My initial question upon starting this blog was just what exactly is contemporary television? More programming is moving to streaming services exclusively, with Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Yahoo Screen all creating original content that follows television standards and traditions, but can solely be found on the internet. Two of Netflix’s original programs, Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, were nominated and competed against traditional televisions shows in various Emmy categories last year.
I’m not the first to ask what television is defined as in our modern media era. Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall says in his House of Cards Pilot review that Netflix’s choice to release the entirety of the first season at once is “an attempt to reinvent the way we watch television — if we’re even technically considering this to be “television” at all.”
Netflix’s has obtained a large audience, with 50.1 million subscribers according to the Huffington Post. This expansive viewership comes from it’s diversity of quality content, ease of accessibility and even it’s auto-play next episode feature, which can make it hard to stop watching.
Netflix has been on the forefront of creating new content for an online viewership, and while it’s original programming reflects the merits and standards of quality television their advertising and distribution model often differs immensely. Their advertising highlights the entirely new way we can relate to their shows, and how Netflix’s services have become engrained in our society.
A recent advertisement that premiered during the 2014 Emmy Awards features Ricky Gervais inserting himself into Netflix original shows after stating, “You know when you’re watching your favorite Netflix show and after five straight episodes it’s like you wanna be in it.” This direct address of “you know” demonstrates just how accustomed we have become to watching programming in this style of binge-watching that Netflix is known for. Our relationship to it is different than the traditional model of waiting a week between episodes.
Netflix recognizes their power in shaping how viewers consume programming now and in the future. Looking forward, Netflix is continuing to create their own original content instead of relying on gaining the rights to stream existing network or cable shows. This is important, as Netflix is continually seen more and more as competition for cable services rather than as an aid in gaining a larger audience for them. In the video below Director of Global Media Relations Jenny McCabe describes how Netflix determines what content to license, saying, “We can’t license everything and also maintain our low prices so we look for those titles that deliver the biggest viewership relative to the licensing cost.”
This video comes as a response to frustrations many viewers have expressed with the lack of options available on Netflix at times. McCabe addressing the fees and the cost of licensing from other companies further illustrates Netflix’s need to produce their own original content. As competitors begin to create their own streaming services many pull their programs from Netflix. Showtime removed their content from Netflix in 2011 after forming their own online service.
Netflix’s foray into original programming began with Lilyhammer in February of 2012. The show gained modest interest, but was not critically acclaimed. The company’s real success came a year later with the release of House of Cards in February 2013. Much of the buzz around House of Cards came from it’s source material and the talent surrounding it. It was based on an existing UK miniseries that had already gained success.
House of Cards’ success recently earned them a third season and the news was released on the show’s twitter this week:
The attachment of David Fincher as executive producer as well as his directing the first episode drew interest and helped to sway those who were apprehensive at first. Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall says of the choices Netflix made in recruiting such talent and releasing all episodes at once:
Netflix executives are saying that this is how their subscribers are accustomed to watching shows, but when they have a “Mad Men” marathon, they’re binging on a show they’ve been hearing friends, relatives and critics rave about for years on end. “House of Cards” is attempting to skip straight past the word of mouth phase, assuming that Spacey, director David Fincher, and a lot of promotion on Netflix itself will be enough to turn the show into a success, by whatever metric it is they’re using.
The release of all 13 first season episodes at once, Netflix’s now signature style, gave viewers more agency by being able to choose the speed at which to watch. Broadband technology firm Procera Networks released data that gives an insight into how fast viewers are watching the show. The show’s first season encouraged binge-watching, with “about one-quarter of those who watched the first episode motored through all 13 episodes” (Variety).
According to Variety, upon the release of the show’s second season “as many as “634,000 viewers polished off 13 hours of content over three days.” The series has attracted a large fan base, with “a whopping 15% of Netflix subscribers on one particular Internet service supplied by an unspecified U.S. cable operator (Procera can’t identify its clients) watched the first episode during a six to eight hour period monitored” on it’s first release day (Variety). This indicates just how much Netflix’s original content and style of release is catching on.
Following the success of House of Cards, Netflix continued to create even more original content, as well as producing new seasons of existing shows that were dropped by their original, traditional carriers.
Netflix has spanned a wide range of genres in their original programming already. And they’re furthering their reach with future programming. The company has already announced plans for another 34 more original series that are diverse in genre and theme.
The pie charts above breakdown exactly what type of programming Netflix has already produced, and what type of show to expect from them in the future. I strongly suggest viewing them on the infogr.am site for a more interactive experience that creates a better comparison. While I am focusing on exploring only recurring, full season programs, Netflix has also produced a vast number of original specials, miniseries and films.
