The end of the decade is just around the corner, and with it an expansion of streaming services. Entertainment continues to “unbundle” from the old cable format viewers are familiar with, only to rebrand as standalone subscriptions controlled by those who produced the content in the first place. But how we receive entertainment may not be the only thing that’s changing.
This weekend’s major release from Netflix, “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” introduces an entirely new way to experience content. Billed as a film by Netflix, “Bandersnatch” would perhaps be better described as a single feature-length episode with multiple beginnings, middles and ends. These permutations are all controlled by a new video game-esque format, which Netflix is referring to as “interactive TV.”
With 312 minutes of scenes, the new installment of “Black Mirror” may seem like a clever gimmick. But Netflix considers interactive TV to be the logical next step.
An anthology science fiction series first created for UK’s Channel 4, “Black Mirror” was snatched up by Netflix after the original two seasons were received well by viewers. The show likes to delve into themes relating to how people relate to technology, and in the words of series creator Charlie Brooker, “the way we live now — and the way we might be living in 10 minutes' time if we're clumsy.” While “Black Mirror” is not the first Netflix show to use what is essentially non-linear storytelling — the streaming service has experimented with it prior with shows aimed at small children — Netflix couldn’t have picked a better candidate for a more widespread experiment.
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With 312 minutes (that’s over five hours) of scenes, the new installment of “Black Mirror” may seem like a clever gimmick. But Netflix considers interactive TV to be the logical next step, having already spent millions customizing algorithm feeds to viewer preferences. Once again, Netflix is changing the way we watch TV, driving viewers toward a model that removes the idea of entertainment as a communal experience. For many of us, watching shows together has recently become a thing of the past due to streaming services and series that drop all at once. Now we may not even be watching the same versions of a single show.
The idea of entertainment as a force bringing the world together has been around for a while. But the modern concept of the shared entertainment experience may have peaked in the 1980s and 1990s with the end of “M*A*S*H” (106 million viewers) and “Cheers” (85 million viewers). The last major gasp may have been “American Idol” in the mid-aughts, which brought in around 30 million viewers at its height. Nowadays, the closest thing is probably “Game of Thrones,” which drew in over 16 million viewers for the season seven finale. That’s barely half the “Idol” numbers, but its social media buzz and societal impact sure makes it at least feel like a plurality of the population is tuning in.
When “Game of Thrones” ends, it’s unclear what if anything will take its place. The lack of a successor has a lot to do with Netflix’s decision in 2013 to release all 13 episodes of the first season of “House of Cards” at once. It was a radical act. Netflix’s reasoning was that, as a streaming service, there was no need for appointment viewing. Dropping every episode at the same time gave viewers the ultimate freedom to watch whenever and however they chose, whether it was calling in sick on Friday morning to binge watch all 13 installments in a single day or spreading them out over time like a more traditional series.
In doing so, however, Netflix has also seriously damaged the idea of entertainment as a force that binds us together. No one can stand around their workplace and talk about last night’s episode if everyone is watching at a different pace. Netflix's model, one could argue, is entirely based on the idea that communal viewing is already dead. Algorithms explicitly tailored to each individual's viewing habits make it so we don't even see the same shows debut on the same day, with Netflix sometimes releasing up to a dozen new shows a week, programming them to ensure the right new releases wind up in front of the right eyeballs. So perhaps it is only natural that Netflix is the one to take the idea of adaptable programming to the next level — and make the show’s plot itself customizable.
The highlight of “Black Mirror” last season was the “U.S.S. Callister” episode, in which a plot twist reveals the characters were inside a twisted sort of game, controlled by an angry coworker. “Bandersnatch” is merely taking that concept to the next level, with us as the controlling (and perhaps destructive) force deciding the fate of the increasingly helpless main character, video game designer Stefan (Fionn Whitehead).
The odd-sounding subhead “Bandersnatch” comes from an obscure never-was UK videogame from the 1980s, which the show claims is based on a fictitious, 1970s “choose your own adventure” book. We control Stefan, who creates characters for others to control, based on a book where the reader controls the outcome.
In this case, “Bandersnatch” is using the new interactive TV format to make a point about how we consume and control technology. But the real question is if audiences want this level of granular customization. Released during a relatively dead week in the entertainment calendar, and with such a novel format, chances are “Bandersnatch” will be a streaming hit. But what happens when Netflix extends this idea to something like “Stranger Things,” or “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”?
We may enjoy having shows curated toward our tastes. But we also like shared experiences, and to be surprised by storytelling. Consider how many people watch TV while following along on a Twitter hashtag, creating a new kind of digital shared experience where it would otherwise not exist. Our spoiler culture did not arise out of people wanting to ruin endings for themselves. It’s about giving storytellers the chance to hand us an ending we do not expect.
For now, “Bandersnatch” seems to be more a novelty than the new normal. The response harkens back to when people started experimenting with watching an entire Netflix seasons in one sitting. And if we're being honest, I hope interactive TV stays in the novelty aisle. There may be room for choosing one’s own adventure. But sometimes, all viewers really want is a story we can all enjoy together.