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So it’s official: the web has gone the way of TV. Deadline reported two days ago that Netflix has been bidding — and is a frontrunner — for a hot TV project with Oscar-nominated David Fincher and Oscar winner Kevin Spacey based on the British serial.
While plenty of web networks produce and distribute professional original programming — mostly short-form web series — Netflix has the cash and reach (and data) to go bigger, toe-to-toe with the likes of HBO.
It’s very exciting, but the question arises: if they build it, will they come?
That sounds a little strange. After all, in an increasingly competitive web video market, Netflix is way, way ahead. Its subscribers are basically addicted, especially with web-to-TV services on the rise.
Yet Netflix has reason to play defense and, at the same time, worry about whether original programming is the way to go. The streaming service needs to maintain its position as the go-to place for web video, and it needs its original programming to be a hit. As Cinematical points out, in order to grow Netflix only has two options: “acquire new subscribers, or raise prices (because the third option, scrapping streaming entirely, seems out of the question at this stage of the game).” It can’t raise prices in a recession, not with the same amount of content, so it needs needs people to join and keep paying.
The threat to Netflix’s business isn’t just the competitive market, which involves everyone from Amazon and Hulu, to the mainstream networks, HBO, cable operators, tech companies, etc. It’s also Netflix itself, which takes up a lot of web space, it seems. Recently Ohio University blocked the service to cool down its traffic, and AT&T put a cap on broadband usage. All this, of course, comes after last year’s Comcast/Level-3 imbroglio — which conveniently (or inconveniently) surfaced during heated net neutrality policymaking and Comcast-NBC negotiations. So far, then, policymakers and audiences have been sympathetic to Netflix’s dominance online, sucking up traffic as it expands. But that position will become tenuous as cable operators start streaming via TV Everywhere.
With original, high-profile programming, Netflix will become a network, more self-reliant than it currently is — cable networks and providers have been gunning for it. Audiences will fight for it, and policymakers will have to treat it like any other cable channel. Content is still king, which is why every distributor, from Comcast to Facebook to Hulu, is snapping up premium content like The Dark Knight and the Criterion Collection: people only care about you if you offer something they love. It’s something cable providers learned during retrans disputes.
What happens, though, if the content isn’t good? Mashable proclaims that “it may only take a few more original shows for Netflix to make [the networks] obsolete.” But it may take more than a few.
The House of Cards project sounds like a no-brainer, but how quickly we forget that TV is unpredictable. Anyone who follows HBO’s development process knows how many awesome-sounding projects completely disintegrate, even with high-profile directors and actors. Last year, Kathryn Bigelow, Oscar in hand, started a buzzy project, Miraculous Year, with a kick-ass cast, that died, presumably because it simply wasn’t good. Bill Condon’s series about a Hollywood reporter a la Nikki Finke, Tilda, also fell through. Some projects never see the light of day — remember the Washingtonienne series from Sarah Jessica Parker? — and those that do surface sometimes are less than stellar — Scorsese-and-Winter-helmed Boardwalk Empire hasn’t met Sopranos-sized expectations, and remember John from Cincinnati? Meanwhile it’s often the little-known shows that work the best, as when hyper-indie director Lena Dunham’s show, Girls, went to series.
The point? Networks with amazing, can’t-miss shows are hard to build, and the development process makes mistakes. Remember: HBO passed on Mad Men. Netflix will have to buy a lot more series, and many more buzzy ones, if it wants to compete. After all that, it may only end up with one show people will pay for. AMC has made building quality programming look easy, lest we forget Rubicon (which I actually enjoyed). It isn’t.
But as Starz, HBO and Showtime have shown, licensing content isn’t the best goal for a distributor: you have to be indispensable.
Use your cash to change the game and hope no more game-changers get in the way.