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Maybe It’s Not The Algorithm

There’s been a lot of talk about how Netflix’s amazingly awesome algorithms were responsible for taking the show You from purgatory on Lifetime and turning it into a streaming hit. 

Let me suggest an alternative history.

It wasn’t so much that Netflix’s Algorithm of Awesomeness sent You to the exact right viewers as much as it was that a “good” network was running a show whose aesthetic was more in line with the “Peak TV” aesthetic. Meaning I would not have been the least bit surprised if HBO, Hulu, Amazon, FX, or Showtime had achieved the same results.

And that speaks to a bigger problem for cable networks like Lifetime.

You see if I had to guess, there was nothing Lifetime could have done to make You a hit, because the target audience for You doesn’t watch Lifetime and, more important, doesn’t believe that anything on Lifetime could actually be any good. (Or at least their definition of “good.”)

Now Lifetime actually has a niche: the general perception is that it makes the TV equivalent of “chick lit” for a mainstream audience. (All those “Lifetime Movies of the Week.”) The further perception is that it primarily attracts an older female demo, many of whom have been loyal fans of the network since it launched 35 years ago, back when those viewers were still part of the “younger” female demo.

Other cable networks are not so lucky though, and that’s going to be a problem in the years ahead.

2019 and 2020 will see the launch of four new Flixes from Disney, Warner (HBO), Apple and NBCU, with a good chance of an expanded CBS All Access/Showtime joining them to give us eight giant streaming services, all of whom are going to be pushing “peak TV” type shows. (There’s also chatter about Costco launching a network aimed at middle America, so the total number of Flixes could wind up being as high as nine.)

That’s at least $15 billion worth of new programming that’s going to be shown with no or limited commercials.

That puts every single cable and broadcast network at a serious disadvantage, because their shows are going to have to be that much better in order to convince viewers to put up with a noticeably larger commercial load, many of them minute long monstrosities for DTC pharma brands.

(The TV industry has a Faustian bargain with big pharma.  Yes, the ads provide them with billions of dollars worth of revenue each year. But I am fully convinced that nothing has done more to turn viewers off of ad-supported TV than multiple doses of 60 second commercials featuring old folks doing tai chi while an announcer voiceover explains all the horrible side effects the drug might induce. Nobody likes to think about death and dying, certainly not multiple times an hour.)

There’s an even bigger hump all the broadcast and cable networks will have to get over too, which is that, for many of them, viewers have no idea what they stand for, what type of programming they can expect to find there, and so they never even make it into the consideration set. (And as channel-flipping becomes a more outdated behavior, the odds of viewers accidentally stumbling onto them grows increasingly slim.)

There are hundreds of cable networks, the vast majority of them smaller and less well funded than Lifetime. They’re the ones who are really going to struggle in this new world, because with so much “good” TV on, it’s going to be harder than ever to capture viewer’s attention.

And that likely means many of them will eventually go under.

Or, best case, be forced to reinvent themselves as VOD-only services, producing ten to fifteen hours of originals a week that are available to either MVPDs for their VOD services or to one or more of the Flixes for their ever-expanding libraries.

Cable networks with stronger identities can breathe a sigh of relief—CNN, HGTV, even the aforementioned Lifetime should all be safe (for now) because they have loyal core audiences that know the types of shows to expect from them and who watch those shows religiously, regardless of how many commercials pop up.

As for the Flixes, they’re not going to have a walk in the park either.

With so much good TV and so few hours in a day, you can expect a Game of Thrones-style death match to grab and keep viewers, few of whom are going to subscribe to all eight or nine services.

Look for lots of churn (the downside to month-to-month contracts), lots of ads and promotions for all those new streaming series and, quite likely, lots of attempts by various players to set the Great Rebundling in motion. (More on that next week.)

It will be a wild time for the industry, but a very good one for consumers.

Just remember the importance of a good night’s sleep.