Netflix made Hollywood history last week, garnering 112 Emmy nominations across its burgeoning portfolio of high-quality programs. It marked the first time the streaming platform bested all networks, including perennial Emmy winner HBO. The industry’s critical endorsement of Netflix came only days after Cowen, a financial research firm, released the results of a survey on changing media-consumption habits that found that Netflix now has the largest audience of any TV provider — reaching 27 percent of all respondents, and 40 percent of respondents aged 18-34.
As Netflix becomes the dominant force in American entertainment, so too does the viewing behavior it has transformed, from binge watching to “Netflix and chill.” And yet, if you say Netflix to me, the last word I think of these days is chill. If anything, Netflix and its kin — streamers like Hulu and Amazon, as well a premium cable and the networks — have become a serious source of FOMO in my life.
This, it turns out, is all part of the business plan. “Sometimes employees at Netflix think, ‘Oh my god, we’re competing with FX, HBO, or Amazon,” Netflix founder and chairman Reed Hastings said last year. “But think about if you didn’t watch Netflix last night: What did you do? There’s such a broad range of things that you did to relax and unwind, hang out, and connect — and we compete with all of that.”
“You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep,” he added. “And we’re winning!”
Netflix may in fact be winning — its stock price has more than doubled since January — but the rest of us are in fact losing. Losing that much-needed sleep, that is. According to a 2017 study from researchers at the University of Michigan and Leuven School for Mass Communication Research in Belgium, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, “[h]igher binge viewing frequency was associated with a poorer sleep quality, increased fatigue and more symptoms of insomnia, whereas regular television viewing was not.”
The researchers called for further study into the possible link between binge viewing and sleep disorders — including identifying exactly what constitutes an unhealthy binge. Is it watching three episodes of a show in one sitting? Is it six?
Don’t get me wrong: I like TV and I’ve always liked talking to friends and colleagues about TV. When I get that familiar prompt deep in a binge session — Are You Still Watching? Yes/No — my instinct is almost always to tackle another episode. In just the past month, for example, I satisfyingly finished Season 2 of Dear White People, fell for Pose, snacked on Nailed It!, and navigated my way through WestWorld, though I still have no idea what it was about.
Even so, I feel a strange sense of guilt over all the shows I haven’t gotten to — haven’t gotten to yet, I tell myself. I’m behind on Killing Eve, Queer Eye, Riverdale, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Atlanta, but not hopelessly so.
Then, there are the minor tragedies. I know I missed out on Season 6 of Homeland: my mom (on the phone) and Chrissy Teigen (on Twitter) both tell me this is so. And when The Americans ended, I was so backed up on the plot I couldn’t really participate in dissecting the finale. (Of Roseanne, all I can say is, I’m glad I didn’t bother.)
I not only stress about what I’m missing, I also regret making the wrong choices: For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt broke down for me, House of Cards fell apart, and I dropped out of American Vandal without completing my degree in d*ck graffiti. I could have used that time for another show!
Add up all the programs I just listed, of course, and you’ll see that I’ve sunk literally days of my life into streaming TV, countless hours that could have been spent reading or exercising or spending time with family. I can’t help but see a similarity between Netflix and time-obliterating social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, which are designed explicitly to keep a user scrolling and clicking and liking and scrolling and clicking and liking for as long as possible.
It’s all part of a self-evident but underreported clash between algorithmic technology and our persuadable human minds. “What we’re calling addiction is basically AI pointed at our brains,” observed Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist who has founded a nonprofit called the Center for Humane Technology, in a speech in March. “Every time you open an app there are 1,000 engineers behind it trying to keep you using it.”
When you put it in those terms, it’s hardly a fair fight.
For video-centric services like Netflix, Hulu or YouTube, these legion of engineers are constantly honing their ability to predict what will get you to watch more and not drop off, to capture your attention with one of the suggested recommendations. If you like Ozark, you’ll love Jessica Jones.
“We know where technology is going,” Harris added. “It’s going to demand more attention, not less.”
So here I am, eagerly awaiting new episodes of Glow, Game of Thrones, Insecure, and The Crown. I’ll watch them when they drop, and so will you, most likely. But I pine for the days when all the good shows went on summer hiatus, for that time before Prestige TV when I could watch a show one week, then skip it the next, and not feel as if I had created a gap in my viewing resume.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a catch-up date with Black Mirror. I’m not even trying to be ironic.