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Choose Your Own Adventure: Why Netflix Needs to Stop Trying to Be TV

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What is TV these days? Is it that big hulking flat screen in your living room where you watch awards shows live with commercials? Is it the things that you download from iTunes or stream on Hulu and watch on your phone during your long commute? Is it the latest season of ‘Game of Thrones‘ which you stole from a torrent site and consume in one long evening while eating pie with birds flying out of it? TV is all of these, but TV is certainly not Netflix. Still Netflix is dying to be TV, and that is a huge mistake.

Last week the wildly successful streaming service announced that it’s developing a late-night talk show with Chelsea Handler. That sounds like a move a cable channel would make trying to prove that it’s just as big and successful as its network counterparts, sort of like TBS hiring Conan O’Brien after he left NBC. But, why would Netflix want to take cable’s castaways? It has something to prove, too, which is that this thing that you load on your laptop is just as good as everyone else. Boy, is this the wrong crusade for Netflix.

"Trying to be like television is like that crackling set in ‘Poltergeist,’ something full of evil trying to lure them in to their death."

The bright red enabler of binge watching is certainly looking a lot like TV these days. It has ‘Orange is the New Black,’ the buzziest show of the summer. It’s winning Emmy awards (and campaigning hard for more nominations). It’s even airing the last season of ‘The Killing,’ another show it saved from TV’s scrap heap. It’s not enough to have every single episode of ‘Scandal’ (and ‘Breaking Bad‘ and ‘New Girl’ and ‘Sherlock‘ and…), Netflix now wants to be their own station complete with its own late night host.

This is a strange move for the company, which has always eschewed the meting out of its content in neat, weekly portions and operated more as an all-you-can-eat buffet for your eyes. And while the plans for Handler’s series have yet to be unveiled (it won’t even air until 2016, another Olympic games and Presidential election away) trying to simultaneously offer all 13 episodes of a late night show – especially one as heavy on the pop culture references as I assume Handler’s will be – is going to be hard to pull off without ruining its topicality.

In the not-very-far future, TV as we know it is going to cease to exist and all we will have is amorphous blobs of “content” (god, I hate that word) that are available to everyone when they want it and how they want it. Instead of a linear set of programming, it’s going to be an all on-demand society, sort of like that giant soda fountain at the movies where you can get 26 different kinds of Coke [Ed. note: This is an amazing machine].

Right now TV hasn’t really caught up. It makes us wait months for new seasons of things and sometimes takes random weeks off for special programming or to make sure ratings don’t slip. The networks make us wait at least a day before seeing things for free on their websites (if they put them up there at all). HBO, whose old marketing campaign let us all know that it is not TV, is the furthest along with its HBO Go service that makes everything it owns available on any device at any time.

It’s no fluke that HBO, like Netflix, is a subscription service. When you don’t need to leverage your programming against advertising, then it doesn’t matter how many people watch it, just how many people are willing to pay for access. Shows are only successful if they generate more monthly bills, not millions of people in front of a screen at a certain time. Within our lifetimes, I bet all programming is like this, from feature films to soap operas.

If Netflix was smart, it wouldn’t be looking to legitimize itself with antiquated genres like the late night talk show. With more and more options on cable and other places (hello, like Netflix!) the audiences for late night talk shows on broadcast networks is almost half of what it was a decade ago. Why is Netflix trying to be TV, when it could be something better?

What Netflix has yet to utilize is its unique platform and finding the things that are really going to work well on it — those things look nothing like how TV works now. If the medium is the message, then Netflix needs some new messages to go along with its brand new medium. Why have talk shows or game shows or AMC-style prestige dramas like ‘House of Cards‘ at all when they could have something totally new? What about a choose-your-own-adventure style show where users click on what they want to happen next? What about a miniseries with three different endings? Sure ‘Clue’ did it decades ago, but why not try it again?

What about a sketch comedy show where each sketch was its own individual unit of programming, and you could watch any 4-minute bit whenever you want to and let power users rate the individual sketches so you could only watch the good ones. It would be like a season of ‘SNL‘ if it was nothing but amazing moments. What about scenes with annotation so that you could click on a lamp in a scene and find out where it came from? Or shows with recaps built in so you could read someone’s reaction while you’re watching. It’s like The People’s Couch happening in real time!

Amazon, another content company trying to be TV (hey, what is a book if not a TV show that takes a really long time to get through) is going in the opposite direction. They made the decision to make new episodes of their original programs available once a week, like they’re NBC or something. They want to be TV even worse than Netflix does.

But the joke’s on them. Trying to be like television is like that crackling set in ‘Poltergeist,’ something full of evil trying to lure them in to their death. Yes, it might be the dominant medium of our era, but that isn’t going to last forever. Just like no fool would bother starting a newspaper today, trying to start a television channel seems quaint and old-fashioned. Netflix should strive for something better, trying to break the mold and find programming that is going to revolutionize the way we engage with our entertainment, at least even more than they already have. That way, when we have chips installed in our retinas that beam our entertainment directly to our brain, they’ll be one step ahead of TV. On that day, TV won’t even matter a lick.

Brian Moylan is a writer and television addict who lives in New York City. He live tweets award shows at @BrianJMoylan.

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