The moment has come. Finally, rabid fans of TV get a say in what goes on the air. No more do we have to sit on the couch and wonder out loud, “Who thought this was good? Who thought this would work?”
We know the answer: Us.
Streaming media giants Netflix and Amazon are using viewers to determine the creation and fate of original content. Netflix revived Arrested Development from the afterlife of reruns based on data it collected from its subscribers, and the comeback was a hit among most fans and critics. It’s every fan’s dream, but are we up to the task?
There are pros and cons of viewer-influenced programming.
On one hand, as viewers, we know what we like and what works for us. Great shows like Jericho, Star Trek, and Firefly were all championed by viewers. Netflix users wanted more from the Bluth family, and Netflix executives gave it to them.
Amazon took it one step further. This spring, the company announced it would release 14 pilots and choose which ones it would pick up based on viewer response. Amazon said it would consider the number of views, ratings, and the quality of reviews. They announced their first original lineup last week.
For the most part, it seems viewers took their responsibility seriously. Thousands wrote reviews and, surprisingly for the Internet, most were thoughtful and respectful. The two adult comedies viewers picked, Betas and Alpha House, show promise.
But that’s the thing about pilots. A promising pilot means almost nothing, and a terrible pilot means even less. Do we, as viewers, have enough knowledge to judge whether a show is good enough, and has a strong enough vision, to carry an entire season?
Would viewers, without the inside knowledge of execs, have picked up Parks and Recreation, The Office, and even the Doctor Who reboot with their subpar pilots? I’m not sure I would have.
Therein lies the rub. As much as we hate to admit it, viewers are laymen. For the most part, we are not industry insiders or creators. We are fans. Take a show like Community, a cult hit under constant threat of cancellation. Community is known for its smart and wildly obscure references (it dedicated a whole episode to a little-seen Wallace Shawn movie from 1981). But think back to its pilot: it seemed like little more than a typical sitcom. Would you have voted for that pilot?
Netflix’s system also has its flaws. It gives us what it thinks we want and so far, with the successful House of Cards and Arrested Development, it seems to have worked.
But the best shows are the ones we don’t see coming. When Arrested Development first aired, it was like nothing that had ever been seen on TV before and it took a couple episodes, if not the first season, for fans to get a grip on the show’s humor. The same goes for Seinfeld or dramas like The Wire and Mad Men. If Netflix only gives us what it thinks we want, it’ll never take risks, and risky shows are usually the best kind.
At this point, no one knows how viewer-influenced content will workout. But if we end up with lineups of boring or unfocused shows, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.
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