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How Netflix Should Democratize Television

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | May 9, 2013 | Comments ()


buffy_season_eight.jpg

There are a number of headlines floating around about Netflix the last few weeks, especially because of the upcoming return of “Arrested Development” and the debuts of “House of Cards” and “Hemlock Grove.” What used to be the common refrain of hoping that TBS might save a cancelled show, or that the network in question would recognize its terrible mistake once the DVD sales numbers detonated, has now become the hope that Netflix will be the white knight of disgruntled fans. I’ve seen headlines in the last few weeks, trade news stories written solely about what one disposable Netflix executive or another said when asked about Netflix picking up some random show.

Every single time a show is cancelled, the question comes up. “Futurama” getting the axe for a second time? Better ask Netflix if they’ll pick it up. “Happy Endings”? Same speculation. Three years after cancellation, a petition started up to convince Netflix to make a third season of “Stargate Universe.” Even though it’s been off the air for almost as many years as it had episodes, there was a headline this last week for an entire article based off of a vague explanation by a Netflix executive why “Firefly” wouldn’t be a good fit for them. To his credit, it was highly nonspecific instead of just the cry “it’s been ten years, get over it” followed by a wall cracking scream.

Netflix needs something else to avoid just turning into a weaker version of the various networks. They’ve been working on putting together their own original content as a natural next step, which is really the only thing that they can do. As long as their focus was on DVDs, Netflix could just be an updated version of the video rental chains that they put out of business, insulated from the industry by being essentially a middle-man taking a role that the content creators didn’t really want to bother with. But as their business has moved to be dominated by the streaming end of things, that leaves the company in an odd position of both strength and weakness.

The strength is that Netflix is the market leader in the next generation of entertainment. And while there are other services out there from Hulu to Amazon Prime, Netflix is the clear leader. In a way it’s the Apple of its particular industry. Not exactly the first one there, but the one which despite mistakes ends up being genuinely liked by its customers instead of just being the lowest bidder for their entertainment dollars.

The weakness though is that at its heart the streaming model is extraordinarily vulnerable to the ire of content creators, because at its most basic it’s just another website with streaming video. Three or four companies could drive Netflix out of business almost overnight just by refusing to license their catalogs for streaming , and putting it all up on their internal pay-for-viewing streaming service.

Original content is the way Netflix can add enough strategic leverage that that doesn’t happen. And this is what makes Netflix the perfect company for this proposal. They’re a company that people actually don’t mind liking in the first place, which is a tremendous market advantage if leveraged properly.

So here’s a modest proposal for Netflix. Give the people exactly what they want. Be the company that saves beloved television. I don’t mean that hyperbolically, I mean, Netflix can be the hero Gotham needs if it feels like it, but I had an actual business idea that didn’t involve spandex costumes, which is always a first step towards credibility.

Netflix should form a little working group of accountants, lawyers, pollsters, and maybe even an entertainment expert or two. Then this group should make a list of every television show cancelled in the last decade, and do a very specific and detailed write up of it. How much would it cost to produce per episode? What are the salaries of creative people involved? In other words, do the legwork that produces an estimate of what it will take to make this happen.

Then make a Kickstarter page for every single one of those television shows, with a special twist to it. Make all the research completely transparent and right on the donation page. Give fans a line-by-line description of exactly what money would be needed and why.

And then add the second twist. Other than the usual sort of Kickstarter flare of offering t-shirts and the like for certain levels of support, make it so that every single person who donates gets shares of stock in the project proportional to their donation. Let the fans own what they are helping make happen. Make fans your informed investors by the millions instead of just the guys you’re trying to get to give you eight bucks each month.

For many shows it would be readily apparent that costs were such as to make it an impossible venture. Those are in many ways the most important ones to get up in a system like this, because they give those fans closure. And Netflix will have earned the lasting goodwill of those fans. And maybe, just maybe, someone occasionally swoops in with an irrational amount of money that makes an impossible project into one that gets greenlit instead.

The beauty of this proposal is that it leverages the passion of fandom and hooks it into a sustainable engine rather than just a one off mechanism for projects getting done seemingly at random. And it’s certainly not a charity operation. If Netflix pulled something like this off, even if they never managed to make a single one of these shows, they would for relative pocket change position themselves as not just another content provider, but the champion of fans.

