Netflix’s streaming service may be one of the greatest innovations in the television industry this century. The company, which began as a DVD mail delivery service, has revolutionized the way we watch television, moving our screens from the living-room corner and into our laps. Netflix also helped to usher in HBO GO (which will get its own stand-alone service next year), it helped make On Demand practically a necessity for any cable provider, and more importantly, it gave us a convenient way waste our weekends binge-watching entire television series.
Indeed, when Netflix got into the original content game, it was so successful so quickly that it felt like it was going to steamroll the rest of the competition and put network television out of business in a matter of years. The $100 million the network put into House of Cards immediately paid dividends, the gamble on a fourth season of Arrested Development seemed to work out, and Orange is the New Black demonstrated that Netflix could also launch hugely successful television series without big stars or a huge promotional effort. OitNB was an instant word-of-mouth hit.
And then Netflix hit a dry spell, one that it’s still mired in. How many people watched Marco Polo, the $90 million series that Netflix launched over the weekend? Aside from a handful of critics, I don’t know anyone who has bothered, in large part because those handful of critics told us not to. Despite a talented voice cast in Aaron Paul, Alison Brie, and Will Arnett, Bojack Horseman came and went without a lot of fanfare earlier this year (though, admittedly, it has its passionate fans). Moreover, over the summer, Netflix delivered a final season of The Killing, which — anecdotally — was neither widely watched nor well received. Netflix also renewed the Hemlock Grove for a third and final season after a dismally reviewed second season.
It’s not been a great 2014 for Netflix’s original programming.
In fact, last week a CBS researcher released a report that showed that more people watch two network shows — Once Upon a Time and The Blacklist — on Netflix more than all the other Netflix original programming combined. CBS also snickered that Netflix hasn’t had a hit in two years, since Orange is the New Black.
Welcome to the club, Netflix.
There may be more networks, more television shows, and more options available for watching them, but it’s proving more and more difficult to land a break-out hit. As the novelty on binge-watching begins to wear off, Netflix is fastly becoming just another network like HBO, Showtime, FX, and even Amazon vying for the best in content.
Does that sound similar to another network’s trajectory? AMC also had quick hits with Mad Men and The Walking Dead and later Breaking Bad, which took a few years to find its audience, but the well has run dry at that network. That’s why it’s turning to spin-offs like Better Call Saul and Cobalt (It’s The Walking Dead companion series) to get back in the game after a series of misfires that included Halt and Catch Fire and Low Winter Sun, not to mention reality programming like Small Town Security.
Netflix, meanwhile, is promising to introduce 20 seasons of television, but they are having problems launching just one new season of successful television. The streaming service is pinning a lot of their hopes on their slate of original programming in 2015, but honestly, that may prove frustrating for them as well, since they are relying in part on cast-offs.
For instance, Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — essentially cancelled by NBC before it even aired — will certainly attract an audience, but how big? Tina Fey is not in it, and Ellie Kemper ain’t exactly a household name. Plus, the conceit — a woman acclimates to the real-world again after living with a cult for most of her life — doesn’t exactly scream 10 million viewers. Or even five.
Similarly, the network has picked up the recently cancelled Longmire, which is a better than average procedural. But it is a procedural, which is a format that already dominates broadcast television. The average age of a Longmire viewer is also 60. How many of those viewers are going to be spreading the word on Twitter?
I absolutely love that Netflix has also decided to do a sequel series to Wet Hot American Summer featuring much of the original cast, but how many people are going to watch it? Honestly? Sure, many of us will, but a series based on a small cult film has virtually no chance of breaking out the way that Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, or even the low-rated Fargo has.
Netflix is also pinning hopes on Sense8 from The Wachowskis, who haven’t had a big-screen hit since The Matrix series. They’ve got four Marvel limited series coming soon, but it’s not like Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD has been a huge hit for ABC. Bloodline with Kyle Chandler and Linda Cardellini is the only 2015 series I’m completely stoked about, but a thriller about a dysfunctional family doesn’t seem to be the kind of series with huge break-out potential.
As far as their family programming goes, Netflix is just recycling: Richie Rich, Lemony Snicket, Puss n Boots, The Care Bears and a spin-off of Justin Time are all in the works (and Netflix’s animated series based on Turbo wasn’t exactly a hit).
It’s not that Netflix won’t ultimately do well. I’m sure it will. Their programming chief, Ted Sarandos, is the next best thing to FX’s John Landgraf. But after a hugely successful first year in original programming, Netflix is coming back down to Earth. It may be the leading streaming service, but when it comes to programming, it’s just another player in the game. In fact, it seems like Netflix is doing better with British series (Peaky Blinders, The Fall, Black Mirror) than it is with its own.
How long will it be before we begin to see spin-offs of Orange is the New Black and House of Cards?