori Anderson: Sleep is losing in battle with Netflix

Creating House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, was a risk for Netflix, but one that paid off handsomely.
Creating House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, was a risk for Netflix, but one that paid off handsomely.
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The online service has changed the way we view TV shows, with binge-watching now the norm, says Lori Anderson

I’ve had a really busy summer. I’ve spent time with friends from college in New York, hung out with a couple of recovering alcoholics I really like in Venice Beach and most recently spent long nights with my kinfolk – hard drinkin’, feudin’, hillbillies from Missouri. If you are square-eyed like me, you might recognise them as Friends From College, Flaked and Ozark, the latest releases from Netflix’s bounteous cornucopia of cathode ray tube delights. Sometimes, when my head isn’t filled with new TV releases, I wonder what I did with my evenings in days of yore.

In my darker moments I also wonder if I will lose the use of my legs and devolve into an amorphous purple Barbapapa shape and have to finally wriggle off the sofa. Binging used to mean devouring a tube of Pringles in one fell swoop, or glutinously feasting on the entire contents of a selection box by 8am on Christmas morning – now it means consuming two months of weekly drama in a single evening. To those devious, brilliant minds behind Netflix, our beds, once our natural companion in the wee small hours, are their direct competition. For as Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix, said recently: “Think about it, when you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. Really we’re competing with sleep.”

Now before any of you point the finger at my wanton indolence, I’m clearly not alone. Last week Netflix announced that they had shot past the 100 million subscribers mark and were sitting comfortably at 104 million users with, for the first time, the majority outside of the company’s native America. To celebrate another step towards global domination, Hastings dined on steak at Denny’s (I also like Denny’s, they do a great foil-wrapped baked potato with sour cream) as apparently it’s now a company tradition started when Netflix first crossed the one million mark.

My confessions of a lowbrow aren’t complete without a paean to my favourite genre, the prison documentary. I have been imprisoned everywhere, most recently spending 12 straight hours at the Las Vegas county jail, home of my current night terror, a black plastic restraint chair, which resembles a child’s car seat for adult fetishists as designed by a masked gimp from Russian car firm Lada.

Netflix will celebrate its 20th birthday on 29 August. Launched in 1997 as a DVD rental subscription service, Hastings claimed he was inspired to create the business after receiving a $40 fine from Blockbuster for the late return of a copy of Apollo 13. It would have been cheaper for Blockbuster to waive the fine, for within three years Netflix had expanded to the point where Blockbuster offered $50 million to buy the company – which Hastings refused.

By 2005 the company had 35,000 movie titles and was mailing DVDs out at rate of one million per day. The company’s next giant leap forward came in 2007 when it launched a novel product: online movie streaming. Available at the time to only a few with the necessary broadband speeds, today it is in almost every home.

In one way it was Britain and drama of the House of Commons that helped to push Netflix from a niche site for movie lovers to the mainstream. When the company was looking to invest in its first original multi-part drama it settled on a remake of an old BBC drama, adapted from the novels of Michael Dodds, about a manipulative, murderous government minister.

House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, was brought to the screen by the director David Fincher after Netflix’s sophisticated computer algorithms identified that more viewers watched his films to the very end than almost any other director. When launched in 2013, House of Cards stunned the television industry because Netflix had paid almost $60 million for two seasons without making a pilot or testing the drama’s popularity on focus groups. Fortunately, the show’s turned out to be considerable.

The release in February 2013 of House of Cards was the opening of a televisual sluice gate through which a torrent of high quality TV dramas have flowed. In the last ten years the company’s stock has risen by 6,000 per cent and its success has inspired a whole host of other streaming companies to invest in original TV programmes, once the sole preserve of television channels. For as Hastings said: “Creating a TV network is now as easy as creating an App.” Amazon, Hulu, YouTube and Apple have now followed Netflix into “content creation”.

They have even taken on Hollywood by funding big budget movies, such as Brad Pitt’s War Machine – and seen the Cannes Film Festival then ban films not released in cinemas from competing for its most prestigious prize, the Palme d’Or.

This week even our own beloved Auntie Beeb was swayed by the growing appetite for binge viewing, releasing every episode of Top of the Lake: China Girl, their new drama starring Nicole Kidman and Elizabeth Moss, on the BBC iPlayer. Those wishing a full week to recover from each episode can still tune in each Thursday evening.

So Happy Birthday darling Netflix, you’ve shown me the world, but please may I go to bed now?