Orange is the New Black: Can the medium determine the success of the message?

This week, Netflix super-series Orange is the New Black (OINTB) hit Aussie broadcast screens via Foxtel – Previously a web-only series in the US. OINTB tells the story of a upper-middle class woman who’s past catches up with her; delivering brave storytelling uncovering the hearts, souls and histories of the protagonist Piper, and her fellow inmates. Some have lived a tough life on the street, some have been victims of a tough environment or broken families, others have dealt with drugs and the dependance that follows. Despite these dark stories, we also see sparks of love, humour, fear and friendship revealing rich, complicated characters; just trying to stay sane and make their way through a tough prison time experience.

Launched on Netflix in the US in July, each of the series’ thirteen episodes was launched at once to a content-hungry audience, who voraciously consumed the series en masse, and took to the web (and the streets!) to tell their friends about it.

Only when I saw a Buzzfeed article about it on Facebook, when a few people at work mentioned it on Twitter, and when my sister texted me to ask if I’d watched it yet. This weekend, I finally opened up my laptop to watch it. And when I did, I watched five episodes in a single sitting. (Eliza Kern, GigaOm – July, 2013).

Series Trailer – Orange is the New Black, Netflix 2013

Thanks to my tech-savvy significant other, I stumbled across Orange is the New Black via our US VPN-powered Netflix subscription and we clicked to check it out. Three days and many hours later, we’d “binged” and watched the full series. In part because it was there and available, but also in part because these characters were complex, intriguing and continued to be revealed slowly across each episode. I wanted to know what was going to happen next, and there was no broadcast schedule to get in the way. This was also a show I’d have never expected to stumble across on my TV and this difference made me want more. I kept chasing my next entertainment “fix”.

The show challenged me around two key issues for made-for-web programming vs old forms of broadcast, scheduled shows:

1. The message – The themes of the program, covering explicit and real depictions of same sex relationships, a journey of gender dysphoria, threatening violence, drug use and dealing are told in a gritty, dirty fashion; far removed from the safer, more pristine subject matter of big network, prime-time TV. These strong, complex women come from a variety of backgrounds and social groups, representing black, white, Hispanic, European, poor and privileged, played by a number of talented actors that have not yet been seen in the “Hollywood” spotlight.

As an audience it was refreshing to see these stories and characters laid bare, but I wondered if the powers of special interest groups like lobby groups, church groups and those opposed to these challenging subjects would stop a show like this getting to air. TV and broadcast is still a mass medium, and the power of social lobbying against programs and media personalities have resulted in shows being pulled from broadcast (e.g. Australia’s Naughtiest Home Videos and more recently Kyle Sandilands in radio land). Thinking about the media bottom line, would these angry voices even influence the business viability of a show like this through advertiser lobbying and pressure? Would a network invest (and see the return) in casting little-known actors for such a dark and risque story? Big names are often assumed to deliver the big money (and big audiences).

2. The medium – Having watched the series in a very short period of time, I wondered…would the series even work in a broadcast TV format? With a whole week between shows, would the love story of Piper and her fiance and arrival to the prison gate in the first episode have carried me to the grittier, nastier conflicts and complicated relationships between Piper, her ex-lover and fellow inmates later in the series? Did I simply watch the show in totality because it was there to watch, or would it have been truly engaging enough to make me wait a week between shows?

Virtually every scripted show that bagged an Emmy this year, was created with viewing multiple episodes at once, “binging,” in mind. Netflix, audacious as ever, released all new episodes of each of its originals, such as “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development,” all at once to drive all-you-can-consume viewing. Binging has become mainstream. (J. Max Robins, Forbes – September, 2013).

With the program now hitting Australian screens via Foxtel in a week-by-week format, I’ve wondered if new local fans of the show will have the same experience as Netflix viewers who were able to watch the show en-masse. Does the medium itself have the potential to determine the success of a show like OINTB?

I took to Facebook to ask my network for their thoughts:

OINTB-FB

These friends are both US and Australian based, but it became obvious that geographic location had little to no effect on their access to the program, or their consumption of it. Through real-world discussions, some had torrented the show, but most had worked around “the system” to access and enjoy the program, before Foxtel (or any other local broadcaster) got its agreements in order to broadcast the show. Technology and a desire to experience this content was leading them to overcome the technical barriers the media gatekeepers had tried to set up.

Discussion on Twitter was more split. With a community of followers in the media, technology, broadcast and interactive entertainment industries, most of my social media universe is would be considered tech-savvy and early adopters of new technology. Debate ensued around whether mainstream audiences even cared about these “niche” programs if they were not part of mainstream media, and if everyday families would even know how to setup these alternative access systems to TV and entertainment programming. Folks that would be considered “digital natives” went to the web first for their entertainment, and consumed whatever the world had to offer, rather than what their geographic location could deliver them. They had systems that allowed them to enjoy Hulu or Netflix, despite not being US-based, and enjoyed the shows that were the subject of the “digital watercooler” and being talked about in spaces like Twitter, Reddit and more broadly across the web.

Others were content with the slower evolution of local Australian on-demand services like iView, SBS On-Demand and TenPlay as a viable digital entertainment solutions for Aussie audiences; and whatever programs these channels had to offer. They’ll be happy enough to watch shows like OITNB if and when they stumble across it on a mainstream service.

