Are You Still Watching?
Ever since it made its debut as a DVD mailing system back when I was an undergrad, the streaming service and the college community have been inseparable.
By Alicia Drier, Roosevelt University
I can still remember begging my mom to rent “Titan A.E.” from our small local grocery store on a Friday night, and on VHS, no less.
I remember when we used to grab DVDs by the handful to watch at a friend’s house after school when we were supposed to be studying.
I remember when my undergrad friends and I opened Netflix accounts because it was the cool thing to do. The company was new, foreign and exciting. As we ordered our first-ever DVDs by mail, we had long, heated debates about how to pronounce the word “queue.” We used to obsessively monitor the balance of our checking accounts, just so we’d have enough money for next month’s Netflix subscription.
Then, our local Blockbuster was turned into a tanning salon, and live streaming soon made waiting for DVD rentals in the mail a thing of the past. Suddenly, I was spending numerous hours in front of a TV screen, interrupted only by a message akin to something like, “Are you still watching this TV show? You’ve been here for five hours. You are covered in chips. Look at yourself for god’s sake.”
Netflix has been sending DVDs by mail since 1998, but has only offered video streaming in America for the last decade. Recently a whole new era of Netflix has launched, as people of all ages tune in to the internationally known site for original content like “Stranger Things,” “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “Orange is the New Black.”
With all the new and different ways for viewers to engage with media, it’s easy to see how drastically Netflix has changed since I opened my account with them in 2008. But it’s arguably a more complicated question to consider how Netflix has altered the landscape of college as a whole, or how students are now functioning differently 10 years after the Netflix boom.
I used to know people who made an art form out of the careful schedules they had to maintain to view new shows on the night they actually aired; DVRs were the first step away from this. Didn’t make it home in time for the “Friends” premiere? No problem! It was set to record weeks ago, and it can always be watched later. Suddenly, schedules felt freer, TV fans were happier and no one felt enslaved by their TV Guide anymore (again, more references that date me).
But now in 2017, people have reverted to an even stranger TV habit. Words like “binge” and “addiction” are used to describe time spent watching television, and more often than not, individuals wait until they can take in a whole season in one sitting before they commit to a show. People regularly inform me that they watched all six seasons of “Gossip Girl” over one weekend, stopping only to pee and get more food. “I just couldn’t stop watching!” they say, and honestly, I don’t blame them.
TV networks are taking notice of this too. This month, for the first time ever, the Disney-owned channel Freeform released an entire season of one of its new shows online before it had fully aired on TV. “Binging used to be something a little unsavory,” said Freeform president Tom Ascheim. “Now it’s all about how people want to watch TV” (see more about this shift here).
But when it comes to the lives of college students, time management and time commitment to media are only part of the equation. Since the beginning of Netflix streaming, I have tried to convince myself that I can watch TV while also writing an essay, completing some assigned reading or participating in an online-class forum. I’m sure by now everyone has heard that multitasking is a myth, yet I continue to convince myself that it won’t be a myth for me.
I know many students are in the same boat as me. There’s a long night of studying ahead, and it’s easy to be convinced that efficiency will be increased if Netflix is playing in the background. Often, students stream Netflix on their laptops, which is also where they should be studying, but homework is just out of luck.
But, I have seen positive social changes since the dawn of Netflix as well. According to “The Washington Post,” Netflix is conveying nostalgia better than anyone else right now. Thanks to the streaming service, there is a whole new generation of teens who have been exposed to the magic of “Mean Girls” (“You can’t sit with us!”). The world finally has some sort of an ending to the cliffhanger that was “Gilmore Girls.” Children are growing up today with new knowledge of cult superheroes like He-Man and She-Ra. Television from the 80s and 90s, which otherwise may have never seen the light of day again, is alive and thriving thanks to Netflix-streaming.
Even beyond that, Netflix and other streaming sites connect humans in a new and exciting way. When I want to catch up with a friend who lives miles away, I can now propose we have a shared movie night from the comfort and privacy of our separate living rooms. People are more likely to have a Netflix binge in common than the latest cable-TV hit. Plus, there are forums, blogs and YouTube channels devoted to the community that has grown around this new form of intake. When people aren’t watching Netflix, they’re talking about what they have watched, what they want to watch or what their friends should be watching.
It’s interesting to consider that the human sense of time has been most affected by the Netflix era. With millions of viewers tuned into Netflix, hours slip away just as quickly as the barriers of decades. And now, when a professor mentions “Animaniacs,” a young student just might start thinking of the “Pinky and the Brain” theme song right along with him.
To be honest, I still reel when I think about how much technological landscape has been covered in my lifetime. As a little girl, I complained about mere minutes of my life wasted in rewinding VHS tapes. Then there were late fees at movie rental stores, followed by the convenience of Redbox next to Walgreens. It was a big deal when I got my first laptop for college, complete with DVD-ROM on the side. I now own a computer that is basically useless to me without a Wi-Fi connection.
The world of gadgets and media never stays the same for long, but isn’t it fantastic to see how the standard of human living continues to adapt and change just the same?