Are Netflix shows “television?”


Matt Zoller Seitz over at Vulture poses an interesting question: Are Netflix original shows like “House of Cards” (and, more recently, the new season of “Arrested Development”) actually television shows? Apparently these programs are eligible for Emmy awards, which has some people (network executives in particular) up in arms because shows that are streamed online aren’t subject to the same sorts of regulations and scrutiny that broadcast programming (and, to a lesser extent, cable programming) is.

While I think Seitz’ question is an interesting one, there’s a larger question lurking underneath it: What is television?

There’s a certain degree of technological determinacy inherent in any discussion of non-print media, because the encoded messages (whether that takes the form of electrical impulses–binary code–or grooves and ridges etched into a vinyl record, say) are inscrutable and oftentimes invisible to human beings. Try as you like, but you’re never going to be able to peer into the end of a fiber optic cable and discern anything meaningful, nor will you be able to enjoy a recording on a vinyl record by running your nails through the grooves.

Up until the advent of digital technology, we relied on certain devices to encode and decode all of this data. A radio receiver is specifically designed to convert radio waves into sound waves. A film projector is designed to reassemble a filmstrip into something that is more easily taken in by the human eye and ear. And, up until the digital era, a television set was required to intercept and reassemble television waves into meaningful sights and sounds. Now, however, a computer can perform all of those tasks, given the appropriate software and/or peripherals.

Cost barriers have fallen significantly, too; anyone with an iPhone can become a “broadcaster” of sorts. That is a huge difference between now and just a few decades ago, when a typical camcorder (recording on VHS tape!) could easily cost over $1,000.

Some may recall that, with the advent of the CD-ROM drive and computers that were fast enough to play video and sound clips, a new term entered common parlance: “multimedia.” Tay Vaughan defined multimedia as “any combination of text, graphic art, sound, animation, and video that is delivered by computer” in a 1993 book entitled Multimedia: Making it Work. The emphasis added is mine–“delivered by computer” is the key.

If we run with that definition, then, the answer to Seitz’ question is no. These programs are not television; they are multimedia presentations that strongly resemble television programs because they utilize familiar television conventions1.

There are other differences too. Typical television programs (save for those on PBS and premium channels like HBO) are sprinkled with commercials; a half-hour show is really only about 22 minutes long because of ads. And, despite DVRs, on-demand technology and other time-shifting devices, television networks still schedule specific programs for specific time slots–these new streaming programs are entirely “on demand” and released all at once. In a sense, Netflix’s series are more like a boxed set of DVDs than television programming.

So no, “House of Cards” is not a television program. Perhaps television executives would be better served by boldly delving into the world of the Internet and developing new delivery systems (and thus sidestepping the heavy-handed regulations that the FCC enforces) instead of bellyaching about dying paradigms that will be history sooner rather than later.

  1. …or, in the case of “Arrested Development, they pick up where the original series left off.