As shown clearly in the inforgraphs, Netflix has heavily gravitated toward original animated programming. This subset has included diversity within it. Some shows include more mature subject matter, like BoJack Horseman, which was released in August 2014 and Netflix’s first anime series Sidonia no Kishi, which was released in July 2014. Part of the growth of future animation programs stem’s from Netflix’s new partnership with Dreamworks studios. This collaboration will incorporate already existing characters from their films, and many are already in the works. The agreement conditions that the studio is to develop more than 300 hours of exclusive programming based on Dreamworks Animation characters.
Last November brought further major Netflix news. Marvel announced a partnership with Netflix to create four original series based on characters from the Marvel universe. The collaboration will produce four shows, with 13 episodes in each first season and a mini-series event focused around The Defenders, a trajectory similar to the mass success of their individual hero films that culminated with The Avengers. You can watch Marvel’s own announcement video below.
Netflix’s original programming continues to grow and attract large studio partnerships and immense talent. Many of those who have partnered with Netflix have spoken out about why they chose to work with the streaming service rather than traditional television.
Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg said in a Reddit AMA:
“The coolest thing about their model to me, moreso even than the idea of people watching all the episodes together, is the idea that people are going to watch all the episodes IN ORDER. This is something I think we as audiences take for granted, but you CAN’T take it for granted when you’re working on a show for a more traditional network. Traditionally, every episode needs to work as an entrance to the series even if you’ve never seen the show before. But here, we got to know that nobody’s going to watch episode 7 unless they’ve already seen episodes 1-6, so we didn’t have to constantly reintroduce the characters and the premise, AND we could have the characters and the premise CHANGE. This influenced EVERYTHING we did”
Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development, which was dropped by Fox and picked up for a fourth season by Netflix, talked to Time about the strengths of Netflix’s format and distribution:
“So my prime motive was how to most successfully and ambitiously exploit this concept of delivery system. The fact that an audience can now be in possession of this as opposed to being fed this on someone else’s timetable – well, intellectually it was very interesting but also just practically as I got into the writing of it I could put things in with the confidence that people could go back very easily and find it. People could pause it. You know, all these things that didn’t exist when I did the first show. When I did the first show there was no guarantee we were going to be on DVD, yet I put a lot of detail in there that again, in retrospect, it was like, “Wow, what was I thinking?””
Hurwitz enjoyed Netflix’s format and the creative control given to him so much that he’s signed a multi-year deal with the company.
Netflix has changed how we consume television. In releasing episodes at once Netflix has created our current culture of binge-watching. Their innovative model has changed how creators approach television’s structure. It has also allowed writers to shape their shows with this new viewing pattern in mine, adding more callbacks to previous episodes with faith that viewers will more readily understand them.
The company’s success has allowed them to branch out into original content that may not have found a place in traditional television. Their large audience and distribution model has gained the attention of tremendous studios, leading to partnerships that draw on already existing fans and audiences. These collaborations help to guarantee a built-in fanbase for this upcoming content.
I can’t say for sure whether new streaming services will adopt Netflix’s model of releasing full seasons at once. Amazon has decided against it. Netflix has also begun to acquire programming that doesn’t lend itself to binge-watching, such as a new topical, late night style talk show hosted by Chelsea Handler. Netflix has not decided on it’s release format according to The New York Times. Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said in a press release
“The Internet has disrupted many of the conventions of traditional television and together with Chelsea Handler, Netflix is looking forward to reimagining the late night talk show for the on-demand generation, starting with the late night part .”
Variety weighs in on Netflix’s talk show acquisition, saying, “To date, their brand positioning has rested largely on its audacious decision to provide all the episodes of a series at once. But the novelty of that will wear thin in time.”
Whether Netflix will stick to its release strategy or not, it’s effects are already being seen on traditional media. CBS recently announced they are creating their own streaming service, ‘CBS All Access.’ Executive Vice President of CBS Interactive Marc DeBevoise even recognized Netflix as the future, saying of ‘All Access,’ “It is going to look a lot like Netflix.” Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, responded to CBS’ announcement in an interview with The New York Times, saying that
“the new wave of streaming options from traditional outlets validated his company’s long-held belief that the Internet was replacing traditional television, apps were replacing channels, remote controls were disappearing and screens were proliferating.”
Netflix’s most recent acquisition is a new comedy, produced by 30 Rock’s Tina Fey entitled The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The series was picked up for two seasons after NBC decided not to move forward with it. In an interview with New York Magazine Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos answered the question of whether Tina Fey calls it a TV show if it’s not on TV now with, “Yeah, it’s still a TV show. We’re TV.”