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Jenny Hjul

Beware the Netflix Generation

Is binge-watching now a substitute for living?

When I switched on Netflix to watch the third series of The Crown it popped up immediately, as if someone knew that’s what I wanted.

This was days after the new show was released, so perhaps Netflix analytics calculated that most viewers (or users as they call us) would be searching for its highest profile programme.

But as the last series I watched on Netflix was The Crown (series two), back in December 2017, I suspect the clever streaming service was speaking to me personally. (This will only sound creepy to those of my age, who can remember the Test Card.)

Of course, Netflix won’t know me as well as its regulars because it doesn’t have much to go on; apart from The Crown, I’ve watched the odd film, but it would be hard to build up a profile of my preferences on that basis.

Still, even with so little data at its disposal Netflix thinks it gets me. When I scrolled down to see what it had lined up: Call the Midwife was top of the list, a programme I’ve never watched (or intend to watch).

With apologies to all Midwife fans, I was slightly affronted by Netflix’s assumption about my TV tastes. What if someone else logged into my Netflix account (friends watching my television, for example)? Would they, too, assume I was a Call the Midwife kind of person based on Netflix’s algorithms?

Netflix is about 20 years old so there are people, of my daughters’ generation, who haven’t lived without it. To them, the concept of television as a one-way medium is novel.

We might have talked to the set, even shook our fists at it, but it wasn’t listening. Ratings were (still are) calculated on samples, so the BBC had an idea that, say, Dad’s Army was a hit and ITV realised there was no audience for the relaunch of Crossroads.

Netflix is so much more sophisticated, able to make decisions on our behalf because its systems can track not just what we watch but when, how often we pause, fast forward and stop watching, and make recommendations accordingly.

As it is entertainment it must be benign, but we have been brainwashed. Ask yourself, could you live without Netflix. Yes? Are you sure? What would you talk about? Think about?

With such comprehensive data about its users, Netflix commissions programmes that are massively popular – among its users.

This might produce corkers – The Crown for instance (though series three doesn’t compare to one and two) – but it also results in lowest common denominator television.

The BBC guestimates that viewers want more of Strictly Come Dancing and less of the Proms, but Netflix knows what its customers are watching.

Its success is measured by number of users not quality of content, though it might argue there is a correlation.

I wouldn’t, but the race to bring more Netflix to more people is unstoppable and the battle is almost lost for high brow programming, if TV networks follow its lead, which they tend to do.

Netflix isn’t just killing off the niche market, it is also homogenising human behaviour around customised content. Take the news. All households with televisions would once have absorbed some news in their daily viewing diet.

Today the percentage of the population tuning into broadcast news is dropping and the demographic is ageing fast. The rest are certainly not getting their current affairs from newspapers; likely, they’re not getting the news at all, they’re glued to 10-hour fixes of TV drama instead.

Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix, told a New York Times sponsored Dealbook conference in 2015 that he wasn’t interested in doing an evening news show because “you don’t want to invest in things that are dying.”

Who needs to find out what’s going on in the real world when the new instalment of Line of Duty is a click away. People’s understanding of Netflix plot developments is in direct proportion to their ignorance about geopolitics.

Hastings also mocked the old habit of watching television at night after work, as if structured indulgence was bad.

He didn’t introduce daytime TV but the binge culture of Netflix encourages viewing at all hours, viewing as a substitute for doing.

There are young adults in my office whose weekends revolve around Netflix, their weekday evenings too. As the new going out, it is a comfy slippers antidote to living, both inexpensive and risk free.

And there is no shame in admitting to the addiction. Netflix is normal, its 158 million (at the last count) subscribers can’t be wrong.

Entertainment spending will continue to expand – with competitors like Amazon Prime getting in on the act – because there is no such thing as too much TV.

As it is entertainment it must be benign, but we have been brainwashed. Ask yourself, could you live without Netflix. Yes? Are you sure? What would you talk about? Think about?

You might not have seen it coming, but it has taken over your life. It will take over the world, in the next season, out soon.