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Does Netflix Really Bring Us Together?

A new commercial from the streaming-media company shows your family gathered all around the Christmas TV.
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(Photo: Jason Wesley Upton/Flickr)

(Photo: Jason Wesley Upton/Flickr)

The holidays are upon us! For many, that means removing shoes at airport security checks, restless nights on childhood mattresses well past their prime, and insufferable monologues from that cousin who still believes the Illuminati's role in Tupac's death is too obvious to discredit.

The overarching idea of the season, however, is that we put up with certain hassles and minor inconveniences because we enjoy being with the people we love and who love us back. Even though we might not have spoken to some friends and family members gathered around the dinner table since, say, this time last year, the holidays give us pause, a moment to reflect, and an opportunity to remember what's important.

It's this warm sense of familial bonding that Netflix attempts to capture in a recent commercial:

During the one-minute spot, an anthropomorphic tree topper voiced by The Sopranos' gravelly Lorraine Bracco describes her 34 Christmases with the McDermott family—a rowdy yet regular-looking family that's undergone their share of the season's ups and downs. Despite aunt Ruthie burning the yams one year and a bowling ball busting through the attic floor in another, the porcelain ornament reveals that the family unites in a state of calmness whenever they gather in the living room to watch Netflix. The advertisement ends with the following tagline: "Netflix: It just might bring everyone together."

The commercial is funny, nostalgic, endearing, and well executed. It evokes a pleasant sentiment without wandering into the territory of sentimentalism. But, in regards to its closing statement, is it true? Does America's leading online legal streaming provider and source of the much-talked-about shows House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, really bring people together as depicted in the McDermott home?

Researchers found that 58 percent of those surveyed consider watching TV as a family to be the highlight of their Christmas day. However, 45 percent said they could handle no more than three hours of family time before feeling a strong need to leave the room.

According to a recent survey commissioned by Netflix, 61 percent of participants regularly use streaming services to binge-watch multiple episodes of the same TV show in a single sitting, and 73 percent of them have positive feelings about this growing trend in movie and television consumption. (If it's any indicator of the activity's increasing popularity, Oxford Dictionaries shortlisted the verb “binge-watch” for 2013's Word of the Year.) What the study also found, however, is that over a third (38 percent) of these bingers prefer to binge alone, while just over half (51 percent) prefer to watch in the company of at least one other person.

In an earlier Netflix-backed survey conducted by the same firm, Harris Interactive, numbers show that 51 percent of people in a relationship would betray their spouse/partner/significant other by secretly watching an episode that the couple had previously agreed to watch together. While younger couples appeared more likely to cheat on each other by watching ahead, they were also more likely to confess to their crime.

And in yet another Netflix poll, this one carried out in Britain, researchers found that 58 percent of those surveyed consider watching TV as a family to be the highlight of their Christmas day. However, 45 percent said they could handle no more than three hours of family time before feeling a strong need to leave the room. Another third said they find a quiet place in the house to recharge by watching TV alone.

Although these Netflix-sponsored surveys might be a bit fuzzy when it comes to clearing up modern online viewing habits, they don't exactly lend a strong degree of confidence to the image of a happy family gathered around a streamed screening of Forrest Gump. Then again, Netflix is famous for keeping its ratings under wraps, and with an estimated one million moochers streaming shows on someone else's account for free, it's hard to say exactly how many people are watching either alone or with others.

But what does any of this even matter? Who cares if Netflix is either bringing everyone together or pulling everyone apart when devouring a season of Breaking Bad? And, whether they do it as a group or as individuals, won't each member of the McDermott clan eventually end up watching roughly the same thing, anyway? They can still discuss their reactions, interpretations, and predictions over pancakes and bacon the next morning, can't they? Isn't this how book clubs work?

However valid these questions may be, the answers certainly aren't certain. Instead, here are more questions: Is there any value to experiencing the twists and turns of a well-crafted drama in the company of a good friend? Is it more fun to laugh at a comedy special if your siblings are there to laugh, too? Are horror films less scary when holding the hand of someone special? Is the freedom to watch what we want, where we want, when we want, and with whom we want, too much of a good thing?

In 2012, Americans spent more money purchasing online movies than they did physical formats such as DVDs. It's a historical shift with unknown consequences. If Netflix is capable of bringing everyone together, we should be seeing manifestations of this power anytime now. Then again, the advertisement's tagline only mentioned, "might." There was never any promise of "will."