In the future, we’ll watch TV

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.26 AMSure, there’s been a lot of hubbub about how television has changed and will change, but I think the conversation is over-rated. For seventy years, people have watched news, sports, comedies, dramas, movies by pressing a button and staring at a screen. We’ve added stereo, color, lots and lots of TV channels, on-demand viewing. Ask the average person about the revolution in the television industry and they’ll tell you that that they thought The Tonight Show was kind of funny last night. They probably would have said the same thing in 1954.

What has changed is the industry that provides the programs. Once, there were three or four. networks Now, the number is uncountable because nobody’s sure how to classify Netflix, YouTube, or HBO NOW. Kudos to Pamela Douglas for trying to make sense of a very messy industry. She wrote a book—a very good book, in fact—entitled The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World. We got to know one another, and talked about why she took on such an impossible project, how she approached the subject matter, and what she learned along the way. I should explain that Professor Douglas works at USC, that she has done her share of writing for prime time television, and that she is the author of a popular book entitled Writing the TV Drama Series for the same publisher (Michael Wiese Productions, a publisher also active in the production world).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.34 AMMoving from the old world of traditional broadcast networks through hybrid innovators including cable networks then into the new world of internet services and alternative funding models, she covers the waterfront. There are interviews with knowledgable leaders from Netflix, Kickstarter, HBO, and other companies whose work matters a great deal in 2015.

I knew she was on the right track when I read this sentence, part of an interview with longtime Writer’s Guild executive Charlie Slocum: “…some writers are introverts and they don’t want to deal with all the people who are production managers, accountants, location scouts and so forth. Fine, so partner with a producer who loves all that and doesn’t have the patience to sit down with a blank page. That’s the path to being an entrepreneur in a partnership.”

He goes on: “On broadcast, the priority is to be similar….The classic example…what they have on at eight they hope is compatible with what they have on at nine so they keep the audience. It’s audience flow programming strategy.”

And here’s the important point that informs not only the conversation, but the whole book: “…individuals pay for HBO and Netflix. So if your base is subscribers, your goal is to have as many different subscribers as you can. That means when you have one show like House of Cards, you want the next show to be as different as possible [italics mine]…On subscription TV the goal is to get as many different people as possible to be happy to pay the monthly bill. One series, maybe two, can lock you in for the whole 12 months.”

The strategy comes to life in a conversation with Dan Pasternak of IFC. “…our brand is silly and smart. Our tagline is ‘Always On. Slightly Off.’ I said let’s not try to be Comedy Central. Let’s not be Adult Swim. Let’s program content that feels uniquely like IFC. So one of the first shows I helped to develop was Portlandia. And fortunately it became brand-defining.”

(In the 2010s, brand definition is the major challenge for every cable network, and every subscription service. It’s the most effective way to rise above the competition.)

He goes on: “(Portlandia) doesn’t belong anywhere else. Sketch comedy has evolved in the era of the digital short. Essentially each episode of Portlandia is eight little movies. But it’s really one unified perspective, voice, look, and feel.

The philosophy that drives an IFC is vastly different from the strategy that drives NBC’s prime time schedule. Often—and this is the reason why Pam wrote the book—it’s about the writer’s vision. That’s confirmed in her interview with HBO’s Michael Lombardo, who explains, “HBO starts with great writing. There’s no cheat to it…that has been our mania since early on.”

In the new world, the starting place is Netflix. Pam writes, “My writer friends and I love Netflix because it provides (a) place for our best work. But this isn’t our first romance. At the dawn of the 21st century, we were sweet on HBO for Oz and The Sopranos; in the first decade of the century, we had a big crush on AMC for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Now we welcome Netflix into the second decade.

If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re beginning to understand why Pam wrote the book. It’s all about the writing, the stories, the characters, the writer’s vision, and, of course, a place for all of that creative energy in a well-defined marketplace.

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos: “It’s about the product. Netflix was the only way to see House of Cards.”

So that’s the key for the subscription services—the only place to watch. This is a vastly different strategy from the one employed by A&E or TBS in order to achieve their current success (they used reruns to build audience).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.21 AMNowadays, most cable networks are coming to the same conclusion: their future is going to be defined by original programming (scripted and unscripted, both have their place), and by events (which tend to work only sometimes, in part because they’re expensive and also because they’re difficult to construct with any frequency). So there’s the conundrum for the deeper future: as each cable network, and each subscription service, develops and markets their own unique programs, the audience becomes that much more fragmented. The pie slices become smaller, the ability for any individual player to make an impact becomes that much more challenging.

