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The Netflix Threat to Quality TV

Whether anyone intended it to happen, somehow TV has become better than just about any movie that comes out of Hollywood.

But this could all be undone rather quickly by the way Netflix and its peers are making TV shows.

There are lots of factors that have contributed to the improved quality of TV — maybe the biggest change is that the structure of shows is no longer just the primary A-storyline with the secondary B-line; it’s now it’s A through infinity — but cable TV, and especially pay TV don’t chase demographics in the same way that broadcast TV does.

They give the makers of their shows free reign to exercise all of their creative ideas regardless of what the 18 to 24 demo thinks, and they can afford to give a show a season or two to develop an audience. 

Broadcast TV not only green lights what they think will be immediately popular based on market research, but as soon as ratings go bad, a show gets canceled — newly premiered shows get no time to build an audience. The business model of the shows being paid for by advertisements force this, which is why there is such a gulf between the quality on broadcast TV and cable. Shows produced by online outlets are going to have even more extreme restrictions than this, which will get in the way of producing quality TV.

I know that everyone loves House of Cards, but the way it was created is a bit troubling.

As it has been well detailed, Netflix utilized all of the data it had on its customers when shaping the show — the show was crafted along the lines of what its data told them its viewers like.

Amazon is now getting into the content creation game, and not only do they have the same type of data available to them (if not more when you consider they can see all of the non-video related products people are buying), but they’re also having viewers vote on pilots to help decide which will get season orders.

On broadcast networks there’s a demand to appease demographics; this can grow far more extreme with all of the data available through online habits. It’s no longer doing things that the demo likes, it’s now as specific as focusing on elements of a show. If the goals is to make a show that is as popular as possible, and the producers see that the writers want to do something that their research tells them that viewers are likely to fast-forward through, will they demand that it be cut? Imagine The Sopranos being created under this regime and the data showed that people fast-forward through scenes in movies and TV shows with people talking to shrinks, or to be more generous, fast-forward after 1 minute.

Because Amazon is also a retailer and can cross reference viewing habits with general buying habits, I have no doubt that their executives are fantasizing about using the shows to promote certain goods. The possibilities are limitless. If they know that many of the people watching one of their shows has purchased music by a particular artist, why not then ask the showmakers to incorporate that artist’s music from an upcoming album into the show to help drive sales? Or let’s say they see show viewers buy clothing by a certain brand; why wouldn’t you then start dictating costume choices?

The bottom line is that nothing novel and groundbreaking is ever going to result from shows that are created using data about what people currently like. Originality is the very nature of creativity. If you won’t accept risk, you’re just going to get more of the same.

Finally, this push that everything be immediately popular is just bad business.

To go back to Amazon, as mentioned, a major hurdle is winning audience approval from the pilot. One of the smartest business decisions HBO made in the last 15 years was keeping The Wire on for five seasons despite the fact that it always tanked in the ratings. The reverence with which the show is now talked about has helped elevate and maintain HBO’s brand as being a high quality producer of TV shows. And that brand is so strong that people pay for HBO to watch their shows.

Under the Amazon model with what people think of just one episode, it would have never even gotten picked up for even a single season. 

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