Television 2015: Netflix Is A Video Store That Saved A Western
This is one in a series of essays running this week and next about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters.
Everybody loves to talk about brands, right? What's more exciting than brands?
For a lot of people, talking about brands is like checking out your own moles: it's not necessarily fun, but it makes you more aware, and now and then you get to make a displeased face and say to yourself, "Hmm. Probably benign, but that is unsightly."
When you listen to network executives, they spend a lot of time explaining the brand. Sometimes they say "brand" — ABC's Paul Lee said it 11 times in his executive session. FX's John Landgraf said it 32 times. But sometimes it's in code, like when NBC's Bob Greenblatt said, "Comedy is very important to us, and it's no secret that we only have two comedies on the fall schedule, which is a departure for what NBC is known for." Who we are, what we stand for, what we're known for, what we do best: this all means "brand," rounded to the nearest vetted official blah-dee-blah.
The first thing to understand about TV brands is that they're not all parallel to each other, since what we think of as providers of content aren't all doing the same thing structurally. Let's go back to FX and Netflix, two of the major outlets we considered when we looked at whether there's too much television. Despite competing with each other in many ways, they don't use the same rules to define what the brand even is.
FX started its development of scripted shows with The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me, all of which are dark, serialized stories about complicated men. They're very different but they fit together; there's a certain thematic unity that continued through shows like Sons Of Anarchy and Justified. HBO built its drama brand with long-arc stories about tortured ensembles often led by men, too: The Sopranos, Oz, Big Love, Deadwood – again, while all being really different shows, they feel like they might appeal to an audience with an identifiable sensibility. Its comedy brand has involved more women in shows like Sex And The City and Girls. USA developed a feel for light comedy-dramas, TNT got lucky with legal/crime shows, and so forth.
Netflix, on the other hand, opened with a pretty traditional highbrow drama carrying the name of David Fincher, House Of Cards, which put the service on the map by looking so much like the rest of premium TV. Then, after putting out the new Arrested Development, which started its history of extensions, it went straight to the edgier, more offbeat Orange Is The New Black, which made Netflix seem more exciting because of how little it looked like the rest of premium TV. In its first two and a half years of original programming, Netflix also premiered a Marvel superhero show (Daredevil), a Tina Fey comedy NBC had set adrift (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), an animated adult comedy in the vein of Adult Swim (BoJack Horseman), a grownup comedy-drama with established and mature stars (Grace and Frankie) and an experimental science-fiction show from the Wachowskis (Sense8). That's on top of becoming the home of not only those new episodes of Arrested Development and Wet Hot American Summer, both of which are cult hits among self-defined comedy people, but the upcoming Full House reboot, which may be the most cheerfully, unapologetically populist project greenlit this year. And again, that's just the scripted stuff; Netflix also carries high-profile documentaries and high-end standup specials.
FX has a programming sensibility; Netflix has stuff. Netflix started as a purveyor, not a programmer, and it still, in many ways, acts like one. If we were in the realm of print journalism, FX would be a publisher, but Netflix would be a newsstand where you paid five bucks a day to walk off with all you wanted to read. It has the DNA of a video store, after all, where art-house films would logically be shelved beside dumb slapstick and adult films. It makes stuff, but in its heart, it's a place to get stuff.
FX's Landgraf says, perhaps unsurprisingly, that with television proliferating so wildly, it's brands that can help people find the stuff they're going to like. "A brand is a mission statement, a promise to viewers," he said. So he's counting on the FX brand in the sense that it's like a label that can be used to guide people to things based on quality and style. Netflix, meanwhile, is gambling that you can make your brand about offering a ton of great choices. They don't even mind that the series they stream that originated on NBC or FX compete with their Netflix originals for the same eyeballs. They're just happy you're there. If John Landgraf wants FX to be your Apple or your Honda, perhaps Netflix wants to be your Target or your Whole Foods: you go there to get whatever it is you want that day, whether it's the house brand or something else. Both companies are brands, but one is trying to position itself as a maker and one as a dealer.
The advantage, of course, to being a dealer like Netflix is that the product still comes from the makers, and that you can put all your energy into being better at dealing than anybody else. Netflix prides itself on not interfering with the work of its showrunners – as Sarandos put it, "Comedies, dramas, animation, comedians, documentarians, we pick the players and get out of their way and let them do what they do." So while Netflix is a service-based brand, which isn't particularly cool at all (that's the part where they're like a big-box store), they're also working hard to build a creative brand consisting not of an identifiable style like HBO has, but of a management philosophy of non-interference.
