Revisiting the Collective: Netflix Shaping the Future of Television

(CS: I didn't want to do three straight days of Collective Publishing reposts, but Mondays are always my busiest day of the week and this one had an added dollop of crazy as I had a few major business meetings to prepare for this week. I have spent the last few years being critical of Netflix and their business strategy definitely caused them to take a hit recently, so I thought it would be cool to revisit when they looked like the future of entertainment and I was far more positive about them. This was originally posted on July 24, 2013.)

It has been obvious for a decade that the current network television model is following the way of the dinosaur and dodo bird. It is likely television networks’ way of operating will be very different in 10 years. (CS: It is almost a decade since writing this, and network TV has stuck around, even if they have taken a bigger hit in ratings and they now rely far more on streaming and on-demand services.)  They’re owned by major conglomerates and old TV executives seem more stubborn to change than my son is to eating things green, (CS: I didn't know how easy I had it until Danika and her appetite came along) but eventually the drastic change in TV viewing habits are going to force renovations to the current structure. One of the biggest catalysts for the redirection of the TV business comes from a company that most network heads wouldn’t have given a second thought to 10 years ago or even considered any kind of real competition for them. This ‘new’ competition is obviously Netflix. (CS: And now most networks have their own streaming services.)

Netflix currently has over 33 million subscribers worldwide, and depending where you live, it costs approximately $8.00 a month. (CS: Both have significantly gone up with Netflix now boasting around 222 million subscribers and costing around $16.00 depending on the country and tier.) For most of its run, the service streamed old TV episodes and movies, so not really anything that would keep the network executives up at night. Things changed in 2011 when Netflix announced it would be airing an original series called House of Cards. It instantly got credibility by sounding like a series normally exclusive to a cable juggernaut like HBO by being helmed by respected filmmaker David Fincher and starring a major name in Kevin Spacey. (CS: Or is it Christopher Plummer now?)  In an even bigger move, it got the rights to air the highly anticipated fourth season to the critically acclaimed cult classic series, Arrested Development. Netflix was now in the original content business and making shows that attract the attention of TV fans. (CS: Ugh! I hate that I used the word content here.)  It was now legitimate competition. 

Netflix currently only has 6 original series, (CS: Now, Netflix boasts 200 plus new series/seasons and movies a year) so it is dwarfed by the networks, but has a decent selection compared to most cable channels when you include the wide selection of movies and old TV series (which is usually the content prevalent during the day on many cable channels). (CS: Ugh. Content alert.) If you’re a TV addict wanting to stay away from the disreputable part of the internet, traditional network and cable television still has the vast quantity of content to give you your fix. (CS: Clearly Netflix already had me brainwashed as I won't stop using that blasted word to describe entertainment.) But Netflix is also not being complacent, and has recently announced plans to start adding original movies and miniseries along with several new series. The original content is going to keep on marching on, and not having to worry about fitting a series into actual time slots, will also mean it can provide an unlimited amount of exclusive original content. (CS: The loss of subscribers and the dip in their finances is going to be that limit.) 

Of course, the actual limit of shows they can produce will come down to what they can afford. (CS: You'd think so, but they just kept going in debt and upping their monthly subscription fee.)  Networks and cable series not only have the giant companies backing them up, but they also get fees from ads or the premium cable has the advantage of decades of loyalty from paying viewers. At this point the big names looking to make a hit series will likely still turn to the veteran networks and cable channels, and more importantly, these channels probably still have more money to create a large selection of series. But things change, and even if Netflix claims to not want to be competition for network television, the decision to make original content enter them into their world and if they achieve major success it will change how the game is played. (CS: They had tons of success and that is what brought the big networks and studios into the streaming game, which MAY be the fall of Netflix.)

The biggest perk of Netflix is the ability for the viewer to watch content whenever and wherever they want. (CS: Now, you can do that with almost everything thanks to much improved On-Demand options and network's own streaming.)  The idea of getting content on-demand has become pretty prevalent in popular culture. Sure, people in their 30s and above are used to the old network model and being told when to watch something, but the younger demographic expect to be able to call the shots for their viewing habits and the demographic of 30 to 50 is at least happily adapting to this new form of media consumption. (CS: My kids have no grasp of waiting to watch a show at a certain time, and just assume everything should be available when they want to watch it, which it mostly is outside of live programming now.) People have busy lives and when you throw kids into the mix, it is nice being able to determine when you want to see something rather than trying to work a schedule around it. This would be a major reason why PVRs are popular, but there is another thing Netflix offers up that is very different than the traditional model. Binge watching. (CS: The model of throwing up an entire season at once is still used by Netflix, but it is now mostly seen as a negative. Disney Plus and HBO MAX have adopted the weekly episode release, where you can wait until all episodes are dropped after two or so months if you need to binge. It has been proven this old-school method is the best, because in a time where there is so much to watch and entertain, stretching out a season over weeks keeps the show in the conversation, while most Netflix series are old news by the next Tuesday.) 