Following its review of local streaming services including Foxtel and Quikflix and deeming them a “rip off”, CHOICE Australia wrote a public letter to Netflix in July this year, encouraging its launch in Australia to give local audiences access to its latest series Arrested Development (which ironically first found its home on broadcast TV, and when cancelled was embraced by Netflix for its large on-demand fanbase). ZDNet’s Josh Taylor reported:

The organisation’s campaign director Matt Levey said that a comparison between the three showed that Australians are being treated as “second-class digital citizens”.

“Netflix in the US costs only US$7.99 per month and features a hit parade of shows including Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, House of Cards, and Arrested Development. Back catalogues of most series are available for instantaneous viewing, along with other popular TV shows,” he said in a statement.

The legality of US VPN services is deemed as somewhat grey by Australian legal spokespeople, and despite Netflix stating that it is focusing on expansion outside Australia (a territory is does not deem as a priority), the service accepts Australian credit cards for subscriptions, with many using VPN work-arounds to access the series’ that local, traditional media are taking longer to access and bring home. CHOICE even encouraged local audiences to take advantage of these systems.

With teasers from the production of the second series of OINTB being posted to Instagram by the show’s production team, the digital natives that fueled the show’s success in the first series are seeing the development of its newest chapter as it happens. The audience has demonstrated its desire for this different, more diverse and challenging programming.

Orange is the New Black’s popularity implies that we, as the audience, are not quite as cowardly and small-minded as the investors, studios and distribution companies who have decided what we need is more, and more, and more of the same…let’s hope Hollywood, with its propensity for knee-jerk panic, follows suit and we get more films populated by women talking and acting and being characters rather than symbols and objects. (Bobby MacPherson, Screen Robot – September, 2013)

This anticipation for this next chapter of the OINTB story is digital and continuing to build. When the next chapter hits Netflix in 2014, these audiences will follow and binge. Because binging is the new black 😉

Do you watch your favorite TV shows or movies online (via streaming or torrenting services), or are you happy with week by week TV broadcast? Have particular shows changed the ways you access and consume media? Tell us your stories in the comments below!

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8 responses to “Orange is the New Black: Can the medium determine the success of the message?

  1. I was unlucky enough to be quite unwell earlier this year, requiring a full week on the couch. Using Apple TV I watched all 3 seasons of ‘The Walking Dead’ in 3 days then started on ‘Breaking Bad’. They are addicting…don’t judge 😛

    I have been busy of late and so have been DVRing Once Upon A Time, Revenge, HIMYM these aren’t shows that anyone can really ruin for me so I am happy to wait until I have time and I am back in the States…then I will binge, and fast forward through all the commercials. Winning!! If I want to catch up here though BitTorrent would probably be my go to.

    I have read criticisms though from people who say binging takes away from the story and the development of characters and such because when you binge you don’t have that gap between episodes to digest and noodle on what you have seen. Can’t say I agree though.

    • There’s definitely still the opportunity for water-cooler moments for folk that binge on their entertainment. As my old job, the office were all pretty tech savvy and either torrented US programming, or accessed it via a US VPN. Whether they watched a season of a show all at once, or if they were going more slowly; their friends would be good as to not let any spoilers go in conversation, but they’d still talk about their experience so far. Ditto for digital. The key way I have tended to share my entertainment experience (and get interested in new shows) is via social chatter.

      BitTorrent feels like stealing for me (sorry…old fashioned!), and I want real content creators to get some sort of compensation for their work. This is where the VPN options feels like a nice halfway house.

      I still need to watch Breaking Bad and Walking Dead. And finish Mad Men. My list of must-watch shows continues to grow! Thanks in a good part to social / digital media…

  2. I agree BitTorrent is stealing and I don’t use it often due to the unpredictability of the quality. But I know from experience and I have friends that express frustration at unsuccessfully trying to legally access shows via Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon, XBox and TV network websites. Unfortunately, due to licensing quirks and decisions made by the content creators sometimes illegal downloads are your only option.

    I am def going to give OITNB a go – you are the second person to recommend it 🙂

  3. I stopped watching free-to-air TV at almost the same moment I started watching long-form TV series in bulk (binging, I guess.) The thought of following a TV show by a network’s schedule is hard to imagine these days – and without them, free-to-air TV has little to offer someone (exactly) like me

  4. Love the idea of made-for-web programming Sarah. I’m definitely a complete addict when it comes to watching tv on my computer – I love the convenience of being able to watch what I want when I want from my bedroom – but I’ve never watched a web-specific show before. It’s totally taking up that hybrid space between traditional and new mediums. I think any new technology creates opportunities for creativity and innovation… and Netflix seems to have totally embraced this change in people’s viewing habits. I was just reading an ABC article about how the Breaking Bad finale broke records for illegal downloads on computers… and apparently Australians topped the list the biggest illicit downloaders, beating out the US, UK, Canada and India. Here’s the article in case you’re interested. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-10-01/breaking-bad-finale-draws-record-ratings-as-australia-tops-ille/4990252

    This online tv-series-watching space is clearly very popular. I’m sure almost every production company and broadcast network are busy at work looking for ways to capitalise on this market, just like Netflix is.

    Great blog!

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