Early last year, we talked about Netflix’s announcement that it will now be distributing original content through its streaming service. At the time, they were preparing House of Cards, produced by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, as its first foray into original programming. But plans changed, and on February 6 they debuted Lillyhammer, an original series about a mobster informant relocated under witness protection to Norway. All eight episodes of the first season are currently streaming on Netflix.
House of Cards is still in the works, as are at least three other shows: Orange Is the New Black, Hemlock Grove, and new episodes of Arrested Development. In short, this is no one-time deal—Netflix is fully entering the world of content development.
So what, then, does Netflix original programming mean for creators and consumers?
- No pressure to maintain ratings or attract advertisers. Netflix has so far declined to provide ratings for Lillyhammer, explaining that they don’t have advertisers to appease and that ratings are not especially meaningful to them. While some viewers will watch the show now, the company expects many will discover it years down the road, in the same way someone might binge on past seasons of The Office or Doctor Who because they only just found the show through Netflix. This is a rather mind-blowing concept when you think about it: in an industry obsessed with ratings and live viewership, Netflix is cool with customers discovering a show for the first time years from now.
- No pressure to produce TV shows on a normal fall season schedule. Netflix may have a premier date they want to keep, sure. But if a writer, director, or cast of actors aren’t available for fall production because of other commitments, then they can easily work around that.
- A bigger focus on quality. Ratings and time slots don’t matter, so good shows won’t be cancelled because their Nielsen numbers are low. That, combined with funding coming from subscriptions, means content takes priority. Plus, the company has made it clear they won’t follow the one-episode-a-week model: a large batch of episodes or an entire season will be available all at once. This allows creators to actually plan out story arcs, character developments, and other details that are often lost when the creators don’t know how long their shows will survive.
As a viewer, Netflix’s original programming sounds like a win-win to me. Much of my Netflix usage involves marathoning TV shows I initially missed (Parks and Recreation and Farscape are two recent examples), and the chance to watch new shows in the same way is exciting. Given their millions of user ratings, years of rental numbers, and a surprisingly accurate recommendations engine, the company has enough data to make informed decisions on what kind of programming different consumer markets will like, and how large those audiences will be.
For television writers, directors, producers, and actors, this is also a wonderful thing. The service is providing a way to make a show outside of the pressures of network and cable television; it’s an opportunity for artistry that’s hard to achieve on other viewing platforms. Netflix’s hope, and mine too, is that such an opportunity will attract good talent and therefore some really amazing television.
Despite all this, some aspects do worry me. As mentioned before, Netflix hasn’t released ratings for Lillyhammer because they don’t see ratings as a useful metric for their programming. So will they just let content creators do their own thing, even if no one watches? Can the company afford that?
Chief content officer Ted Sarandos says production costs are comparable to that of network shows, but Netflix won’t have to spend nearly as much on marketing since ratings aren’t a factor. Instead, the company is hoping that good word of mouth will lead to new subscribers. But if the original programs become too expensive or don’t attract enough subscribers, then what? Is Netflix’s business model for original content sustainable? A similar model has worked for subscription-based cable channels like HBO, but only time will tell if the same will hold true for them.
Also disconcerting is that Netflix will not be releasing Lillyhammer or House of Cards on DVD. They believe that streaming content is the future and they are working on making their services available on as many platforms as possible—but all that still requires that every customer has a strong Internet connection. And what if they remove the show from their website? Even if the programming is never released on DVD, hopefully they will at least let customers download their shows at some point.
All in all, I hope Netflix’s jump into original content is a hit. Do you think it will be successful? If so, how will this change the television industry? Are you inspired to subscribe now that they have original content, or is that not a hook for you? Let us know in the comments!