Does Netflix Know What It's Doing?

In the last edition of our Network Power Rankings, I wrote that it seems like everyone's talking about Netflix, and with good reason. The release of the much-anticipated fourth season of Arrested Development had TV fans (and critics) in a tizzy. In the lead-up to AD's release, there was a lot of discussion about the company's practice of launching its original series by releasing all the episodes at once, and how it will measure the success of those series. "Chief Content Officer" Ted Sarandos, who's become a fascinating person to follow in the press, wound up in a bit of hot water for claiming that House of Cards' viewership was close to that of The Walking Dead. That boisterous comment followed a proclamation he made earlier this year that it's Netflix's goal "to become HBO faster than HBO can become us." But do Sarandos and Netflix really know what they're doing, or are they just blowing steam?

The surprisingly short lifespan of buzz

Netflix has certainly done a great job of dominating many conversations in 2013, first with House of Cards, then with Hemlock Grove, and most recently with Arrested Development; presumably, Orange Is the New Black will keep the chatter going come July. And although the company hasn't ignored the importance of hyping the quality of its original programming, most of what's being said focuses on the distribution model, the big names attached to each series, and the company's plan to revolutionize television. In a lot of ways, Netflix's primary goal has been to create buzz about Netflix, and then to talk about how the (somewhat secret) value of that buzz makes them something "other" than a traditional TV network.

However, one of the more interesting things to come of Netflix's decision to release these shows in full-season chunks is how quickly the internet seems to be moving on after the initial buzz of a show show's release. Although House of Cards pulled in a lot of views and social media discussion in that first week or two, the hoopla very quickly died off. Discussion about the show quickly lagged, and four months later, most mentions of the show seem to be about how the activity around Arrested Development has dwarfed itHemlock Grove only seemed to exist, conversation-wise, for about a week. I just finished House of Cards and found it to be pretty good, though not great. But I don't really have anyone to talk to about it because it appears that most people either mainlined it during that first weekend or gave up after a couple of episodes. 

Despite the rapid rise and fall of buzz for House of Cards and Hemlock Grove, I assumed that Arrested Development would be different. Although people like David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and Eli Roth have their fans, Arrested Development is one of TV's biggest success stories, if not its biggest success story, on Netflix. The anticipation for Season 4 was unbelievably high, and Netflix got tons of mileage out of that: magazine covers, a mass of internet coverage, etc. As far as internet events go, the release of AD's fourth season was about as big as could be. And seemingly, it all paid off for Netflix; even though the company won't release real viewership data, vague estimates suggest that a lot of people checked it out in the first days after release. Yet, here we are just a couple weeks later, and it already feels like Arrested Development's moment is over. My "feeling" is completely unscientific, but I'm pretty locked into the discussion of television on the internet, and it sure seems as if people are moving on. The number of comments on Nick's very good reviews of individual episodes keeps decreasing. Are people less interested now, or have they already watched? Both? 

What Netflix should do next

At this point, Netflix's tentpole releases have largely come and gone. They built this new, supposedly revolutionary model of production and distribution around House of Cards and Arrested Development (and paid big money for both) that they just couldn't stop talking about in the press. However, now it's reasonable to say that the all-episodes-at-once approach limits a show's lifespan as far as conversation is concerned. And that isn't likely to change, especially because, disregarding House of Cards' eventual second season, the shows that Netflix has coming down the pike aren't as interesting, and don't have as many big names attached. The company has continued to cut deals to stream shows previously seen on other networks, but with shorter TV-to-Netflix waiting periods, so things like Top of the Lake and Rectify are becoming available to stream quicker than ever before, but I don't know where that fits into the overall approach. While I think there's a lot of value and intrigue in what the company is doing, I have a couple suggestions for making it better—and more sustainable, to boot.

1. Scale back on the all-episodes-at-once release model

I wrote about the all-at-once approach before the debut of House of Cards, and my skepticism has only grown as time has passed. While I really do enjoy burning through a season of TV in a weekend, there's something valuable about discussing things on a weekly basis. For a company's sake, there's value in letting a buzz build over a 13- or 22-week period. Think about what happened with Scandal or even Orphan Black this year; watching the groundswell take over is pretty cool. And because Netflix has decided not to release concrete viewership data (and that's their right; it's proprietary), all we have to go on are its generalized data points and our perceptions of what people are saying in comment sections and on social media. When you build a portion of your "success" around something like buzz, that buzz should sustain for awhile. 

I don't think Netflix is going to admit defeat and start releasing episodes one at a time. The company is way too invested in the idea of revolutionizing the TV distribution model to give up this early. Nevertheless, there's a way for them to take a small step away from the so-called revolution while theoretically creating more hype for the product they're releasing: Release episodes in smaller batches. Why not push out three new episodes per week over a month-long period (with four episodes in the final week)? That's still more original installments than a "normal" TV show airs each week, yet it also allows for the buzz to build up and sustain over a longer period of time. Instead of flaming out, the anticipation that comes with the first few episodes might even grow in the march to a finale. Right now, Netflix's model has turned TV into film: A big push for the first week, and then it's over. Putting out a few episodes at a time would basically be the best of both worlds, allowing for a big opening weekend but also for the kind of growing discussion and enjoyment over time that only TV can provide.

2. Invest in original original series

On the development front, Netflix would be best served to stop relying on big names and pre-established properties. Outside of the now-forgotten Lilyhammer, every original series that Netflix has produced is based on other material. There is clearly an audience for shows like House of Cards and Hemlock Grove, and I'd never criticize the company for making more Arrested Development, but that approach should be phased out soon. At the moment, it feels like Netflix doesn't have a real development strategy. Sarandos's quote about beating HBO is an expected one; every content provider wants to beat HBO. But HBO made it to the top by giving creative people who grew frustrated with the broadcast system the license to do more of what they wanted, not by adapting or extending pre-made properties. Netflix is already going halfway, in that the shows it's put out so far have come from some really good people, but those individuals are still playing in already built sandboxes. If I were a Netflix exec, I'd be searching for someone smart who's been spit out by the networks—Kyle Killen (Lone StarAwake) or Shawn Ryan (The ShieldTerriers, Last Resort). Those guys have shown an ability to do great work, and more importantly, to do original work. 

Netflix could probably stay on the same path it's on now and be fine enough. It's possible that in a few months, we'll discover that subscriber numbers have increased dramatically because of Arrested Development; we at least know that Netflix's subscriber numbers are starting to top HBO's, which goes a long way in accomplishing Sarandos's publicly stated goals. But before long, the perception that the buzz for these shows doesn't last long is going to solidify, and I think that a similarly troubling perception about relying on adaptations and the like could also take hold. If Netflix really wants to revolutionize what TV is, and how we watch it, the company might actually want to start acting more like a traditional TV network. 

What do you think about Netflix's current strategy? If you were a company exec, what would you do the same or differently?

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