Swimming Upstream: The Rise of Netflix and the Fall of Scheduled Television
Just over a month ago, the list of Emmy nominations for 2013 were announced. There was the usual lot – your Game of Thrones and your Homeland – but nestled in amongst them were three rather important titles. But not because they were necessarily better, or that they tackled some particular issue. They were important simply by virtue of being created by on-demand internet streaming giant Netflix. House of Cards, Arrested Development and Hemlock Grove; three shows that received a total of fourteen nominations between them. A rather paltry number when compared with HBO’s 108, and yet perhaps far more meaningful in the grander scheme of things.
Netflix isn’t the first company to offer an on-demand service. BBC iPlayer and HBOGo are two examples of catch-up services offered by competitors. Netflix also isn’t the first company to offer on-demand programmes from a range of different studios. Amazon Instant Video, Lovefilm and Hulu all offer a streaming service with a variety of content from across the spectrum of television channels, just as Spotify does for music. What Netflix has been the first to do, however, is to become a TV studio in its own right, and create a number of original (and in the case of Arrested Development, self-proclaimed ‘semi-original’) programming. Whilst Amazon has swiftly followed suit with Vikings, as well as their ambitious multi-pilot scheme, where viewers vote for their favourite pilot-episode and the winner gets the green light on a full season, they are in no way operating at the same level.
From their first original show, Lilyhammer in February 2012, to their most recent offering, Orange is the New Black, Netflix has created a number of varied programmes covering a range of genres. The importance of this cannot be ignored: it is the equivalent of Spotify starting up its own music studio, signing its own artists and releasing its own albums. Quite the step up from Netflix’s original mantra of online-only DVD rentals.
Beyond simply appreciating the magnitude of the task, however, is realising that not only have Netflix created their own television shows, but they’ve created good television shows – some of them even excellent. Whilst Hemlock Grove is a bit on the dodgy side, House of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black are all critically acclaimed, and quite rightly, too.
And that is why only a trifling fourteen nominations is such an important number. This is early days for Netflix as a television studio, and already they are creating original content deemed worthy of being award winning. It shows they can stand up with the heavy hitters like HBO and AMC. Indeed, it shows that internet-only content in general can be fairly judged alongside the best that television can offer.
Further, the awards their shows have been nominated for include a number of the biggies. Jason Batemen has been put forward for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy for Arrested Development. House of Cards is up for Outstanding Drama Series, with Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and David Fincher all hoping to win Outstanding Actor, Actress and Director in a Drama Series, respectively.
Crafting original programming isn’t the end of the story, however. Clearly not happy with simply providing a streaming service to other people’s content, and with their subscribers numbering into the tens of millions, Netflix realised that they could compete directly with other networks – and undercut them, too. Why pay Showtime to be allowed to stream past seasons of Dexter, thereby helping boost viewers’ interest in the current season on a different channel, when you could have your own show and reap all the rewards yourself? But that’s only one way to compete with other networks. The other is to show their content not as a catch-up service, but rather as a region-specific current broadcast where no other channel is airing the content.
In the UK, for instance, no channel has picked up the phenomenal Breaking Bad (a crime punishable by death). As a result, the only way to watch it is by waiting for box sets to be released (a fair while after their original broadcast) or to download it illegally. By the time the currently airing Season 5.5 came around, Netflix had already helped introduce a large number of viewers to the show. It made perfect sense, therefore, to simply be the ones to continue to air it in the UK, less than a day after it was on in the US. As the sole source of the show, Netflix suddenly made it far easier to just watch the show legally rather than torrent it – no mean feat, to be sure, but an extremely lucrative one. It was the same tactic iTunes used when they first launched, too. Similarly, when Netflix helped bring cancelled US drama The Killing back for a third season, their deal with AMC meant they would be the sole distributors of the show in the UK.
And that’s the most exciting aspect of Netflix right now. Sure, they have an enormous library of classic films and televisions shows to watch, and it’s great having all that content at the tap of a button on a variety of devices. But helping viewers catch up with their favourite programmes is simply helping out your competitors in the long run, and it’s always going to play second fiddle to new content. By streaming a combination of brand new, original shows and being the sole source of up-to-date episodes of hit TV programmes, Netflix is covering all their bases. Rather than driving viewers away once they’ve caught up with a show, they’re ensuring they stick around to carry on watching it – as well as other programmes that they can’t find anywhere else.
It’s an intriguing business plan, and one that is being aggressively expanded. A further four original shows are planned for the near future, not including an deal with Dreamworks Animation to create new and exclusive animated programming. In three years time, where will Netflix be come award time? What new, exclusive shows will it have? And how will other networks react to their growth in this area? Perhaps they will start to pull their shows from the service. It wouldn’t be totally surprising to eventually find a Netflix that no longer targets the streaming of older content, and instead focuses purely on its own programming.
But why stop there? Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz has spoken for a while now about wanting to take his hit show to the big screen – with Netflix as a partner. Could we be on the cusp of Netflix Pictures? Being able to reap the proceeds of a successful film as well as fully control its television airing is surely a lucrative model.
The television revolution has been slowly getting underway for a few years now, and we are finally seeing it being kicked into high gear. The day of waiting a week for the next episode of your favourite show is dying; this is the era of the binge, where people devour seasons in half a week rather than half a year. Where you can start watching on the bus, then finish off when you get home. The rigidity of scheduled programming simply cannot last – people want the flexibility that on-demand brings, coupled with the latest that television has on offer. It’s surely only a matter of time before other channels follow suit. And who would have thought, all those years ago, that an online-only DVD rental company would be the ones out in front, leading the change.