Why Arrested Development on Netflix could change everything

Ron Howard Jason Bateman Arrested Development

Whoever might be employing me in the spring of 2013, know this: The moment Netflix debuts the return of Arrested Development, I’m calling in sick. Because on that glorious day, me and the hundreds and thousands of other devotees will be in our pajamas, in front of our laptops and iPads and Xboxes and Rokus, once again enjoying the antics of the Bluth family.

Arrested‘s rebirth, over four years in the works, has the potential to completely change the game in terms of the way we regard web content in the future. I mean, cult network sitcom gets a literal second life through the largess of a company that began life as a mail-order DVD service? If you time-traveled to 2006 (the year Fox originally canceled the show), and told this story, no one would believe you.

And yet, it’s happening: scripts have been written, producer/narrator Ron Howard’s Tweeting from the set, and David Cross, on a recent press blitz, said no shortage of interesting things about the series’ return, including this to Rolling Stone:

I think it’s going to be 13 episodes, not 10. There’s too much story. Some characters will have two-parters. Everybody sort of participates, sometimes in a bigger way and sometimes in a tiny little thread that goes through everybody else’s stories.

This is the sort of statement that would make a network executive’s head explode, due to the way traditional TV is budgeted and structured on a per-episode basis. But we’re on Netflix’s turf now. Unexplored territory.

Beyond Lilyhammer, which has been renewed for a second season, the industry hasn’t gotten much sense yet of how Netflix’s many high-profile in-the-works projects, such as Arrested, the Eli Roth series Hemlock Grove or the Kevin Spacey-starring House of Cards, will really work out — especially because the question of how to promote a VOD project is still a bit up in the air.

With theatrical releases, you get premiere dates, big galas. But Netflix is so stealthy about announcing what’s available and what isn’t that websites and email services have been created to update people.

Without doubt, I’ll know what day I’m calling in with the Arrested flu next spring — it’s impossible to imagine that not being heavily promoted by both the production and Netflix — but the Netflix experience in general has always boiled down to “Wait, THAT’S available now? Okay, cool.” Seeing how Netflix adapts to accommodate the original programming they’re launching, while still enabling the casual browsing of the user experience, is a fascinating challenge.

The other element is the fact that like Lilyhammer, all 10-13 episodes of the series will be released at once, setting fans up for epic marathon sessions. The term “binge viewing” has been coined to describe how many TV fans now consume shows, gulping up entire seasons on DVD or streaming services. It’s a wonderful way to fall in love with a show — just sinking into it the way you might sink into an epic novel. And Arrested‘s new season, according to Cross, sounds designed with just that experience in mind:

I’m not gonna divulge anything, but I know what the stories are and what Mitch [Hurwitz] is doing, and it’s so layered. It’s really audacious and amazing. I think a lot of people will miss the work that is involved, the story, the Venn diagrams that are being created, the domino effect that characters have with each other in their various episodes. I know what he’s doing, and this has never been done on a TV show like this. This makes Lost look like a Spalding Grey monologue. You’ll have to watch each episode more than once.

Given the show’s pre-established track record for hidden jokes and gags, this sounds more than promising.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9TXVMkQ29g]

The AMC series Breaking Bad is a key example of a show that’s grown its audience thanks to binge viewing, indicated by how its ratings have increased with each season, as new viewers discover the show through Netflix. But Vince Gilligan, in a recent interview with KCRW’s The Business, had this to say about the phenomenon:

It’s wonderful, but I do see the worry — this is a business, it’s show business and if there’s no money to be made, then this wonderful job I have and other jobs like it are going to dry up. So we should all be interested in how they monetize this stuff. It’s wonderful when people binge-watch the show — I say have at it — but I do see the companies, not just ours, the various companies concerned that if you’re binge-watching on a DVR, you’re skipping all the commercials. And if the guys who buy the commercials realize that all their commercials are being skipped, they’re going to stop buying commercials.

It’s an attitude you’ll hear elsewhere in the industry — which may be why Netflix is doubling down on its subscription model. I couldn’t track down the budget for Arrested Development‘s new season, but House of Cards‘s price tag was reported by some as $100 million, and Hemlock Grove, it’s said, is budgeted at $40 million for 13 episodes — otherwise known as about $3 million an episode. That’s real TV money — in fact, it’s the same budget as Breaking Bad.

It’s a long time until the spring of 2013, but looking forward it’s hard to imagine a more important signpost for the convergence of television and the web than Arrested Development. If it succeeds, it’ll legitimize a whole new distribution platform and business model. And if it fails, well, we’ll at least get to see Tobias in his cutoffs again.

The TV singularity approaching us consumers of media is at times a scary one: We’re used to shows that cost millions an episode, but we’re also now used to consuming whatever we want, wherever and whenever we want. Some people think that going forward, these two mindsets won’t be able to co-exist. But Netflix seems to disagree, and the Bluths may be the ones to prove it.

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