As much as the nuances of branding sometimes seem totally divorced from anything interesting or relevant to a viewer, sometimes they might be able to save shows.
Netflix has marketed shows like Orange Is The New Black and BoJack Horseman as edgy and offbeat, shows that might not get to networks because their points of view are too new or too weird. But it also picked up a new season of Longmire, a western that was dumped by A&E after three seasons. In explaining the decision to pick the show up, Ted Sarandos of Netflix said this: "You had a very hungry audience that was not going to get to watch that show because they were the wrong age for an advertising demographic." What he means, in this case, is that the audience was too old for advertisers to find it attractive, despite decent numbers and high enthusiasm. This was repeated by the participants in the Longmire panel itself. Netflix, said producer Greer Shephard, "saw this very, very vocal fan base, large, that had basically been disqualified because they were not seen as sexy to advertisers."
There's a logic to this that's in part completely about the business model: Netflix doesn't rely on advertising. Advertisers tend to like their audiences young, but you can be as old as you want, and Netflix will still take your money. (Ask your parents.) A PricewaterhouseCoopers report at the end of 2014 showed that just in the time between 2013 and 2014, viewers 50-59 who had cable became massively more likely to also have Netflix running alongside it. In just that year, the percentage of people with cable from age 50-59 who also had Netflix increased from 19 percent to 58 percent. That's an enormous increase, to the point where it's a bit hard to believe. But even if we assumed it to be overstated in that report to some degree, Netflix would still be making great strides with older audiences.
But if it were only the business model at issue, the question would be ... why didn't HBO or Showtime ever do this? HBO, too, could choose to become a place for older people's shows, because it also doesn't rely on advertisers. It surely has some shows whose viewers skew older than others, but it's hard to remember HBO ever marketing a show as something that can find a home on the network despite its audience being "unsexy." And it's hard to imagine them ever doing it.
The reason HBO hasn't done it may lie precisely in the difference between the way HBO brands itself and the way Netflix does. Because Netflix doesn't sell a single identifiable editorial voice, learning to market to older audiences is nothing but a net gain; it has no effect on their ability to convince people that Wet Hot American Summer is cool. Compare that to the charge CBS has fought for years that they make Things Your Parents Watch, which they bristle at vigorously – and present some data to refute – but can't quite shake.
Netflix has a single service brand, but it can have multiple editorial brands for the same reason a video store can have multiple aisles. It can be an old-person's outlet, an outlet for underrepresented populations like transgender people, an outlet for bringing about new chapters to things you loved in the past like Full House, a cult comedy home, and so forth. (It's safe to say taking on Fuller House would have been hard for HBO to explain. Business-model-wise, it might have been fine. Brand-wise, it would be a problem.) And all those editorial brands, all those aisles in their store, provide multiple avenues of expansion: it's not as if Longmire is the only show ever dumped because its audience was too old.
But as much as networks and network executives love to talk about their brands, those are not the only brands in television. Every spin-off – every CSI: Cyber and every Law & Order: SVU – is a brand extension. Arguably the most powerful brand in television, the one still capable of launching new broadcast hits at a time when almost nobody can launch new broadcast hits, is Shonda Rhimes. The love of a durable brand also explains why a number of new shows represent returns to characters or worlds that already exist. ABC has a new show featuring the Muppets, and ABC president Paul Lee said the show would be "reinventing and reinvigorating this brand." That brand is, of course, the Muppets. Limitless on CBS is based on a novel and a movie, plus it has Bradley Cooper in a small role and as an executive producer. Without taking anything away from the creative value of a Bradley Cooper drop-in in your pilot, the brand value is probably greater. Supergirl jumps off an existing brand. Fargo. American Horror Story: Hotel. Minority Report, which picks up the same universe as the movie.
Brands, as a separate entity striding alongside creativity, are everywhere. They proliferate, they help sort content, they guide discovery, they lead to a lot of double-talk, they build fan followings, and they encourage retreat to the safety of repetition. Probably benign, but ... you know.
Previously: Dropping episodes all at once or one at a time; Is there really too much television?; The 25 Ways To Watch Television. Next: Late Night, Awards Shows, And Other Fixed Formats That Need Fixing.