Netflix’s secret cult hit

“This is television done right.” “Absolutely spellbinding!” “This wasn’t a show. It was a revelation.” These are only some of the raving customer reviews for Netflix’s (s NFLX) first original TV show. And no, we are not talking about Lilyhammer, which was released exclusively on Netflix this spring. Years before the company’s first official original, it published a series of videos on the site that initially remained under the radar, but have since become a cult hit.
Which is surprising, given the content. Netflix’s Example Show was shot entirely on the company’s campus in Los Gatos, California. It features long and action-free segments of the building itself, a fountain and flowers. Then there’s a guy moonwalking, hopping around, juggling and dramatically reciting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. There’s also minutes of AV test segments and a model train carrying two plastic penguins.
The TV show features four episodes total, spread out over two seasons. Each and every video is 11 minutes long, and completely identical. Credited as actors are “Actor” and “Actress,” and the creator is none other than “Creator.” Of course, Netflix cross-references all these data points to help users find more movies of their favorite actors, and following these links reveals that there are a few more short films with the exact same content, with poetic titles like Example Short 23.976 Burned In Timecode Remote Content.
And all of them have received numerous rave reviews from Netflix’s customers. Some are picking up on the strange titles, with one reviewer writing:

“Awesome! Might the greatest story ever told. The part (where) the frame rate stay [sic] a solid 23.976 is my favorite part by far. ”

Others sing high praise of the oddly named talent:

“I had previously seen Actor and Actress in Play at the Public Theater. Beckett be damned: nothing that I saw there prepared me for Example Short 23.967. The friction between the frame rate and the raw emotion, especially in Actor, still haunts me.”

As strange at the videos are themselves, these reviews are solid gold; hilarious user-generated internet entertainment in the tradition of the Amazon (s AMZN) reviews for articles like Tuscan Whole Milk and the Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt. But how did the videos end up on the service in the first place?
I asked Netflix about it, and was told that the clips were produced a few years ago for testing purposes. Also, the moon-walking Shakespeare aficionado starring in them doesn’t actually work at Netflix. He’s a freelancer, specifically hired for this project. A Netflix spokesperson went on to explain:

“These test videos are designed to help makers of consumer electronics devices that can stream from Netflix test their video players to handle various scenarios such as audio-visual syncing and complex motion at a wide variance of frame rates. Simply placing these titles into our production catalog, available through search only, eliminates the need for complex testing infrastructure.”

However, adding these titles to Netflix’s catalog also surfaced them through the site’s RSS feed – and that’s how most customers likely stumbled across them. To this day, Netflix is repackaging the material every couple of months for new tests, releasing it under equally descriptive titles. And every time, there’s a few more Netflix users stumbling across the clips, curious, amused, and eventually inspired to leave reviews like this one:

“Stunning and transfixing. This sensitive film draws the viewer into rethinking the entire human experience. Yin and yang, up and down, peanut butter and jelly. This will be studied by the next generation of film makers to inspire and challenge creativity.”

That’s likely more than Creator and Actor ever hoped for.