This week, I came pretty damn close to binge-watching an entire series on Netflix in one sitting. Maniac, since you asked. This is quite terrifying as there’s only one way I can see it going. And with Netflix being projected to spend over £10 billion on new content just this year, there’s a slim chance I’m going to be able to stop it.
As well as this being scary for story-junkies who can’t control their viewing habits like me, this huge surge of new, original content is also a sign the nineteenth-fastest growing company on the Fortune’s 100 List is doing something incredibly effective and right in its industry.
Netflix already has so many good TV series and movies on its platform that just a few minutes of searching through its categories is a sure-fire recipe for analysis paralysis and a domestic dispute. Even if the company stopped adding content today, it would take nearly four years to get through it all — without any food, bathroom, or coffee breaks.
Watching just three hours a day — a figure more manageable for some of us — that’s still over thirty years of adrenaline and tear-filled screen time.
So what it is exactly about the Netflix model that’s driving its monumental success and leading it to invest in so much more content? And more specifically, why does, at the same time as making me fear I’ll become an unsociable and illiterate fat glob that never leaves his bed again, the promise of more Netflix content make me so excited that, actually, I could happily let that happen?
Using global data to create an individual experience
Unlike what is typically the case in TV and media, first and foremost, Netflix is a technology company, and a media and entertainment company second.
It may have started out in the mail-order DVD business, but today Netflix’s core offering is its multi-billion dollar platform — a cross-device AI-powered monster that’s built on and shaped by masses of our data.
The Netflix platform knows at which point in a movie you pause it or leave and thus may have lost interest, it knows how quickly you binge through a series, and it knows at what times of the year or day you like romcoms best. All this data was previously unavailable to media companies, but thanks to being a tech company and harnessing AI and big data, Netflix can use it and feed it into improving its platform and making more compelling content.
In this way, Netflix can appeal to the masses while appealing to the individual just as well. It knows better than you whether or not you’ll love a series before you even start watching it. It fine-tunes each user’s experience, customising your dashboard to reflect your ratings, preferences, and behaviours, even tailoring generic categories like “Comedies” and Dramas” to make sure you find that next movie or series you’ll love.
A modern format that taps into ancient mechanisms
Netflix is essentially to stories what supermarkets are to food. I mean it was thanks to Netflix we have the term binge-watching — a mode of gorging on stories until you’re brain dead, much like stuffing your face with food until you puke.
The thing is, like many foods we binge eat, these stories are good — incredibly good. Through all the data it has gathered up, the stories Netflix produce are like mouth-watering genetically-engineered superfoods that press all the right buttons in the exactly the right order.
Netflix does this is by tapping into the mechanisms in the brain that have evolved through millennia of storytelling. A clear example is the mini-cliffhangers it uses to leave us itching for more after every TV episode.
A ‘who did it’ or ‘omg what’s going to happen next’ situation puts your body under acute stress, causing you to produce an excess of Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and in doing so putting you in an alert and primed state. Your fight or flight response is triggered, and all while you’re in your pyjamas and about to go to sleep. I suppose one more episode won’t hurt.
Another way Netflix keeps you glued to the screen is through exploiting a principle known in cognitive psychology as chunking. Chunking is based on the idea that the brain best receives, processes, and remembers information in small segments, for example, by splitting a phone number into three parts instead of just one.
In terms of chunking and time, we like things that come in thirty minute or hourly chunks. But content on Netflix tends to come in bouts of forty or twenty minutes, leaving us somewhat disorientated and unsatisfied when the credits start rolling. In order to get that hit of dopamine and feel like we’ve achieved something, we thus keep watching until we digest a chunk that is satisfying enough or until we finish the whole series.
Storytelling before the stories even begin
When you take a trip to Disney World, your journey starts in your living room immediately after you press confirm and book your tickets. You can download the My Disney Experience app, start planning your itinerary, and be instantly transported into the whole Disney-esque experience long before you even arrive.
Netflix also extends their stories way beyond their primary content. From the whole design of their platform to the specific fonts they use to promote each movie or show, once you’re logged in, you’re in Netflix’s world and are being drawn in by a cleverly-designed system of funnels and user journey maps.
This embedded form of storytelling is something new that TV companies, with their random ad-breaks every fifteen minutes and separated advertising in the form of billboards and print, have again not been able to benefit from. Say, for instance, there’s a new series of Altered Carbon that Netflix spent millions producing and it knows you’ll be interested in. Instead of pushing it with infrequent and salesy commercials or by taking a page out in Wired magazine, it rather throws you into the story as quickly as possible using bold visuals, futuristic fonts, and atmospheric, grungy music over the whole thing.
Netflix recognises how much design influences our judgment on the quality of content. It’s a well-known fact in business that a more premium and tailored design changes how we perceive products and makes us place a much higher value on them. As a technology company that has complete control over the whole design of its products and the platform they’re published on, the result is we value its stuff pretty damn highly, and that we will continue binging no matter what the consequences may be.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn to find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.