Netflix would be the company that gave the power of creating television to the people, instead of keeping the decisions hidden in backrooms. Right now Hollywood works like this: executives decide behind closed doors what they think people will like, pay money to make it, and then ask people to pay to consume it. The big flaw in this arrangement is the assumption that executives know what people want. How about we create a system in which the people decide what they want, and put their money directly to it? Netflix is in a unique position to do exactly this for the simple reason that not being one of the entrenched companies means they actually stand to gain from changing the state of play.

That’s how you democratize an industry.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Morgan_LaFai

    You rather lost me with stock options, but the rest of that was fucking brilliant. But know I want it to happen though I know it to be highly improbable.

  • When I started reading this, my first thought was, "If I was Showtime, I'd try to team up to do a next generation of HBO Go for a combined offering. If I was Netflix, I'd try to team up with HBO. We're a serious content creator breaking free from cable providers oligopoly from seeing some quite remarkable shifts in how entertainment is produced and distributed. We already know how we'll take it. Streaming at home, preferably a low-cost base subscription, maybe some premium content. Oh wait, that's cable when it started and forgot about it's customers.

  • As Braff has stated in much of his press for his Kickstarter, giving fans who donate through Kickstarter and other fan-funding sites a stock in the product isn't legal yet.

  • feelsgoodman

    The reason Kickstarter gives you things like t-shirts and signed copies of something when you donate is because the legal aspects of micro-donations and equity haven't been sorted out yet. They are in the courts discussing how to sort this out right now but until there is Law's passed then you can't get equity in the product.

  • Law's passed, as of last year. Regulations not done. JOBS Act. It's coming.

  • derfelcadarn

    That is an awesome idea.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Don't tease me with Stargate Universe possibilities.

  • yocean

    Love this Idea. A good friend of mine actually works at Netflix TV content development so i sent this along.

  • ViciousTrollop

    I don't understand the Buffy picture. Are we asking Netflix to make an awesome Buffy animated series based on the comics? 'Cause that would be rad.

  • APOCooter

    Only if they retcon the season 8 comics so that they never happened. And season 7, too. And what the hell, season six (except for Once More With Feeling).

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Hell, I'd even be up for Buffy the Thirtysomething Vampire Slayer. It would actually be interesting to see what life is like for a Slayer who lives long enough to get old.

  • googergieger

    "So here’s a modest proposal for Netflix."

    YOU WANT TO EAT BABIES?! *rips clothes off and runs out into the street screaming*

    *comes back*

    "can be the hero Gotham needs"

    That's just fucking terrible.

    *walks away smug*

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    I love you for bringing this up. It just makes me sad that I have to love you for it.

  • I started this article planning to be all snarky but this is actually a decent idea that might could actually work. And now I've got all this pent-up snark and nowhere to put it. My snark has been blue-balled, which is only slightly less painful and damaging than being black-balled.

  • Texas

    I have been wondering why more kickstarter entertainment projects don't offer some nominal ownership, especially at the higher price points. Maybe payments over $1,000 offer some percentage of ownership/profits and below that gets cool swag.

  • Last year, Congress passed the JOBS Act, which authorizes this type of offering. The regulations aren't out yet, but they will come, and small equity will happen. As per usual people are way ahead and super ready for this, as is witnessed by how crowdfunding has grown without a serious value proposition for people putting the money in.

    There are ways to creatively work around that. A brewpub in Minneapolis crowdfunded its startup from two buddies in a garage home brewing. They solicited investors, offering 'free beer for life' in exchange for $1,000. They had $250K in 30 days, went to the bank and the rest is history, as they say.

    This type of content production will be spendy, and I so love the idea of democratizing capital. My biz head thinks it wouldn't quite come off without something else on the money side. I do think there are options.

  • Drake

    Not up on it, for sure, but possibly the SEC is standing in the way of this.

  • "For many shows it would be readily apparent that costs were such as to make it an impossible venture. Those are in many ways the most important ones to get up in a system like this, because they give those fans closure."

    I love the overall sentiment and I think Netflix could have some success with this model. However, I doubt legions of passionate fans will understand the economic realities even if the numbers were right in front of their faces. Or more accurately, they won't care. They just want to see their shows back on the air. Logistics, fiscal traps, actor commitments -- these will get rationalized away in the blink of an eye. Giving them a kernel of mostly hope is almost crueler than no hope at all.

    Well-written piece, though with a lot of solid ideas. Nice job.

  • e jerry powell

    Fans certainly don't understand why keeping their favorite daytime soaps on the air is such a losing proposition for the networks, so I don't hold out a lot of hope for them understand funding this particular model either, and for exactly the reasons you cite. And General Hospital fans just got a dose of reality about the tangles of intellectual property once a show does go off the air and then comes back online.

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