Netflix: The Surprising Leader of the Latest Television Revolution

orange-is-the-new-blackRemember when Netflix retooled their pricing a while back?

They split it so that you had to pay separately for DVD delivery and streaming, causing an almost doubling of subscription prices.

Subscribers were so incensed they began defecting from Netflix in droves, or at least chose one option or the other only.

Then, some of the streaming deals they had with networks and studios began lapsing and were not renewed, the result being a much smaller pool of product to choose from. While they managed to acquire new deals and renew some old ones, it still looked like they were no longer going to be the best place to go for variety of product. More internet services were offering streaming content for pay: Hulu, Vudu, Amazon, YouTube. It also became possible to stream episodes straight from the networks, both major and cable.

It looked like Netflix was going to go the way of other internet companies that had ginormous initial success, only to deflate and maybe even die.

Now, Netflix is not only back in the game, in a way it IS the game.

In recent years, young people began dropping cable and satellite services because they could stream movies and TV shows instead for far less money. Now, in a still-challenging economy, others are following suit.

Then many began discovering the concept of “binge watching.” With more and more complete television series available to download and watch as much or as little as one wanted at any given time, this phenomenon increased.

This didn’t impact Netflix alone, but Netflix has successfully built on this trend by offering original television series as part of their streaming content.

Several of these shows are already going into second seasons: House of Cards (an American remake of a British show), Lilyhammer (a Norwegian-American co-production), the reboot of the network-cancelled but critically-beloved sitcom Arrested Development, horror thriller Hemlock Grove, and the women’s prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black.

Netflix refuses to release ratings for these shows, but there have been other measures of their success: amazing buzziness from critics and fans on social media, particularly for House of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange in the New Black. House of Cards, Arrested Development and Hemlock Grove have done for Netflix what quality original programming hasn’t done for some smaller cable networks yet—several Emmy nominations. House of Cards won in one of the major categories (direction) as well as some creative awards (cinematography and casting).

Some critics object to the concept of releasing entire seasons of these new shows (usually in the 10 – 13 episode range) all at once, encouraging binge-watching. But Netflix viewers seem to love it, and it builds on the phenomenon that was already in place.

Binge-watching on Netflix and other streaming services has also impacted shows on network and cable. Breaking Bad, which will probably see its final episode top 8 million viewers, was more in the range of 2 million viewers per episode its first few seasons. Now, it’s a pop culture phenomenon, mainly due to binge-watching of early seasons (something creator Vince Gilligan thanked Netflix for in his Emmy speech when the show won Best Drama this year). Other series have seen ratings improvements once their first seasons became available for streaming.

One exciting possible by-product of this phenomenon is now networks may be a bit more patient with critically-acclaimed but low-rated shows and give them a chance to find their audience via post-Season 1 streaming.

However, there is strong resentment from other subscriber-based networks like HBO, Showtime and Starz, who have their Nielsen ratings reported, while Netflix can keep their viewer numbers a secret. Premium cable networks have not had to worry about advertisers when deciding what programming to produce, but ratings still matter to them (for bragging rights, if nothing else). Now, Netflix doesn’t have to worry about either.

Whether they can continue to do so remains to be seen. Nielsen is using old-fashioned tactics such as surveys, and may go back to asking their Nielsen families to record viewing in notebooks. There may come a point when ratings DO matter, but for now, they’re irrelevant to what they produce.

Another interesting aspect to Netflix’s original programming is that they can easily track what their subscribers like best and are most likely to download. This has apparently impacted the decisions for which shows to produce.

Netflix subscribers seem to have quite a variety of likes, from Masterpiece Theatre-style political dramas to stand-alone comedy specials, to cult comedy series, to horror, to dark comedy, to an oh-my-word-I-have-no-idea-how-to-categorize-it series like Orange is the New Black.

Some amazing talent has been attracted to doing these internet service series—for instance, directors of the caliber of David Fincher (who won the Emmy for House of Cards) and horror maven Eli Roth, actors such as Kevin Spacey, Steven Van Zandt, Robin Wright, Kate Mulgrew, among many others.  And the success of Arrested Development’s reboot gives hope to other fans of cult shows that their favorites may also be resurrected one day on Netflix or some other service.

Other internet services have been developing original programming—including Hulu and Amazon—but Netflix was the first to strike with buzz-worthy content. Amazon is going a step further by soliciting ideas for new shows from anyone who cares to submit them. Google is also eyeing creation of an internet streaming service and will likely create original programming, too.

Just as HBO, AMC and other cable channels paved the way for outstanding original content, internet services are now poised to continue the revolution, with Netflix leading the way.

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