Streaming Services Succeed
Where Cable Failed
Shows Like Stranger Things, Transparent, Orange Is The New Black And More Prove That Netflix, Amazon, Hulu And Others Have Trumped Traditional Media
By Mike Sallustio
Modern Times Magazine
Aug. 15, 2016 — Firefly, Freaks and Geeks, Veronica Mars…
For many these titles reads like an obituary, a list of old friends and family who the TV Gods took from us far too early. They were special, unique and original. Their cancellations prove the prophetic verses of Long Island’s own revered soothsayer Billy Joel.
“Only the good die young.”
To their fans, these series offered something different than the standard TV fare. They were able to connect with a niche audience but unfortunately couldn’t appeal to the masses, which resulted in their untimely demise.
But something interesting happened in 2011 when Netflix decided it would bring back the ill-fated comedy Arrested Development. Suddenly, there was another option for the dissemination of creative and different programming. A place where the all-powerful “ratings” held no authority over which shows lived or died. Since then, there have been a bevy of original shows and movies ordered by online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, and they’re winning big praises from fans and critics. For example, the Amazon Prime series Transparent not only won best Television Series last year at the Golden Globes, but also garnered star Jeffery Tambor a Best Actor Golden Globe and Emmy.
If you’re a television fan, you’re certainly familiar with the concept of ratings. Most simply put, this is the amount of people watching a program at any given time. This has always been an important metric for your favorite network TV shows, as commercials, those irritating breaks between your favorite programs, have been the main thing keeping a series on the air and the cost of ad time is largely based on those ratings.
The better a show does, the more companies want their commercials running during them. This has led to that magic moment known as “prime time,” or rather, the time most people are watching television.
Although it may have created as a well meaning system, it doesn’t do much in terms of creativity. A “Western in space” like Firefly might sound original and appealing to many sci-fi fans, but it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s no Friends, because hey, everyone has friends right?
For a while, cable used to be the place that original and creative programming found a home. It became the defacto alternative to the corporate sellouts at network TV. Your premium cable charge and your premium cable charge alone would decide the type of programming you’d like to see. If only The Dana Carvey Show could have been picked up by HBO, then he could have breast fed as many puppies on TV as he wanted!
At the time, shows like The Larry Sanders Show and The Sopranos really ushered in a new age with programming that pushed boundaries that other channels had previously resisted for fear of alienating advertisers and mainstream audiences. Still not all of HBO’s shows were immune to cancellation. Deadwood and John From Cincinnati are two well known victims. Most recently the Showtime series House of Lies starring Don Cheadle and the impossible-to-hate Kristen Bell was also put on the chopping block.
Casey Neistat had one of these series. In 2003, he posted a video ridiculing iPhone Batteries that went viral. The video garnered enough attention to get Neistat a cable TV deal. The Neistat Brothers ran on HBO at midnight. It lasted one season before its cancellation.
Neistat went back to vlogging on YouTube to much success. Recently at Vidcon, a conference for online video creators, he talked about the ordeal and lamented the confines of traditional media, “Can you imagine if you could only see the vlogs Friday night at midnight? Let go of the ego around it and focus on what matters, which is reaching the audience. And nothing enables that like the Internet.”
It is here where streaming services like Netflix are changing the game. Streaming services run similarly to YouTube in that they are not subject to time slots. There is no prime time. As a result, programming found on them are not subject to ratings at a given time but rather individual views at anytime. A show like Stranger Things will benefit from your views whether you binge watch the whole season in 24 hours or space out your viewing over months.
That doesn’t mean companies like Nielsen, the biggest name in TV ratings analytics, aren’t trying to find a metric to gauge the popularity of online programming. Recently The Wall Street Journal reported that Nielsen tracked the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black thanks to permission from producer Lionsgate and found that its viewing numbers would make it one of the most watched shows on traditional cable television.
Despite this optimistic view of their programming, Netflix, along with other streaming services, don’t like sharing their numbers with companies such as Nielsen which can be frustrating to those interested in traditional TV metrics. Still, Netflix is open about how they determine which series gain the most focus. At a recent press event, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos explained that Netflix is driven by growing subscriber numbers rather than traditional ratings metrics, according to Deadline.
This is probably the most important difference between traditional media and streaming services in that creators are able to present their series, unhindered to the public, without having to worry day-to-day about their ratings, because services like Netflix have a long term view.
It’s a win/win situation for creators and subscribers alike. On one end, showrunners can present their programs to the audience with the knowledge that people can watch it anytime. There is no worry that a bad time slot may make it difficult for an otherwise quality show to reach a sizable audience. As for the audience, they can watch a show at their leisure without feeling like they could be punished for it in the form of cancellations of beloved series.
Furthermore, audiences can pick up a new series to watch and burn through it with as much or as little gusto as they choose. If you want to watch a Netflix original like Peaky Blinders in a 24-hour ice cream-fueled couch marathon, you can, and do so knowing that it will always be there with the click of a mouse. This has led to the now popular buzzword, binge-watching.
This no-pressure connection between creator and audience has allowed many new showrunners to focus on important, yet complicated issues that mass audiences have generally shied away from. A show like Transparent, which deals with transgender issues, can remain on air long enough for audiences to take notice. On the other hand, shows like Hulu’s Casual, which deals with the relationship between being a single parent and raising a sexually active teenager, have the ability to connect with a more widespread audience who may be reluctant to address an issue that’s difficult to accept. Whether these series begin to attract new audiences or not, fans of these shows can breath easier knowing that their creators can continue to address these issues with less oversight and ratings-induced pressure from the higher ups.
Maybe the most convincing proof of the streaming concept’s superiority is that fact that some cable and broadcast networks are pivoting towards streaming themselves. With cable companies like HBO and even television networks like CBS pushing for premium, standalone streaming channels, it would seem services like Netflix have been making a huge impact on how television and audiences connect. In a time where film audiences’ biggest gripe is how there’s nothing original in theaters anymore, it nice to know there’s a place where motion picture fans can go to see truly original entertainment anytime they like.
Michael Sallustio is a freelance writer currently living in the Phoenix metro.