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.

 

A radically altered view of television would be something more like the Anti-Banality Union's most recent work, Police Mortality, which assembles full-length films by re-editing scenes from older movies into a new whole. The repetition of certain psychological tropes and dramatic structures becomes visible as a cultural pathos. Artistic agitation is not where companies like Netflix make money, and so the defining standards of what passes for television will continue to be limited by what it's safely possible to make money on (e.g. David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, cynical political conspiracies that leave audiences in a forever passive position).

The only remaining unknowns over the switch from broadcast and cable television to streaming television will be over how to make the maximum amount of money from it without making the audiences conscious of their being double-sold.  Last month, Nielsen announced it would finally include online streaming audiences in its viewership statistics. Netflix streaming accounts for almost one-third of the video streaming traffic on the Internet in the United States, a substantial advantage over YouTube's 13 percent. An audience that large is a highly valuable marketing demographic, which is currently watching commercial free on Netflix.

A handful of original series aside, the great majority of content distributed on Netflix has been produced elsewhere, made for business models that depended on advertising revenue, and whose productions regularly interrupt themselves so that marketers can insert themselves into the drama for a few minutes. The anomaly of Netflix is that it has wiped away the advertisements and preserved the content meant to distribute them. The future will not be about what other new series Netflix will be able to produce, but about whether it will, like cable television and glossy magazines before it, be able to make money from charging access fees to two parties, one fee for viewers and one for advertisers. In the meanwhile, we'll sit here watching the smoke rise from distant fires, the transformation of living material into burnt ash as hypnotic as it is predictable.