This month, the U.S. broadcast networks unveiled their fall TV lineups. The “upfronts” are an annual tradition where the networks present their new comedy, drama and reality series via splashy presentations that are meant to woo advertisers and secure their portion of advertising commitments.
Every year, the upfronts are a guessing game of which shows will be hits, which will fail, and which show will be the first to get the axe. This year, there are high hopes for Crazy Ones, the new Robin Williams comedy series on CBS and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D from Joss Whedon, which will air on ABC.
The broadcast networks have struggled with declining viewership for years, but now they are facing more pressure than ever from non-traditional television services. And Netflix, which just a few years ago was a harmless mail-order DVD service, may be their biggest threat yet.
House of Cards
In February, Netflix unveiled House of Cards, a $100 million production starring Kevin Spacey and produced by The Social Network’s David Fincher, who also directed the first two episodes. In order to take advantage of the current trend of “binge” viewing, Netflix made the unprecedented move of releasing all 13 episodes at once.
House of Cards, whose second season is set to premiere next year, was not Netflix’s first foray into original programming, but it had more star power and critical acclaim than Lilyhammer, which premiered in 2012.
The network has also resurrected the beloved comedy series Arrested Development, whose fourth season was released last Sunday – after the show was cancelled by Fox more than seven years ago.
House of Cards and Arrested Development are the centrepieces of Netflix’s new strategy of luring and retaining viewers via exclusive original programming. Chief content officer Ted Sarandos told GQ that “the goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”
Netflix has refused to provide viewing statistics for its original shows, since the company does not rely on advertising dollars and therefore does not directly compete with the networks for eyeballs.
But it’s clear that the company is on a roll. Last month, the company’s stock soared above $200 per share for the first time since 2011. For the first quarter of this year Netflix posted a profit of $3 million. Last year it lost $5 million in the same quarter.
Most importantly, according to a recent survey, 86 percent of Netflix subscribers indicated that original series such as House of Cards make them less likely to cancel the service.
With the release of Arrested Development, the success of recent horror program Hemlock Grove (which is expected to be renewed for a second season) and an upcoming series from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, Netflix is poised to continue challenging the networks – including during awards season.
Blurring the line between traditional and web TV
Netflix isn’t the only digital-era company taking on the networks with original content. Amazon, the e-commerce giant, is jumping into the fray with eight new sitcom pilots, including Alpha House, starring John Goodman, and an adaptation of the cult film Zombieland.
Amazon has posted its pilots online to create buzz and measure viewer statistics, ratings and reviews, effectively crowdsourcing the process of choosing which pilots get picked up.
Of course, web series have been around for years, but by producing high-budget, full-length series with A-list producers and actors, Amazon and Netflix are blurring the line between web series and traditional television.
In fact, some series that are available exclusively online in North America will appear on traditional broadcast or cable networks in other parts of the world. House of Cards, for example, will air on Foxtel in Australia (available on its on-demand service as well) and OSN in the United Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, the broadcast and cable networks are scrambling to catch up and establish their own online streaming platforms. Reed Hastings himself has praised ESPN and HBO in particular for offering apps that allow subscribers to consume the networks’ content across devices.
At its upfront presentation, ABC became the first network to unveil a live-streaming television app, which will be tested in New York and Philadelphia this spring.
ABC is also offering advertisers a plan for unified advertising across all platforms where ad buyers can schedule a commercial for TV, pre-roll ads on mobile viewing platforms and even on Hulu, the online TV platform it co-owns with Fox and NBC (though ABC will also begin limiting its content on Hulu in order to encourage usage of its new app).
It’s clear that with increased usage of personal video recorders and marathon series viewing on DVD and online, viewers are becoming less concerned about where and when they get their content – as long as it’s available everywhere, always.
As Hastings put it, “over the coming decades and across the world, internet TV will replace linear TV. Apps will replace channels, remote controls will disappear, and screens will proliferate.”