Right now, the best TV isn’t actually on TV. At least, not TV as our parents knew it. And actually, sod our parents – it’s not even TV as we knew it as little as three years ago. Back then, in the simple, innocent days of 2012, the programmes known as “web series” were reserved for oddities, experiments or low-budget throwaways. Or often, all three together.
Then, in early 2013, something happened.
A drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and directed (in part) by David Fincher was launched exclusively on streaming service Netflix having never been available on a traditional TV station anywhere in the world. What’s more, all 13 episodes were available at once. This was ostensibly a web series, but it was a web series like no other before it. House Of Cards changed everything.
Skip forward two-and-a-half years and Netflix has launched 28 original series and resurrected six more, including a much yearned-for final season of Arrested Development. It’s not alone – its main competitor, Amazon Instant Video, has made 47 pilots, 17 of which have been (or will be) made into full series. They aren’t the only streaming TV services vying for your monthly subscription fee. But they are the highest profile. And both are making their own content to supplement their huge back catalogues of film and TV.
But how did companies that had never made a TV show before become the pioneers at the vanguard of television evolution? And how did they do it so damn quickly?
Producing House Of Cards was a statement of intent – it’s the kind of heavyweight show that you’d expect to debut on HBO (and on Sky Atlantic in the UK). And it nearly did. Creator Beau Willimon was speaking to the US’s premium cable networks when word reached him and his partners David Fincher, Josh Donen and Eric Roth that Netflix wanted to meet.
“We told them what we told the other networks: we didn’t want to do a pilot,” Willimon tells us during a break from filming Season 4 of the show. “We weren’t interested in auditioning. We wanted to know we’d have at least 13 hours of storytelling.” This was a bold strategy, a risky proposition, and one the networks were reluctant to accept despite the talent involved. Netflix was a different story.
“The people at Netflix didn’t bat an eyelash. They said they were believers in the team and the story and they wanted to give us the resources to make the show we wanted to make. Then they said they’d probably order two seasons upfront, not just one. That’s unheard of.”
Cindy Holland, vice president of original content at Netflix, was in that meeting. She believes it was the only way to go: “Previously, we were not in the business of commissioning series, but we were in the business of uploading a show a season at a time. For us, spending money on development or on shooting a pilot, but then not having something to put in front of our subscribers made less sense than commissioning a full season in one go.”
Not the only way
The other big name in TV streaming services, Amazon Instant Video, takes a different approach. Its model is to commission a number of pilots, but only turn the ones deemed worthy, based on audience feedback, into full series. Given Cindy Holland’s reasoning, it seems an odd system – that you can watch episode one of Philip K Dick adaptation The Man In The High Castle in January, but will have to wait until November for the next 10.
Understandably, Chris Bird, Amazon’s director of content strategy, sees it differently:
“It allows us to give our customers more choice – we can put the pilots up, then ask our customers which ones they want us to make full seasons of. Transparent is a relatively niche show, in the sense it’s the first transgender programme to be made in earnest. Our message to Jill Soloway, who wrote, produced and directed it, was that we’d back her to make the pilot, but for us to make a full season our customers had to love it. Jill’s a distinguished writer, but she couldn’t get anyone to take her pitch prior to coming to Amazon. Our model allows for some really interesting opportunities for creative talent to make the show they want to make. And if it’s brilliant, they’ll get a season order out of it.”
But does that mean, had the House Of Cards meeting been at Amazon rather than Netflix, they’d have insisted on a pilot? Not necessarily. The deal that’s just been signed with Jeremy Clarkson and his former Top Gear team is for a full series, as is a Woody Allen project currently in production. So there is evidence the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. And you simply don’t ask Woody Allen to do a pilot.
Binge-watching is a relatively new concept in mainstream culture. Popularised by box sets, it’s become a key way that people consume series via streaming services. A survey by Netflix revealed 61 per cent of its users regularly binge-watch. Figures such as these led Kevin Spacey to implore TV executives to give audiences “what they want, when they want it. If they want to binge, we should let them binge.”
Of course, one of the downsides of viewers watching all of House Of Cards in a weekend is – what do they watch next weekend? This question prompted Netflix to act quickly following the commission of the political drama.
“We hadn’t been aggressively looking for original series,” reveals Holland. “But once we decided on House Of Cards, we quickly put a slate of series together – Hemlock Grove, Orange Is The New Black, Arrested Development and Lilyhammer, which was an acquisition title. Those five series comprised our first swing.”
Two years of swinging later and, on average between March and August, Netflix released a new show aimed at adults every two weeks. From comedies such as Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp, to thrillers such as Bloodline, to the first series of Marvel’s Daredevil. This incredible six-month run of releases culminated with crime drama Narcos, about the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
One of the bigger hits (we assume from the coverage it generated – Netflix doesn’t release viewing figures) was Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which was rescued from an indifferent NBC mid-season schedule and has since been nominated for seven Emmy Awards.
“What’s interesting,” says star Ellie Kemper, “was the different reactions depending who was hearing the news that we’d moved from NBC to Netflix. The older ones were like, ‘Is this a good thing? Are we supposed to congratulate you?’
I had to reassure them. The first thing my mom said was, ‘How will Uncle Bobby watch it?’ But this is a new era of TV and everyone I know who’s familiar with the streaming platform knows how convenient it is.”
That raises an interesting point – how will Uncle Bobby watch it? How will an older generation find these shows? Or even non-tech savvy members of a younger generation? There’s still a barrier to entry in that, in most cases, it’s more fiddly to watch a streaming TV service than it is to press the number “3” on a remote control.
“How many devices out there don’t have Amazon now?” asks Chris Bird. “Very few. You’d struggle to find a new TV today that isn’t internet-enabled, and then you add to that the 700 or so other unique devices with access to Amazon Instant Video. But also we’ve tried to make it easier to get access to the content through things such as the Amazon Fire TV Stick, a £35 device you plug into your TV and 30 seconds later you’re watching video. It’s so simple.”
Even simpler is Netflix’s deal with five TV manufacturers. If you’ve bought a new set from Panasonic, Philips, Sony, Toshiba or Vestel over the past year, the likelihood is it has a big red button that launches the service automatically. You can see a future when they’re all there – a button for Netflix, a button for Amazon Instant Video, a button for iPlayer…
But we’re at the beginning of something, not the end. It’s impossible to know whether the current models are sustainable, how technology will change or which other companies will innovate. Think Netflix is untouchable? A decade ago you may have said the same thing about Blockbuster. At the time it was worth $5bn and turned down the chance to buy Netflix for $50m. How times change.
“No one knows where it’s going,” says Willimon, “and that’s what’s exciting. A lot of conventions were challenged [with these new services] and these new ways were just as successful or more so. If I knew how technology was going to shift, I’d be in Silicon Valley instead of filming a TV show in Baltimore. But there’s an appetite to marry the technology with the form in new and provocative ways – could that expand to different experiences or even a new medium? Absolutely.”
That’s our cue. Want to be a billionaire? Just work that out. Then hire Kevin Spacey.