Every Netflix original series has released its entire season. This meant that many Arrested Development fanatics had gobbled up the entire fourth season the day it was released on Netflix. Network and cable television still stick to most episodes coming out in a weekly basis. Though at one time most viewers had to wait through months of reruns to find out who kissed the sheriff or if Tommy will fall down that inconveniently placed shaft, but now most networks and cable channels will try to squeeze their serials into a tidy 22 or 13 week block. It can still get hard to follow and remember all the details of a series over such a long period of time, and the introduction of TV series box sets has turned binge watching into a new cherished hobby. Netflix is now allowing that with new seasons, which used to be a pretty unheard of concept. (CS: And again, now something that most are shifting away from, and it is the smart move for the sake of long-term engagement.)

There is a downside to shoving out an entire series at once. The writer and crew are committed to a direction to the season, and there isn’t a chance for fan feedback. (CS: This is still an issue with Disney Plus and HBO Max models, because even though they release weekly, the season is usually done filming and completely produced by the time the first episode airs.)  If the show has gone in a bold new direction with the protagonist suddenly moving the entire family to Mars after once being about life as a Wall Street trader than there is a chance the loyal fans will start throwing rotten tomatoes. There isn’t a chance to stop that throwing, because the entire season has already been produced. The advantage of the traditional form of TV is the fans can respond with what they like and what they don’t and the show can be adjusted accordingly. This is how the producers and writers sort out which characters are popular and need more screen time, and maybe what needs to be entirely scrapped. There is value in the traditional format from a creative stand point.  

Fan feedback is also widely overrated. The showrunner is the person who has the vision for the show, and they realize not every episode can be loved. Sometimes a writer has to go in a less than exciting direction in order to get that big payoff in the end. There were many fans that were furious about the first six or so episodes of the new Arrest Development season. After watching the entire season, many television bloggers and writers admitted those first six episodes started making more sense and were far more appealing after they could put it in the context with the later episodes. (CS: Time to confess that I still haven't seen that season or Moon Knight for those keeping score.) The payoff may not have been as satisfying if the series was shown in the traditional way, and a network was suddenly putting pressure on the writer to make things more ‘viewer friendly.’ I think it is important for the writer to stick with their creative vision, since they’re the one dreaming up the show. If it fails, then so be it, but it is better to stick with a vision than constantly change it. (CS: I still value the creator's visions, but Netflix has proven that some of their series and movies could have used a little 'studio interference' to up the quality.) Putting entire seasons out at once may cause for more cohesive and tightly written shows, since it is easier to focus on getting to the end when you’re writing it all in a short span. (CS: And again, the other streaming services mostly film the entire seasons together too, but just release it in segments. I now think it is the stronger approach because it not only keeps the conversation going for longer, but it makes each episode stand out more when we didn't blast through eight in one sitting.)  

The key to this format working is for Netflix and other similar services to become real threats to network and cable television. I think they have started to be, but they just don’t have the amount of original content to beat those channels yet. (CS: Now there is too much and even someone getting paid to cover series and movies can't find the time to watch everything.) This relies on Netflix having a large selection of original content, but for that to happen, Netflix needs to have the funds to produce shows, which comes from a large subscription base. The growth will come when Netflix continues to offer television series that have a strong word of mouth and that people really want to see. (CS: And that is the problem. Netflix has a few breakout series and movies a year, but so much of their new stuff is just pure filler.) The credibility is definitely growing. This year Netflix has three series (House of Cards, Arrest Development, and Hemlock Grove) (CS: Was that the Eli Roth produced show???) that have received nominations for the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards, and House of Cards even received one for Outstanding Drama Series. This is the year the biggest TV awards show has acknowledged a series delivered in a non-traditional form (online) is equal in quality of network and cable fare. (CS: From this point on, it would become the norm, and finally, a streamer even won Best Picture this year with Apple TV's Coda.) 

I don’t think Netflix will spell the end of network and cable television. I do think it will be one of the services that will force them to adapt. (CS: Hey look! I was right about both those things!)  We will be seeing all of them start putting a stronger emphasis on distributing series through an on-demand format. This will drastically change their business model and how they make money, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see far more product placements and characters saying, “Now is a great time to enjoy a refreshing Coke.” (CS: Yep. So much so, I don't even hear people complaining about it anymore, and in stuff like Stranger Things they hide it through a lens of nostalgia like Eggos.) This will hopefully be a benefit to the viewer with the quality of television remaining the same, but allowing massive flexibility in how they watch a show. (CS: Just like then, quality is all over the place, but some streaming services and channels are more consistent than others.) 

Netflix also isn’t guaranteed to be the next giant of television. Not only will a few of the cable and networks learn to adapt, but there are other competitors arising like Hulu. (CS: And Amazon Prime and Disney Plus and HBO Max and Apple TV+ and Paramount Plus and Peacock and. .  .) These providers will start making original series, and are bound to create content that viewers will flock to. (CS: They create entertainment and art in the form of series and movies.)  It is going to be competitive, and if I’ve learned anything about these kinds of wars, the winner isn’t always the most obvious. To borrow a cliché, hopefully, the real winners will turn to be the consumers.  

I can’t properly predict what the TV landscape will be like in 10 years. I can’t even be sure Netflix will still be around. I do know it will be a whole new world compared to the current model. Netflix will likely be remembered for playing a big part in transformation. (CS: They are still around. They did play a big role. I am not sure if they will be around in another 10 years, but if they are, my guess is a larger company bought them. Maybe Sony? I'll have to revisit this in 10 years to see if I am right.)