If you’re a cable programmer, or you’re responsible for one of the growing number of subscription services, your job relies upon your ability to generate programs that can be seen and heard above the crowd. If you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, you now need to understand the nuances of the programming marketplace in ways that were never required in the past. Everything is more complicated. And it’s not.

In the end, nothing has changed. A writer has an idea, pitches it, somehow survives the development and production process, and connects with an audience. That fundamental formula has been around for a century (longer, if you dig back to the days when John Wilkes Booth was widely known as one of America’s most popular stage actors).

The message: be a diligent student, but spend most of your energy dreaming up great stuff.

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A New Discovery: Curiosity Stream

For many people, two of the most powerful words in the English language are “discovery” and “curiosity.” In fact, John Hendricks combined the two words to title his 2013 biography, “A Curious Discovery.” Now that he is no longer associated with the cable network that he founded—The Discovery Channel—Hendricks is launching a new venture, Curiosity Stream. Just as The Discovery Channel (now, simply “Discovery”) was precisely the right idea for a young cable television industry in 1985, Curiosity Stream sets the standard for special interest subscription ad-free video-on-demand in 2015. With HBO, CBS News and other new “SVOD” services available for an emerging marketplace.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_01_RobotsA monthly subscription fee buys access to a library of short- and long-form programs in four general categories: science, technology, civilization and the human spirit. Some programs are produced by Curiosity Studios—mostly, these are short-form interviews with scientists and other experts, often illustrated with animation. At the start, many of the long-form programs will come from TVO (that’s TVOntario, one of the best non-fiction producers in Canada), Japan’s NHK, France’s ZED, and of course, the BBC Worldwide. With two or three years, the service anticipates 2-3,000 titles; this year, subscribers will have access to about half that number of programs. Happily, John recognizes the challenges associated with VOD navigation, and I’m hoping to see Curiosity Stream reinvent the visual interface so that their programs are easy to find.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_04_MadagascarThe assortment of programs being assembled for the March 18, 2015 launch. Many are reminiscent of what The Discovery Channel used to be—before its prime time schedule began to resemble other cable channels (“Naked and Afraid,” etc.). Among the titles announced so far: “The Nano Revolution,” “Simon Schama: Shakespeare and Us,” “The Age of Robots,” “Destination Pluto,” and “Scotland: Rome’s Last Frontier.” There will be 4K programming, too—UltraHD for those who own the newer high-resolution TV sets—including a newly commissioned project called “Big Picture Earth” by the filmmaker responsible for “Sunrise Earth.”

For a look at Curiosity Stream’s demo site, click on the image above.

For a look at Curiosity Stream’s demo site, click on the image above.

Hendricks and his team are deeply experienced in the acquisition, production, and marketing of these types of programs—so this is a startup with a high likelihood of success. The intelligence of their marketing model impressed me, and made me wonder why others don’t approach the market in the same way. For $2.99 per 01_BBC_02_Earthmonth, you can watch in standard resolution—a terrific on-ramp for viewers who are either new to SVOD or are more likely to be fairly light users, at least the start. At this price, it’s almost a trial subscription with an easy upsell to 720 HD resolution at $3.99 per month (which is all that most people probably need right now). For those with more extravagant viewing habits, 1080 HD resolution costs $5.99 per month; the 4K Ultra HD service costs $9.99 per month (but at the start, there won’t be a lot of 4K programming available—still, some is far more than most other services offer today).

When I first read about the service—it was just announced—I reached out to John Hendricks and his team. Mostly, we talked about strategy. The program acquisition and production strategy is firmly rooted in international cable deals. The right deal spreads the risk among several programmers and distributors. For 04_ZED_02_Nanoexample, let’s assume that a high quality outdoor production costs about $750K to produce. If one company foots the bill, their programming budget only goes so far. But if Curiosity, for example, puts in $250K to control North American rights, and finds two partners, perhaps one in Asia and another in Europe, and each of them also puts in $250K for their respective territories, then nobody is out of pocket for more than $250K. Rights beyond North America, Europe and Asia provide additional revenue, which is typically shared by the funding producers. This “split exploitation” concept has been around since the 198os, and it works. In the SVOD marketplace, there will be many opportunities for future exploitation, which makes the venture progressively more profitable, and steadily increases the programming budgets, which generate more and better programming, and more subscribers… the circle continues to grow.

