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TV Is An Art, Not A Science

One of the key points that gets lost in all the discussion about what is or is not going to be a “Netflix killer” (or whether there is such a thing as a “Netflix killer”) is that in order for any of these networks to succeed, they have to make great shows.

Now “great” can have different meanings to different people, but in this instance, I’m talking about series that can draw in large audiences and create media buzz, both social and mainstream, of the sort that brings the show into the collective national consciousness. The sort of show people ask each other about at parties, “Have you seen…?”

Why Quality Matters

The somewhat obvious nature of the need for “great” programming was brought home this weekend (and then some) with the record-breaking launch of the latest Avengers movie and the long-awaited “Battle of Winterfell” episode of HBO’s hit Game Of Thrones, which quickly became the most tweeted about TV episode ever and the closest thing we’ve had to a national viewing party since, well, since the debut of the final season of Game Of Thrones a few weeks back.

Contrast that to a recent Wall Street Journal story which indicates that Netflix’s original series don’t seem to be getting a lot of viewing action, at least not when compared to popular library series like The Office or Friends. Or get renewed: the former Albanian Army has a tendency to cancel series once they’ve outlived their usefulness in drawing in new subscribers, which makes sense on one level, but leaves them with just 20 or 30 episodes of their original series versus the hundreds of episodes of any of the former broadcast network hits. (A network show like Friends or The Office generally pumps out somewhere between 20 and 25 episodes per season and can run anywhere from seven to ten years or longer.)

Now there’s a line of reasoning that says Netflix original series don’t need to be actual hits, they just need to be successful enough to get viewers to subscribe and/or stay subscribed.

Until of course, they don’t.

The Coming Content Glut

That’s a much more real possibility in the coming 18 to 36 months than it is today. With the Flixcopalypse, there will be many more mega streaming services on the market, collectively pumping out a mind-blowing $15-$20 billion worth of programming, and consumer dollars are not infinite. So if nothing on Netflix looks interesting that month, consumers will just unsubscribe until something does.

Not to pick on Netflix, either. Their chances of producing a buzzed-about hit show are no better or worse than any of their rivals.

On the up side, they’ve come from nowhere to create shows like Stranger Things that have managed to pierce the national consciousness.

One the down side, they release all their episodes at once, which gives them a short movie-like window to create any sort of buzz for a new series and also prevents them from enjoying the months-long “Game Of Thrones Spring” that HBO is currently basking in, a glorious three month period where HBO can promote the bejeezus out of all their current and upcoming series to a national audience of many, many millions of people who have all tuned in, concurrently, to watch the final battles for the Iron Throne.

It’s All About The Shows

To circle back to my original point, however, the arguments over “Netflix killers” and business models and marketing schemes are certainly well thought out, but they all seem to be missing the forest for the trees: all of the Flixes will live and die on the strength of their programming and—this is the most important point of all—producing great programming is a total and complete crapshoot.

I’d like you all to think back to pre-internet days when TV was dominated by just three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. In every era, someone at one of the networks would hit on a formula of sorts and greenlight shows that magically managed to gel with the national gestalt.

CBS had hits with rural comedies (Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction) in the early 60s, and with socially aware adult comedies in the mid-70s (All In The Family, Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H), while NBC had the Gen-X-in-NYC oriented “Must See TV” lineup in the 90s (Friends, Seinfeld, Mad About You.)

Now two things of note happened during those mini-golden ages: (a) the ratings of the network with the magic formula went up, and if they had been a subscription service, they would have gained and kept many more subscribers, and (b) the rival networks did not go out of business or even almost go out of business. They lost ratings points, but not everyone in America liked Mary Tyler Moore and those people happily watched whatever NBC and ABC were counterprogramming.

This is exactly the scenario that will play out with the Flixes, post-Flixcopalypse.

They will all find their respective niches. One or two will, at various points, have more hits than others, maybe even develop a reputation for having the hit shows that everyone is talking about (And yes, I believe that there will still be hit shows that everyone is talking about.)

The other Flixes will fire their programming chiefs and hire new ones, try new formulas and otherwise attempt to develop a string of hits that have a common theme that said Flix can hang its proverbial hat on. The new programming chiefs will likely succeed to varying degrees, though, as in the Bible, seven years of plenty will frequently be followed by seven years of drought.

Because there are a lot of Flixes, one or two many never find their groove, but that’s less likely than their becoming a niche option with some minor hits aimed at underserved audiences.

TV Is An Art, Not A Science

This final point is one I’ve made many times before: TV is largely an art, not a science. All the data in the world, plus all the best actors, directors, showrunners and screenwriters can’t make a show a hit. That’s something that involves a whole lot of kismet, of being in the right place at the right time with the right people, the right story and everything somehow coming together as if by magic.

Or, to put it another way, who’d have bet that a series set in an alternative medieval world with dragons and wizards and tens of millions of dollars worth of special effects, with a cast of unknown European actors all speaking in British accents would go on to become the decade’s biggest hit?

That’s right.

No one.