How, exactly, will the rise of original programming on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu reshape the future of TV?

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)

 

Appointment viewing was one of the grandly redundant innovations of Brandon Tartikoff, the once renowned NBC executive who brought the network out of a ratings slump by encouraging viewers to assemble on a particular night of the week trusting that, whatever would be shown on NBC between 8PM and 11PM on a Thursday night would be worth the time. The ability to stream video over the Internet interrupted this habit for many years, opening up a storehouse of cultural ephemera, desirable for the ability to service the marginal tastes and dated obscurities, while the universally viewed storytelling hour withered away.

No more. The era of wandering alone across the vast expanses of streaming video has begun to restructure itself around the conversation-piece series, dramas of such shimmering quality that to not have seen them is to abdicate one's place in culture. Like watching a distant prairie fire, faithful viewing of The Wire, Louie, Arrested Development, or Chappelle's Show is taken as a neighborly kind of participation, comfort can be taken in knowing we are all watching the same burning, close enough to be dramatic but far enough to pass for entertainment. 

 

Other streaming-only companies like Hulu have made major pushes into producing original series, and there is a long legacy of believers in Internet television, from Joost to AOL TV.

 

Think of television producers as prairie arsonists, then, competing with one another to start the most captivating burn along the horizon. For years, this branding fight was the domain of networks like HBO, NBC, and Bravo, whose distribution standards were mostly fixed, leaving the main problem of making content to continually justify the brand's size and pomp. As streaming video has led to viewer dependence on a different kind of cable running into their homes, and a different kind of antenna network distributed around the country, the new overseers of distribution are beginning to take their first tenuous steps at creating their own content. Netflix's recently debuted House of Cards is the most visible entrant. The David Fincher directed series about how dismal and dishonest DC politics can be was financed by the company, with the cost of producing two 13-episode seasons costing roughly $100 million, a sum that beat out a competing HBO offer.

Other streaming-only companies like Hulu have made major pushes into producing original series, and there is a long legacy of believers in Internet television, from Joost to AOL TV. What is finally making the idea of originally produced content for Internet-only distribution tenable is the scale and production values have reached parity with the old brands.

"What if you could radically alter the way stories get told?" Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer, asked in a recent GQ profile of the company. "What if the way people wanted to consume content actually changed what you could make?" The key to the success of this endeavor has so far been redundancy. House of Cards has not introduced a new kind of television to the world, but rather housed a familiar style of show under a new corporate banner. Netflix's revival of the much loved but little watched Fox series Arrested Development showed a similar willingness to gamble on familiar ideas that had struggled to justify their production costs on television.

Sarandos's broad insinuations of an all-new form of television are antithetical to everything that has made Netflix work so far. The company succeeds because it gives its audience greater control over access, something that can only work when the content being accessed is already familiar and has an culturally established value. Netflix's slate of original programming is a checklist of institutional figures: David Fincher, Ricky Gervais, Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, The Soprano's Steven Van Zandt.

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