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.

A still from The Theory of Everything (source)

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.

Attention Management

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.

All work and no play? (Peasant Working in a Fieldsource)

Redefining 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.

Nothing better to do? source)

Being Distinctive

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.

• • •

Top image credit: La Loge de Theatre (detail) by Felix Vallotton (“Box Seats at the Theater,” adapted from source)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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