JohnHendricks_HeadshotUnlike Ted Turner, whose approach to cable was mass market (TBS, TNT, and very broad-based news with CNN), Hendricks has always focused on nonfiction, documentaries, outdoors and reality (in the best sense, and also with many programming ventures way down market—Discovery owns TLC, so you can thank him for “Honey Boo Boo”). The point: he knows how to play the game, understands how to segment the market. His first pass: a three-bucket breakdown that includes (a) historically light TV viewers, the 1 in 8 of us, the 17 million U.S. households for whom TV is not a big part of daily life; (b) the connected world of perhaps 100 million cable and satellite homes, the ones that often complain that “there’s nothing good on TV” where he hopes to capture about 10 million households; and the rising 4K market, which he projects at 10 million households total and perhaps 5 million subscribers to Curiosity. By playing a more upmarket game from the start—he’s betting that there are enough documentary, adventure, curious viewers willing to pay at least a few dollars per month to see what Curiosity offers and to support what would seem to be a very promising future.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_06_AngkorCould he be defeated by Netflix hiring a former Discovery executive assigned to buying up lots of rights to Curiosity / Discovery -type programming from the short list of global suppliers? Sure, but it’s not likely that Netflix will zero-in on the nonfiction programs that Curiosity Stream plans to acquire. The nuanced understanding of programming for, and marketing to, this particular audience is not something that Netflix can easily replicate. Hulu probably won’t go there, and neither will Amazon. YouTube is interested in other aspects of the business, so it’s likely that John and his team will be able to build the same kind of success that they enjoyed with Discovery.

In some respects, John Hendricks is a smart guy who found the right long-term niche. Broadening the view, I suppose it’s possible that TCM will offer a similar service—a movie archive with a greater emphasis on old movies than Netflix or Amazon may offer. The days of exploiting an old Hanna-Barbera library (one of the foundation blocks of Cartoon Network in its infancy) are over, but I suppose an SVOD animation service might be able to support itself. Old TV shows are currently experiencing a nostalgic burst with over-the-air channels exploiting old libraries—I now record “Naked City” and sometimes waste a half-hour watching “F-Troop” on MyTV, or similar programs on Antenna and its competitors. Not much SVOD opportunity there. Sports wants to be live—so after-the-fact viewing of sports events doesn’t provide much marketplace power for SSVOD (sports subscription VOD?). Weather, news – same problem; neither is good SVOD product. Children’s programming works, and I’m sure some combination of Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and PBS Kids will fight it out in a battle for market share—a newcomer would find it difficult to acquire sufficient product in this brand-obssessed (“Dora the Explorer,” etc. marketplace), but the BBC’s CBeebies might move in that direction. History never found a large enough audience to sustain historical programming, so it became a popular mass appeal network. Food Network doesn’t focus enough recipe programs any more, and their competition series aren’t likely to generate large numbers of individual subscriptions. Clever marketing schemes aside, most other cable networks are mass appeal, or broad appeal, so they’re probably better as cable networks with some VOD than full-scale SVOD services. I think there’s some potential in BBC America—their airtime is focused on mass appeal but the BBC library—even discounting for rights limitations—is probably large enough to succeed in SVOD. Comedy Central has potential, but Curiosity Stream trumps comedy because it benefits from a higher degree of program scarcity (there’s no shortage of comedy product available). I certainly wouldn’t discount the potential of a music channel’s success on SVOD—perhaps from MTV, BET, or a country music source.

Which is to say: I think Curiosity Stream has chosen its niche wisely; packaged and priced its product slightly ahead of the market; that it benefits from the right visionary and management team; that is it among a short list of non-movie / non-sports programming franchises where 4K truly enhances the viewing experience; and that it promises some terrific viewing experiences now sorely missed. The idea of a truly global, any-platform, anywhere service in this programming space is extremely appealing. In short, I think Curiosity Stream is the right idea for a clearly defined audience that is probably underserved and ready to pay a reasonable monthly fee for the privilege of watching high quality non-fiction programming from around the world.

