Netflix launched its first foray into original programming with the release of the TV show Lilyhammer Monday. The series, which stars Steven van Zandt as an ex-mobster in a witness protection program in Norway, was co-financed by Netflix and is, at least in the U.S., only available to the company’s subscribers – a move that mirrors original series produced by cable networks like HBO and Showtime. But there’s a notable difference: Unlike HBO, Netflix is releasing the entire first season on day one.
The company’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos announced the release on the company’s blog with the following words:
“Do you love the indulgence of watching episode after episode of your favorite shows on Netflix? Have you ever wished you could do the same with new shows when they premiere on TV?”
He went on to say:
“Unlike any major TV premiere before it, we are debuting all eight episodes of the first season at the same time today. Conventional TV strategy would be to stretch out the show to keep you coming back every week. We are trying to give our members what they want; Choice and control. If you want to watch one episode a week, you can. If you want to watch the whole season this week, you can do that too.”
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings echoed a similar sentiment when asked about the unusual move during the company’s most recent earnings call:
“Netflix’s brand for TV shows is really about binge viewing. It’s the ability to just get hooked and watch episode after episode. It’s addictive. It’s exciting. It’s different. And our release strategy for original content emphasizes that brand strength, which is to be able to get hooked and pour through those episodes rather than get strung out.”
It’s a remarkable move, and it shows how different Netflix is from the traditional TV world, despite the company’s repeated insistence that it’s just like HBO. Netflix’s subscribers are not used to any schedule, and the company wisely chose not to break with those expectations.
But it’s also a gamble on a different kind of buzz. Traditional TV networks try to generate as much word of mouth excitement as possible within the first few weeks to get enough people hooked on a new show to keep it going. Netflix, on the other hand, can be perfectly happy if the majority of its customers watch something else on the service in the next few weeks, as long as it gets a core fan audience hooked on the show – at which point they’re going to talk about it, much in the same way you’d recommend a show like Arrested Development or Breaking Bad to a friend who hasn’t seen it.
Finally, the binge viewing approach also tells us something about how Netflix views its online competition. Hastings has long said that he is not interested in catch-up TV, and the fact that Netflix hasn’t been offering current-season TV shows the day after they air on TV has been the biggest difference between it and Hulu.
Of course, Hulu has recently been struggling with broadcaster’s demands to protect the next-day window. Fox shows are now only available to paying Hulu Plus subscribers or viewers who authenticate as Dish subscribers, and other networks may follow suit sooner or later. With Lilyhammer, Netflix seems to tell Hulu: Look, we can get new content too – and we’re not slave to anyone’s schedule.