A Digital Life: “Orange is the New Black” shows Netflix gets how millennials watch TV

The first time I heard about the show Orange is the New Black, I honestly thought it was a fake-terrible television show that Jack Donaghy was pitching to Cabletown executives as part of the plot on 30 Rock.

The reason for my confusion is that when I saw a trailer for the show that came on when 30 Rock had ended, I was only half-watching the screen. I was lying on my stomach with my laptop open next to me, playing 30 Rock on Netflix (through an account I share with my parents and sister) while checking Twitter on my phone, texting a few different friends, and eating a bowl of cereal.

How did I discover that Orange is the New Black is actually a real original show that Netflix rolled out last month? Only when I saw a Buzzfeed article about it on Facebook, when a few people at work mentioned it on Twitter, and when my sister texted me to ask if I’d watched it yet. This weekend, I finally opened up my laptop to watch it. And when I did, I watched five episodes in a single sitting.

I’m the type of person who keeps cable executives up at night. I have never owned a physical television, I wouldn’t think of paying for cable, and I rarely even pay for what I watch on the internet. (And when I do tune in, I’m distracted enough to confuse a trailer with actual programming.)

But my viewing habits aren’t all that unusual among my generation. And the way we discover and watch TV isn’t changing anytime soon. Earlier this year I wrote about the economics of my generation’s viewing and reading habits, and what it means for content companies when a group of people who grew up on free news, music and movies become adult consumers.

Plenty of readers criticized us for being a bunch of free-loaders, which they’re totally entitled to think, since few of my friends have any interest in paying for access to The New York Times or The New Yorker.

But the one service that everyone said they would pay for? Netflix. I’m currently using my parents subscription, but if they ever rescinded that generosity or stopped subscribing, I’d happily pay up. And the reason I suspect that my friends and I are willing to fork over for Netflix is that, in general, it feels like the company understands how we want to watch TV.

Almost all of my friends all tuned in for Arrested Development, House of Cards, and now Orange Is the New Black. Part of the reason was that all of that original content was basically good, with high-quality actors and production values. (I know Amazon Prime has original content, but I’ve never met anyone who has watched it.)

But there’s more to it than just good programming. Once you’ve paid your monthly Netflix bill (or borrowed someone’s login), the content at least feels free. Hitting “next episode” doesn’t feel like making a purchase the way it does on iTunes, even if it ultimately costs you more than it would to buy a few episodes each month.

You can sit down and watch an episode a week if you want, or more likely, you can binge on five or six episodes at a time to catch up with your friends and participate in the conversations on text and Twitter.

The key is, it’s available whenever you want it, on whatever device you want to watch on. TV Everywhere has become a mantra for executives in the industry to preach, but in reality few companies deliver on the promise. Netflix, more so than most other companies, gives consumers a healthy taste of what that Nirvana could be like.

Contrast Orange is the New Black with Mad Men, which airs Sunday night but isn’t available for purchase on iTunes until Monday morning — at which point, an entire work day has passed where Twitter or co-workers could spoil the plot for you. Does it make my friends more likely to pay for cable so they can watch Sunday night? Unfortunately, no — at least anecdotally, people seem more likely to download it illegally on Sunday night (they’d pay if it were available), than wait to watch until Monday night to buy it on iTunes and have a lesser experience. Because as I’ve written before, if you want to get the Twitter jokes, you need to watch when everyone else is watching too.

I don’t think that illegally downloading content or borrowing logins from friends and parents are attractive traits of my generation. And, of course, AMC has a different economic structure than Netflix — it relies on TV sponsors for revenue and likely won’t change its programming windowing any time soon.

But Netflix’s success at hooking us on its original programming should remind networks like AMC that we are willing to pay for content — assuming the network then provides the content in a way we want to consume it.

And with Orange Is the New Black, I realized these feelings aren’t limited to millennials when my Mom texted me to say that she and my dad had started watching the show on their Roku. I should really check it out, she saId.

To read previous Digital Life columns, click here.