In a way, Netflix took me by surprise. When I first signed up years ago, I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to discover that the video streaming service regularly removes titles from its catalog. Without really realizing it, I had come in expecting Netflix to be a kind of vault where I could find a movie and TV collection at my beck and call, easily accessible in a safe cloud-based library.
But Netflix doesn’t aspire to be a “library” at all. The only titles that are safe in its catalog are the so-called Originals: material produced by Netflix itself. For everything else, the company has adopted a churning inventory system in which its “content” is regularly updated and refreshed and, yes, removed. The whole point, you see, is to have you coming back for more.
Intentional Scarcity in a Sea of Options
Imagine, by contrast, that Netflix would never delete anything from its list of offerings, letting its catalog just grow and grow. And imagine a movie that you never got round watching to but would like to see —say, The Theory of Everything. If you knew that this title would be waiting for you on Netflix essentially forever, you’d no longer have an incentive to look it up anytime soon.
It would join the ranks of those books that you bought five, ten or even more years ago and that still sit unread on your bookshelf. You could read them at any time, and therefore you don’t.
Netflix understands this psychological mechanism, which is why it has intentionally built a form of (temporal) scarcity into its internal logic. By continuously churning what’s on the menu, it makes its titles more rare and therefore more attractive. Get your Limited Edition McMovie now, while supplies last!
The trick is that this strategy only works for an entertainment provider if it has a lot on offer. In our example, Netflix knows that in addition to The Theory of Everything, there are many more movies you haven’t gotten round to. And as long as its current catalog features at least a few of them, it doesn’t really matter anymore which movies those are.
Netflix understands that you’d be equally happy watching Good Will Hunting or American Beauty, for instance. It’s a delicate balance between managing the catalog, managing expectations, and managing user data. The company’s clever algorithms will see to it that you’ll never not find something you’d like to watch today.
What we’re seeing here is a remarkable development. It’s becoming more and more irrelevant how we are entertained, as long as the options available can make sure that we are entertained.
(As an aside: I am using Netflix as an example here, but the same argument can also be made for YouTube, social media, Amazon Prime or any other member of the on-demand entertainment collective.)
This development goes to the heart of what the purpose of entertainment is. After all, “being entertained” is just one of the things we spend our time on. Note: spend is the operative word here. Our attention is a limited and valuable resource. We spend it on many things during our waking hours: work, family, chores, cooking, friendships, travel, shopping, eating… The list goes on and on, and as we’ve seen, that list includes entertainment.
Traditionally, the various forms of entertainment registered fairly low in the prioritization of ways in which we spend our attention. Raising the kids comes first, as do paying the bills, going to work and visiting Grandma on her birthday. And then, near the bottom line, whatever time was still available after we’d done what we had to do was the time we could spend freely on something we’d like to do—like being entertained.
This is why the very definition of entertainment is that is has to be fun. You’re not going to spend what little leisure time you have on something that’s boring, after all. Entertainment-time is scarce, which is why we needed to choose carefully how to spend it.
But as we’ve seen, that very choice is rapidly becoming irrelevant in the age of the Netflixed entertainment avalanche. There is so much material on stand-by, at your beck and call, that it almost doesn’t matter anymore what you choose.
What’s more, as all of this material resides in the cloud, you don’t even have to go anywhere anymore to get your entertainment fix. At the tap of a touchscreen, The Theory of Everything will be served up on your phone while you… sit on the toilet, ride the bus, wait in the car, cook dinner, or paint your toenails.
What used to be “entertainment” has become background noise. It’s everywhere, it’s plentiful, and it’s effortless. Instead of being something to do that adds value to our scarce free time, entertainment is becoming a generic mind-filler when we’ve got nothing better to do. It’s becoming nontertainment.
To stand out against this omnipresent background rumble of nontertainment, old-school sources of entertainment are having to reinvent themselves. TV is being hit especially hard, and is retaliating with (for example) new reality formats that are becoming ever more provocative, competitive, vulgar and outlandish. Quality radio has gained a new foothold in the realm of podcasting. What space is left on TV and radio had largely become the domain of newscasters, opinion makers and reruns.
At the movies, traditional film screenings (new retroactively redubbed “2D”) are being crushed under an onslaught of 3D, IMAX 3D, Dolby Cinema 3D and even 4DMax theaters. Anything to lure you away from watching even more Netflix on your living-room couch.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m no Netflix hater. I have an account, I’m enjoying it and I plan to keep it. But the entertainment business is in a process of transformation that is profound and far-reaching. Many of us had spent years (and a lot of money) building a personal collection of DVDs, and now can’t even remember the last time they actually played a DVD. Similar developments are taking place in the realms of music and, to a lesser extent, books.
The dawn of the age of always-on, streaming, multi-platform digital content is also the beginning of a post-scarcity era in the history entertainment. This is an unprecedented development, and no one knows where it will end up. But I suspect that clickbait programming, intrusive advertising, and technical gadgetry will not solve the fundamental problem that the nontertainment industry now faces: there is just too much material available, even if you don’t pay for it. More video is uploaded to YouTube every day than a person could watch in a lifetime.
The fundamental question, however, will remain unchanged: what makes any one piece of entertainment distinctive, interesting, and worthwhile? In an increasingly commoditized marketplace, this raises the bar for quality and innovation, but also for branding and good old-fashioned storytelling. And to be fair, there are some extraordinary gems out there. Who knows… after I’m finally caught up with Homeland, I may even get round to The Theory of Everything.
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