Millions of fans’ prayers were answered this past Sunday, May 26 with the release of the long-anticipated new season of Arrested Development. After its infamous and shocking cancellation by FOX in 2006 after three short seasons, the show was tossed around in network limbo for years. Finally, in 2012, when most viewers had all but forgotten about the once-bright Emmy winner, the online video streaming site Netflix picked up Development for a 15-episode fourth season.
All 15 episodes are now available to Netflix subscribers, and early reviews of the season have been mixed to positive, but more important than critical reception, this revival begs several questions about the future of the television industry. Mainly, is this new method of online distribution more successful than regular broadcast television, and if so, what does the future hold for the broadcast stations that have kept such a firm grasp on the television industry for the last half century?
This Development rescue is not Netflix’s first attempt at television; the website currently airs several original shows and films, most notably the political drama series House of Cards, which has received critical praise and is expected to be a contender come Emmy season. Netflix is not alone on the online distribution platform; other popular sites such as Hulu and Amazon have begun to release their own original content, ranging from web-based miniseries to season-long shows.
So far, these sites have proven that they can handle any and every type of content that regular broadcast stations can. In competing with regularly broadcasted television shows, web-based series have several advantages. They are easy to access and the wait time for advertisements is relatively light. Additionally, these shows exist within the extremely portable realm of the Internet, making them accessible on a range of devices. Shows such as Arrested Development can be released several episodes at a time, eradicating that dreaded week-long wait between episodes and calling into question the very idea of what constitutes a television season.
On the whole, online-specific shows cater to “gaze vs. glance” theory of entertainment production; regular television requires viewers to sit in one spot and invest 30 to 60 minutes of their time to attain a weekly dose of the show in question, while webseries can be watched on the viewer’s own time and in as high or low a quantity as the viewer prefers.
However, the downside to online television is the price of subscription to the distribution sites, and in many cases this is not a problem as many of the shows are released for public viewing free of charge.
It seems that webseries are so different from their broadcasted counterparts that there may not be any competition; the Internet is simply the inevitable next step in the evolution of the television industry. As classic networks such as NBC see lower and lower ratings, the push toward online-only viewing has become stronger than ever. This generation may be at the cusp of a new era of entertainment distribution.
But would a show like Game of Thrones be able to support such a large cast and reach such a high level of visual effects if it had to operate within the low budget of a webseries? Are we sacrificing the quality of the content we watch in exchange for ease of access? The Internet has proven capable of bringing new heights of artistic integrity, but it is also home to quite a bit of hogwash.