Netflix's 'Arrested Development' resurrection signals the future of mobile video



Seven years after Fox unceremoniously dumped Arrested Development, the cult-classic mockumentary sitcom has a new lease on life. Netflix has commissioned an all-new fourth season of the show slated to premiere this spring, bringing back the original cast and creative team, and a feature film is reportedly in the works as well.

The big news isn't simply that Arrested Development is coming back, however--it's also how it's coming back. Speaking at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif., the show's creator Mitchell Hurwitz revealed that Arrested Development Season 4 will not only abandon broadcast television but also many of the medium's most fundamental tenets, so swallow a Forget-Me-Now pill and disregard all your preconceived notions of conventional programming strategies. Netflix will release all 14 new episodes in one fell swoop, on a single day this May. Each episode will focus on a different Arrested Development character, and the episodes may be watched in any order the viewer wishes, with the overarching plots and themes gradually locking into place. And instead of adhering to standardized episode lengths designed to air in 30-minute sitcom programming blocks, Hurwitz said each episode runs a different length, although they still average half an hour.  

"Netflix might just have found its niche in taking the logical step beyond the subject matter innovations of the Golden Age of television and providing structural flexibility to television storytellers as well as room to tackle new subject material and in new tones," wrote ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg. "Television, for all that it's developed beyond an episodic structure to tell long-arc narratives, is still a fundamentally linear storytelling mechanism… A willingness to treat episodes like a series of interlinked short films that can be watched in multiple orders is something Netflix can do particularly because of its strategy of releasing all of the episodes of its shows at once and because it doesn't have to build and retain viewers episode to episode the way a network does to keep a reliable stream of advertising revenue flowing."

Arrested Development's anything-goes approach to episode running times is another radical innovation. As Rosenberg notes, scripted programs on broadcast networks are essentially locked into 30-minute and 60-minute increments: Running long or short can play havoc with advertising agreements, start times of other series and DVR scheduling. But requiring creators to keep an eye on the clock also can compromise the finished product, forcing writers to either pad or slash scripts to fit their allotted time. The on-demand Netflix model affords showrunners total flexibility because subscribers are in control over what they watch and when they watch it. One episode of a series could stretch two hours, and the follow-up could wrap in less than 15 minutes, depending on the story being told. It's the script determining the running time, instead of vice versa.  

And that's where mobile comes in. It's easy to picture a substantial chunk of Netflix subscribers viewing the new Arrested Development episodes on iPads: Last year, an OnDevice Research survey revealed that Americans now spend an average of 2.4 hours per day consuming media content on mobile devices, more time than they spend in front of their TVs or PCs. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they access mobile media services while lying in bed, 70 percent multitask on mobile while watching TV, and 65 percent kill time while waiting for something. OnDevice Research adds that most mobile usage takes place during the early morning and early evening hours, corresponding with daily commutes to and from work and school. That data suggests a virtually infinite number of possible contexts and use case scenarios for viewing mobile video--some lasting hours and others just minutes--but the overwhelming majority of content coming out of Hollywood doesn't acknowledge this new paradigm. It's programming optimized for the confines of network schedules, not for the freedoms of mobile devices and on-demand streaming.

The new season of Arrested Development represents a significant step in a new direction. It establishes Netflix as a landing zone for creators like Mitchell Hurwitz, with visions too idiosyncratic and too complex for broadcast television, giving them unprecedented command over the production process and letting them tell the stories they want to tell, however they wish to tell them. Hurwitz may not have had mobile devices in mind when he conceived Arrested Development's return, but that doesn't mean another showrunner isn't already masterminding a series that plays to the strengths and variations of the mobile viewing experience. Don't touch that dial.--Jason