 

The Future is Ours to Lose

And in exchange for free internet searches, discounts on books and other merchandise, posting pictures of family and friends, and playing games, we’re giving it away. Giving away our means to earn a living. Giving away our privacy and most personal information. Giving away copyright protection, our health care data, our time. Making large companies and internet entrepreneurs wealthy. Waving goodbye to economic opportunities that could, in the mind of non-economist but future thinker Jaron Lanier in a creepily fascinating book called Who Owns the Future. From the book jacket, a clear explanation of a complicated book:

Lanier asserts that the rise of digital networks led our economy into recession and decimated the middle class…In this ambitious and deeply humane book, Lanier charts the path toward a new information economy that will stabilize the middle class and allow it to grow. It is time for ordinary people to be rewarded for what they do and share on the web.”

futureukuscomboCertainly, creative professionals have seen new opportunities, but many jobs have disappeared, crumbled, or become so easy for amateurs to do, there is little perceived need for professional work. Two examples: illustration and another is photography. What about people who drive for a living? Lanier: “A great portion of the global middle classes works behind a wheel. Many have entered middle-class life as a taxi driver or truck driver. It’s hard to imagine a world without commercial drivers. A traditional entry ramp into economic sustenance for fresh arrivals to big cities like New York would be gone. Wave after wave of middle class immigrants drove New York taxis. And I’m trying to imagine the meeting when someone tries to explain to the Teamsters that nothing like their services will ever be needed again.” You see this in the battles between the everyone-can-be-a-cabbie service Uber and the people who actually make their living by moving people.  Soon, cars will move without drivers. Lanier: “Both cabbies and truckers have managed to build up levees…they’ll be able to delay the change…there might be a compromise in which a Teamster or cabbie sits there passively, along for the ride, perhaps to man a failsafe button…the world of work behind the wheel will drain away in a generation.”

Lanier: “What about liberal arts professors at a state college. Some academic will hang on, but the prospects are grim if education is seduced by the Siren song… The future of “free” will beckon. Get educated for free now! But don’t plan on a job as an educator.”

Lanier’s Siren server combines a Siren’s song with a server that collects information, provides appealing benefits, and causes tremendous destruction as it is managed by a wealthy few. The Siren server is portrayed as a monster stomping the life out of everything in its path. Health care? Empathetic robots empowered by Big Blue’s encyclopedic database of knowledge, the processing speed of a digital chess champion, and unbelievably precise motor skills. The list goes on.

So what’s to be done? It’s tough for anyone to survive in the modern world with a “just say no to the Siren servers!” philosophy. So much relies upon credit cards, EZ-Pass, Android, and, yes, Netflix (now my most-used television “channel”). What’s more, there’s the “Pervasive Creepy Conundrums: online security, privacy, and identity.”

Lanier builds his case for divergence with a disheartening disclaimer: he cannot explain the idea simply. In fact, he can, and somehow, his editor did not delete most of chapters 16-20 because they take too long to set up a very good, very simple idea: two-way links. He appropriately credits an early home computing visionary, Ted Nelson, whose name may be familiar because he was the guy who originated HyperCard, which Ars Technica describes in a wonderful article entitled “25 years of HyperCard—the missing link to the Web.”

hypercard_tutorial_posterLet’s continue down that path: “The foundational idea of humanist computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network.” I agree. For more about why and how I agree, see my recent articles about Google Books.

Simply: “If two-way linking had been in place, a homeowner would have known who had leveraged the mortgage, and a musician would have known who had copied his music.”

Lanier is right: That changes everything!

It’s a complicated fix, a change in the architecture of so many things digital, but it’s worth the shift. Here’s a straightforward example of why: “When you buy a physical book, you can resell it at will…” It is yours to own, sell, repurpose. “You can get the author to sign it, to make it more meaningful to you, and to increase its value.” With an eBook, you have only purchased “tenuous” rights within “someone else’s company store.” And so, “Your decision space is reduced.” It’s just not a fair deal. What’s more, this kind of thinking leads to the kinds of big company, big brother control that makes nobody comfortable (and few people wealth).

Lanier’s theory about “commercial symmetry” places everyone—companies and individuals, governments and other institutions—on a level playing field. Rules apply in both directions. People’s rights are not reduced. There is fair play. I am not required to subsidize ESPN on my cable bill; I don’t watch, and probably will never watch, most of the cable channels that I am required to fund each month. We’re trying to do something like this with health care—patient rights and all of that—but the health care system is not likely to share information about its economics. Students are graded by teachers, but (most of the time), teachers are not graded by students or (much of the time) by their employers or the larger body of taxpayers who fund their salaries, benefits and pensions.

