Netflix: A culture all its own



Tisa Tollenaar

Millennials in college have it pretty easy — at least when it comes to movies and TV shows.

It might be hard for some to imagine having to wait for a new episode each week. In the past, to see a particular movie, you’d have to go to the theater, buy or rent it on DVD — or VHS, from our earliest, blurriest memories — or catch it airing on a TV network by a stroke of luck. Now we have shows and movies on demand, ready to play at the click of a mouse or tap of the screen.

One, however, has made an arguably permanent impact on not only how we access entertainment but also on our pop culture as a whole:


What began as a DVD rental service has expanded to more than 93 million subscribers and knocked Blockbuster into extinction. The giant is celebrating its 10th anniversary of its streaming option this quarter. If Netflix were a television network, it would be the fourth largest in the United States.

Netflix’s original programming is a hit with users. “Stranger Things” was the most searched TV series in 2016. Five of the top 10 most searched shows globally are Netflix originals. “The Crown” won an Golden Globe Award for “Best TV Drama.” 

And that’s all without making its consumers sit through commercials.

But where does the college student fit into this world? We are the biggest consumers.

Miranda Seals, senior in architecture, said she watches up to six hours of Netflix each week. Those hours are split; she spends four engaged in the content but also uses it as background noise to help her sleep or while performing other activities.

“It gives my brain something mindless to focus on rather than [on] the stress of the day,” she said.

Steph Widener, a recent Iowa State graduate, said her Netflix habits have changed since graduation. In school, she watched three hours a week at most, but she now averages about six.

“I live by myself so I like to watch something while I eat,” Widener said. “Other times it would be out of boredom, or if I’m sick [or] hungover.”

In 2016, 81 percent of adults between 18 and 35 had a Netflix account, according to BGR, a mobile and technology news source for breaking news, reviews, insights and opinions. This does not factor in shared accounts, which average three users per one paid subscription. Users are estimated to have streamed more than 43 million hours of content at the end of 2016.

On-demand TV shows and movies with almost unlimited options have lent themselves to a new type of consumer — the binge watcher. What is a binge watcher?

Even Merriam-Webster has added this term to its dictionary. It defines “binge-watch” as “to watch many or all episodes (of a TV series) in rapid succession.”

In layman terms, this means that all of those times you decided to watch an entire season of that show you like in one night rather than doing your homework are considered binges. Others define watching more than three hours of content in one sitting as a binge.

A Twitter poll by the Iowa State Daily asked students how many hours of Netflix they watch per week. Thirty-six percent of responders said they watch only three hours or less a week. The other 64 percent said they watch four hours or more each week. Seventeen percent of these said they watch 12 hours or more per week — the binge-watcher category. 

Based on this poll, not a lot of Iowa State students would consider themselves regular bingers. This could be for a variety of reasons: Maybe school gets in the way or maybe some aren’t that big into watching Netflix for hours on end. But what about when school isn’t a factor?

“I legit stayed in my bed for six days in a row over break once watching ‘Sons of Anarchy,’” Seals said.

Hailey Grant, senior in communication studies, hosted a program on March 28 with other students in one of her communications classes called “Bridging the Gap.” The program taught alumni how to interact with the younger generation, which accesses streaming services such as Netflix. Grant said Netflix binging has become socially acceptable and has become a major factor in how people engage.

“You can say, ‘I just finished all nine seasons of ‘The Office,’ and at least one person will turn around and say, ‘Hey, I love that show,’” she said. “And boom, instant friend.”

Netflix executives have identified a “special breed” of binge-watcher. In a video posted to YouTube, Netflix’s vice president of innovation, Todd Yellin, describes this type of person as someone who will finish a TV series in the same amount of time it has been posted. Essentially, they will watch the show start to finish with no breaks the second that Netflix launches it. Yellin describes this process as the same as book releases.

“You can read as much as you want or as little as you want on any given day, and that’s fine, and that’s the way TV should be,” he said in the video.

Another phrase that has recently made its mark in college culture is “Netflix and chill.” Depending on who is asked, it can mean anything from going to someone’s house and watching something together to a code for casual sex. Most times it means the latter.

The concept of “Netflix and chill” also plays into other millennial stereotypes such as the need for instant gratification and, in particular, the idea of the “hook-up” generation.

“Netflix and chill” also reinforces the concept that millennials are prone to multitasking. A student could have Netflix up in the background while studying or engaging in a specific activity.  

Seals admitted to having “Netflix and chilled” in the past. She said that it provides a cover-up so her roommate doesn’t hear the “chill” part. Other times, it’s a way to keep from awkward conversation afterward.

“It provided a nice transition afterward and avoided the ‘Well, s**t, what do we do now?’ conversation,” Seals said. “[You can] just segway right into watching what’s going on.”

Widener said that what the person means when they use the phrase depends on if they use the exact wording. 

“If someone says, ‘Hey, man, want to come over and watch Netflix?’ I would be like, ‘Cool, yeah, let’s watch some shows.’ But if someone specifically said, ‘Hey, want to watch Netflix and chill?’ they aren’t asking to watch Netflix, they are asking if you want to fool around sexually.”

Despite it creeping into the social culture of college, professors have begun using it as a part of their curriculum. Many professors who use films in their classes often give the students an option of watching films outside of class on streaming services or mention them briefly to give students additional resources on subject matter.

With its wide variety of documentaries and educational series, Widener said she often used Netflix to supplement her research for projects.

“It was a different form of media other than a textbook or an article,” she said. “For a visual learner like myself, I felt like the information stuck with me and I had a better understanding of the data being presented to me.”

Is there really a “Netflix culture” at Iowa State?

“I don’t think it’s specific to Iowa State,” Seals said. “I think it’s more our generation as a whole. It gives us something to talk about and makes for less awkward silences, kind of how smartphones give us a crutch to avoid awkward interactions in public,” Seals said.

Widener has similar thoughts.

“You can safely assume when meeting someone that they either have [a Netflix account] or they have access to one,” Widener said.