The World Needs Netflix Minis

To understand how viewing habits have changed, consider the difference between the couch show and the phone show.

An employee arranges discarded televisions at an electronic waste recycling factory in Wuhan, China, in 2011. (Reuters )

At 10 p.m. on the final Wednesday of May, shrouded in the darkness of our basement, my wife and I did something we used to do quite often, but now—in the 23rd year of our marriage—we do only rarely.

We sat on our couch and watched a television show at the time it aired.

The occasion: The series finale of The Americans, FX’s gripping six-season Cold War drama. Although this was the first episode we’d viewed at its scheduled hour, we’d seen every other episode—all 72 of them. And we’d treated them with a reverence denied to most other television programming. We watched these episodes together—days or weeks after the official air date—while sitting on the couch.

In our household, The Americans is what we call a “couch show.”  We record it or stream it and go to a specified place, the Pink family basement, to view it on a large screen. For the last few years, live sports notwithstanding, Better Call Saul is the only other program that qualifies for such loving premeditation and deliberateness. But these two shows are not the only ones I watch regularly. Not by a long shot. I’m also a big fan of Veep, Atlanta, Barry, Billions, and Silicon Valley. I’ve watched nearly all the episodes of all of these shows, but almost never while sitting on my couch. These I’ve watched on my phone or tablet in the interstitial moments of my life—a long wait at an airport gate, a late-night Uber ride, and so on. I call these “phone shows.”

At first by circumstance, and now by design, this is how I organize my television diet: couch shows and phone shows.

It’s well known by now that Americans have changed the way they watch TV.  People pull content from Hulu rather than have it pushed to us by CBS. DVRs allow for shifted viewing times and skipping ads. But those behaviors are just surface manifestations of a deeper transformation in modern media habits. Consumers are now, often unconsciously, sorting every media product—from podcasts to magazine stories to video—into three categories: intentional, interstitial, and invisible. The implications of these changes are huge, especially for the people who create what we watch.

Intentional media are the handful of offerings that we plan in advance to experience and then carve out particular chunks of time to enjoy. For me, these are the couch shows like Better Call Saul and very little else. Interstitial media, meanwhile, constitutes a far larger category. This is programming we use to fill the spaces in our lives—10 minutes in a grocery store line, 5 minutes waiting to pick up a kid at practice, 35 minutes on a train or bus. For me, these are the articles saved on Instapaper, audiobooks, and phone shows like Billions, which I enjoy immensely but have never seen inside my own home and have rarely watched in segments longer than a half hour. Invisible media, finally, is the largest category of all—the stuff we never see, that we’re scarcely aware even exists.

Examining the media ecosystem through these three lenses—which focus less on the technologies of distribution and more on the patterns of consumption—yields new clues about both the economics of media and the design principles of its creation. For example, economists and consultants have long pushed the idea of an “attention economy.” In the old days, their reasoning goes, information was scarce and therefore valuable. In the modern world, though, information is ubiquitous—which means the scarcest resource is human attention. It’s a good argument, but times have dislodged some of its foundational bricks.

What’s even scarcer today than attention is intention. Fifteen years ago, when I had no choice but to repair to a particular room to watch television, the imperative for anyone in the TV industry was to secure my attention once I got there. This was quite easy in the pre-cable days and still possible in the era of 100 channels and no DVR. But today, when I carry in my pocket a television set connected to a celestial jukebox of programming that I can watch or listen to any time and any place, the supply of attention, while still limited, has actually expanded. And that means what’s more valuable is getting me to intend—to plan, to identify a block of time, and to summon a spouse or a friend.

And that, in turn, changes the way creators ought to think about their creations. The highest aspiration is to produce something so monumental and extraordinary that it demands intention. Think Game of Thrones. It is, for millions of people (though not for me), the quintessential couch show. Watching eight minutes of it on your Android while waiting for a prescription at CVS seems sacrilegious. Whether viewers watch a new GOT episode every Sunday night or time-shift their consumption is irrelevant. What matters is that people deliberately create a new, extended, and meaningful space to experience the show—rather than use the show to occupy existing, shorter, and less meaningful spaces. And intentionality is not reserved for premium-cable programming aimed at the chattering class. The success of NBC’s live musicals, which have drawn tens of millions of viewers, many of them no doubt families assembled in living rooms, testifies to the rising value of intention.

Producers, directors, and writers should understand that viewers today are enlisting a decision-making heuristic similar to the one Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes used to determine which suitors deserved her limited supply of contraceptive sponges. We ask of each show: Is it couch-worthy?

But couch-worthiness is not the sole criterion for successful media. Even though intention has become the scarcest resource, attention remains valuable. It’s just that now people often dole it out in smaller increments, and in different contexts than they once did. For instance, I’ve still seen all 46 episodes of Silicon Valley and all 33 episodes of Billions, because that TV set in my pocket allows me to enliven the dead spaces in my days with something more compelling than staring into space or hate-scrolling on Twitter.

Mike Judge, the creator of Silicon Valley, and Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin, the creators of Billions, might be miffed that I haven’t deemed their brilliance worth a trip to the couch. They shouldn’t be. I watch their shows religiously. It’s just that my practice is more Reform than Orthodox. This is key: Interstitial media isn’t a lesser category. It’s just a different category.

Once creators acknowledge that legions of viewers are encountering their work on different terms, they can begin rethinking the structure and grammar of their creations. For example, if I’m going to watch an hour-long drama in three or four separate short stints, why not divide each episode into chapters—literally labeling Chapters 1, 2, 3, and so on—which would allow me to stick a bookmark in the show the way I do with books, which I never read in one sitting? Not every show is for binge watchers, though many producers and streaming platforms seem to assume that they should be.

Or why not challenge the length conventions themselves?  My favorite phone shows tend to run either 30 minutes or 60 minutes. But those lengths are merely artifacts of how broadcast television and advertising were configured 50 years ago. Since interstitial media is a growing category, it’s worth producing programs specifically for those interstices. James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee are early, though perhaps inadvertent, examples.

The opportunity, as several YouTube channels demonstrate, is potentially huge. For instance, I’m surprised that Netflix, whose algorithms can likely identify me as a city-living, college-tuition-paying, Prius-driving white guy, doesn’t allow me to find shows by duration. Say I’m in an airport security line with 10 minutes to kill. I’d love to be able to open the Netflix app on my phone, indicate the length of wait, and get a list of short programs to fill that space.

At the moment, that sort of programming doesn’t exist. But once Netflix realizes the demand, it could create the supply—and in so doing mint an entirely new format. Call it Netflix Minis—super-short programming expressly designed as interstitial media. In the 20th century, fixed hour and half-hour time slots gave us the three-camera sitcom, the self-contained police procedural, and a new visual vernacular. In the 21st century, interstices could do something similar. They could give rise to freshened storytelling techniques and even new types of stories.

Of course, intentional and interstitial are not categories that apply uniformly. For example, my wife and frequent couch-show companion considers Atlanta intentional media and insists I’m missing out on the program’s visual genius by watching it in dribs and drabs on a notecard-sized screen. My phone show might be your couch show, even within the same household.

But reconceiving media by examining the viewer’s specific behavior and degree of intention can elevate the quality of existing offerings and spur the creation of novel formats. The best stories, beautifully told, can be timeless. But first they have to reach people on their terms.