Are you a starter or a completer? The distinction is important to Netflix, as it should be to any self-respecting media company trying to commandeer swathes of our precious time and get paid for it.
Do you persevere to the end, fending off distractions and enduring dull sequences, until the international dubbing credits flash up on the screen?
Or are you happy to permanently abandon progress bars that somehow still have one hour and 43 minutes to go on them because, in the spirit of Mad Men's Don Draper, you only like the beginning of things?
For Netflix, a “starter” is somebody who views just two minutes of a film or single episode. To graduate to “watcher” status, they must consume 70 per cent of either a film or single episode. But to be a “completer”, they must watch 90 per cent of a film or season of a series. They must make it to the end, or close enough.
These classifications were revealed by Netflix in 2019 as it explained to a Westminster committee how it shares data with UK producers about how their titles have been received within the first seven days and first 28 days on its platform. The ideal viewer for makers of a Netflix series then, is somebody who takes the plunge early and follows through at a brisk pace.
If you don't have enough of these committed viewers, the axe will fall. If you have lots and lots of them, then your name is probably Shonda Rhimes.
During peak-lockdown, the joke went that people were so bored they had “completed” Netflix. This gag was cracked for two reasons: there are seemingly so many titles on the endless scroll of Netflix, no one could ever hope to exhaust them, and they are aimed at such disparate audiences, no single person would want to anyway.
Now after adding more than 500 original titles in 2021 yet suffering a net loss of 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2022, Netflix is said to be exploring a more industry-appropriate quality-not-quantity approach, on the basis that less is more, while also happening to be cheaper than more.
It is still planning to shell out more than $20 billion on programming this year. Netflix may have lost some of its innate confidence along with the $54 billion that was wiped off its share price last Wednesday, but we haven’t quite reached the end of its idiosyncratic reign just yet.
It remains the market leader in video streaming, both responsible for and a victim of the phenomenon known as “analysis paralysis” or “decision fatigue”. This is what happens when we have so many options, we make no choice at all, eventually heading in search of that nomadic exit button, dissatisfied.
Even when we do press play, the suspicion that there is a better alternative out there, probably on another streaming service – a rational suspicion – has turned many of us into serial “starters”, losing patience early, making judgments with brutal haste.
Unless we take steps to remove never-to-be-resumed titles from the “Continue Watching” row, its carousel of tiles expands by the day, unclicked, creating its own anxiety. Netflix, because it’s Netflix, then sends us “don’t forget to finish” emails.
Only an algorithm with no understanding of how New Year’s Eve works would send a “don’t forget to finish Death to 2021” notification on January 22nd, 2022. Still, such emails are well within the range of accepted inbox annoyances, and until the narrative about Netflix changed last week, they came across as another brilliant exercise in automated marketing efficiency.
In the context of Netflix’s glum forecast that it will lose a further two million subscribers this quarter, however, these “pick up where you left off” reminders might seem a bit panicky, a bit desperate.
Not every media company is prone to badgering. For news businesses no longer constrained by the size of their printing presses, the internet has helpfully created infinite space for what seems like infinite content. Some publishers are now taking the knowledge that their target audience feels overloaded to declare their good intentions to streamline the experience of news consumption.
Ironically, this has led to a glut of new product launches, all of them trying to simultaneous reach the time-squeezed.
But the all-you-can-eat buffet is out, the carefully curated menu is in. That tough-to-kill line about a newspaper costing less than the price of a cup of coffee has finally been replaced by a new promise: sign up to our email, as the editor of a new morning newsletter from the Guardian put it, to make sense of the world “in the time it takes to drink a coffee”.
In the online era, newspaper groups can tell if someone makes it to the end of an article, just as podcast producers can tell from their analytics the precise point at which listeners drop out, and just as television broadcasters have long been able to use Nielsen metering data to see if people stick around for, say, the last item on a late-night chat show.
Of course, no journalist in their right mind wants to see exactly how many people they have bored in cold hard numbers. The answer will rarely be fun. The Guardian columnist Adrian Chiles recently told GQ magazine that his partner, editor Katharine Viner, once showed him how many people had clicked on one of his pieces. "But then there's also data as to, did they read to the end? And it was almost nobody. I go, 'F***ing hell'."
The Financial Times, meanwhile, has introduced FT Edit, a low-priced app that gives readers access to a modest eight in-depth news articles a day, with the fashionable label of estimated reading time attached to each one. It has billed this as its response “to an increasingly crowded news-scape” and the distractions posed by the “proliferation of digital platforms, channels and formats”.
When you get to the end of a story, it is marked “completed” and you get a little tick. You can move on. But if you exit before the final paragraph, a “story progress” bar will show how far you got and how much you have left to go. Thanks for that, FT.
Even when media companies try to allay unease about our inability to keep up with the sheer volume of available content, they can wind up stoking it.