Last month, Netflix announced that they are planning to trial a linear tv channel. Netflix France said (in French) that it had begun testing a new feature which lets subscribers watch a version of the service that looks and feels like a traditional linear TV channel – so, a TV channel. It’s called Netflix Direct, which suggests to me something that is injected intravenously. Though I’m sure Netflix aren’t that far away from this, they describe this particular innovation as “a web-based experience that’s the same for everyone who watches it.”
Linear TV channels, if you remember, were a thing that used to tell audiences what to watch and when they had to watch it, like a curated playlist; but it just went on and on, like some unstoppable, lumbering, sadomasochistic idiot – even carrying on when your own screen was off – playing the national anthem and shutting down every night (this actually happened until 1997). There was no favourites list; no pausing to have a wee or make a cup of tea (or both… but not simultaneously); no notifications of new shows that might interest you; and, crucially, no way of ignoring the shows that didn’t. You just. Had. To. Endure it. This is why so many people used to watch Jim Davidson. Also, if you liked a show, you couldn’t just binge it. You got one, maybe two a week, and you were grateful for it. No wonder Boomers are so angry at the world.
That all disappeared with streaming. We’ve technically become empowered – though how empowered you feel while watching your 10th episode of Sister Sister, with Dorito dust on your chin and crotch, silently sobbing, is another matter entirely.
So why bring linear back? Because, apparently, there are still people who choose to watch TV like this. You may argue that this is the older generation, or even French people (apparently), but if you look at the viewing figures for the likes of Bake Off, Strictly, His Dark Materials, hell, even Gogglebox, then you will see that millions upon millions of people don’t just want to be told what to watch, but they appear to treasure the communal experience that seems to have faded with streaming. I’ll admit – sometimes I find myself looking at my watch and realising I’m missing the start of a show, before I remember that stopped being an issue about seven years ago.
That said, there is something lost when television isn’t a shared experience. Culture is how we bond, how we form friendships, and how we decide someone’s a bit of a dick based on their favourite music. How weird would it feel if you went to a gig where you could choose the setlist, select when it started, and pause it when you needed to get a pint? Where’s the pleasure, the anticipation, the craftsmanship? Maybe being robbed of autonomy is a good thing sometimes. Let go once in a while, you bloody control freak. This may be why Amazon Prime Video have just launched the far more sane-sounding ‘Watch Party’, which provides “synchronised playback” so loads of people can watch together at exactly the same time. We seem to be longing for communal, bonding experiences again, and for obvious reasons. Still, no one’s talking about bringing DVDs back, are they?