Think back to the halcyon days of the streaming boom, when a platform like Netflix went from renting DVDs by mail, to allowing subscribers to watch selected movies and TV shows online, to producing its own content and now – a mere eight years later – expects to spend an eye-watering $17bn on original material in 2021.
There were two things that could be said about a streaming commission in those early days. One was that the financial fruits on offer were far beyond what was on offer from the heavily farmed soil of network and cable TV. The other was that, unlike the bear pit of the US TV Fall Season, a new show order from Netflix wasn’t vulnerable to the axe after a few weeks if the ratings didn’t stack up.
That early period had the feel of a gold rush at the time, and so it seems have proved. Although streaming is still a vast and growing market, and though the hefty upfront payment for a streaming show gives producers security that never existed under the riskier broadcast model, there are signs that as global saturation grows nearer, the disruptive nature of streamers is cooling down and they are starting to behave more like traditional media platforms than ever.
Barris extricated himself from that deal halfway through, instead taking a stake in the new BET Studios venture from old media titan ViacomCBS. His reasoning for the high-profile change is intriguing. “The stuff I want to do is a little bit more edgy, a little more highbrow, a little more heady, and I think Netflix wants down the middle,” he told Hollywood Reporter. “Netflix became CBS.”
Corporate shifts that would once have played out over decades now happen in the span of a few years. After being caught off guard by Netflix’s move into original content, an auxiliary market suddenly transformed into a direct competitor, the big networks and the media conglomerates of which they are a part have started copying the Netflix playbook, wooing talent back with promises of more control and greater cross-platform synergy as they launch their own digital services.
Can a case be made for that now applying to SVODs and linear networks? Exhibit A comes from the recent Hollywood Reporter interview given by producer Kenya Barris, who walked away from ABC after delivering hits such as Black-ish (pictured below) and became one of several high profile US production talents lured to Netflix with a nine figure deal.
"Competition in streaming is fiercer and more expensive... which in turn may be forcing Netflix to make decisions not too dissimilar to the cutthroat battles fought by linear networks."
At the same time, Netflix is having to settle into a more moderate approach to consolidate its audience. Bold, quirky, niche content that was unavailable anywhere else was good for attracting attention during that whirlwind expansion period, but now must be balanced with a need to deliver solid mainstream material that will keep vast swathes of viewers on the hook. The sort of content, in other words, that the old linear networks specialise in.
So if high profile talent is turning away from $100m deals and returning to the bosom of the Big 5 networks (albeit on boutique projects) what about that other core pillar of streaming’s allure to producers – the security of knowing your show won’t be axed prematurely?
In those early years, many noted that shows that wouldn’t have survived the brutal coliseum of network primetime were being given room to grow and breathe on streaming. Today, headlines on both the industry and consumer websites complain about Netflix axing too many shows too soon.
Two seasons seems to be the new cut-off point, certainly more generous than the six or seven episodes that are the legacy of most cancelled network shows, but still not the sort of model on which long-term revenue driving IP can be developed.
Will any Netflix show ever hit the season count of a Law & Order or Friends? Almost certainly not, because of the way streaming deals are struck. Deadline first dug into this hush-hush topic in 2019, and what it found has been backed up by other reports in the years since. Put simply, to compensate for the absence of syndication money – that pot of gold at the end of the network TV rainbow – streaming platforms, and in particular Netflix, offered front-loaded deals that granted production companies bonus payments for each new season. High profile on-screen talent were also given similar deals to lock them in. The third season, reportedly, is where these bonuses really ramp up from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, even millions. Suddenly, Netflix’s reluctance to let all but its biggest successes run for more than two seasons makes sense.
Of course, as with most reporting on Netflix financials, we have no idea how accurate these reports are, or how things have changed in recent years. That the streamer cancelled its blockbuster superhero show Jupiter’s Legacy only weeks after its first season dropped, despite it being the first production from Millarworld, the comic book company it acquired for $31m in 2019, suggests that investing in the long term pay-off is no longer the norm.
As always, Netflix is the most intriguing example to pore over because it’s the market leader but also the only streaming platform that lives or dies by its original content. Without the backing of a media giant like Warner Bros, without the legacy IP catalogue of Disney, without the additional revenue streams of Amazon and Apple, it is uniquely exposed and must make these judgement calls earlier – and more publicly – than its rivals. Competition in streaming is fiercer and more expensive than it was in 2015, which in turn may be forcing Netflix to make decisions not too dissimilar to the cutthroat battles fought by linear networks. It may be apps next to each other on a SmartTV menu rather than channels side by side on a remote control, but the effect is familiar.
That’s not to say that the death knell has sounded for innovative programming on Netflix, or that streaming and network TV are now politically or culturally identical. But the famous refrain from The Who – “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” – is already ringing out in the offices of some influential producers.