Still, there is that looming question: is the value that we provide to, say, EZ-Pass or Netflix, transferable to real income for individuals who must earn a living. If Netflix discounted its services in exchange the data that we provide, would that result in more or less employment overall? Less, I suspect—but I’m operating within a present-day reality, and if we’ve learned anything from the future’s past, paradigm shifts change all of the rules.

Lanier probably doesn’t have the answers, but he writes in a way that makes you think, and he ignites meaningful conversations like this one. Smart guy, interesting book.

Lanier

The New Economics of Quality Television

The scheme worked. And it’s about to work again, this time in a way that nobody anticipated.

First time out, it was the early 1980s, and the new cable industry was winning a lot of franchises from municipal governments, and making a lot of promises. Among them: all sorts of new television channels. The scheme: customers pay a few dollars each month, and if enough households subscribe, there will be enough money for lots of new television programs. These days, over 100 million subscribers pay over $150 per month—that’s $150,000,000 x 12 months each year, enough money for Comcast to buy NBC and Universal Pictures.

Alpha House

Here comes the next scheme, the next game changer. You’ve probably heard about Amazon Prime’s entry into the television programming space. According to the NY Times, here’s how the process worked:

After an invitation by the company, some 5,000 scripts were submitted last year, and in the spring, 14 pilots were commissioned. Amazon then stood back and watched what 215 million active customers clicked on.

There are no commercials. There is a kind-of, sort-of subscription fee. Amazon is a company that sells a lot of products by mail. They compete with other companies that sell a lot of products by mail. One way to encourage Amazon customer loyalty is with a loyalty program that involves discounts. Amazon’s discount program is called Amazon Prime. You pay $79 per year, and you don’t have to pay for shopping. As an incentive, you can watch a growing number of television shows and movies. Some are free. Most are available pay-per-view for a few dollars.

In days past, television programs were produced to “sell soap.” The commercials paid the cost of operating the network and the cost of producing the program.

Now, television programs are being produced to “pay the shipping cost of the soap.” Somehow, this seems lower on the food chain. Will it work?

Amazon Prime offerYup. Why? Because Amazon, and Netflix, and to some extent Hulu, are not carrying 20th century baggage. They operate by analyze the actual viewing habits of real customers. It’s a good model and a not-so-good model. The good: their judgments will be right much more often than they are wrong. And that provides a solid foundation for a business. The not-so-good: gut instinct, loyalty, and softer judgments will ride a rougher road. In an extreme situation, where machines make all of the decisions, there would be no Seinfeld, no situation where an eager program convinced other executives to stick with a show despite its crumby ratings. In real world, that programmer’s ability to persuade will be blunted, not all of the time, but often, because the “data doesn’t lie.”

Of course, the arguments crumble when the actual process of making television programs enters the argument. Writers don’t much care about data, they care about story. As long as the distribution is reaching a large audience with sufficient promotion, and as long as they are paid a good fee, actors and directors don’t much care about the intricacies of new media distribution. Or do they? That’s the part where the game could change. The economics of Amazon and other data-based program services are vastly different from advertising and subscription models.

Why? Because data-based services do not solely rely upon the old-school revenue streams. Amazon’s game is global branding to drive mail order purchases for every available product in the world to every country in the world. If they need to pay John Goodman a dozen times what NBC would consider reasonable, that’s fine with Amazon. Their purpose changes the economics of the game. And because Amazon and its kin are working with data and  operating without the need to fill a 24/7 schedule, they can focus their resources on actual viewing habits, actual consumption patterns, and they can provide producers and writers and directors with moment-by-moment viewer data (when the viewer paused, when the viewer dumped out, how often the viewer re-watched the episode). When creative people learn to use this information in a productive way (imagine the creative battles before all of this settles down), the paradigm will shift, and no film student will graduate without a thorough understanding of data analysis in the creative process.

Armed with endless data, a global marketplace, (effectively) endless cash, and the ability to engage the biggest stars for whatever purpose Amazon deems necessary, the game change is about to begin.

BTW: I thought the Alpha House pilot was very good, entertaining, unpretentious, avoiding the nasty tedium that ultimately limited my fascination with House of Cards. Whether a computer made the judgement, or some clever program executives made it happen, I’ve gotta say “good job.” I look forward to watching the episodes in series, and discovering what else Amazon is unleashing.

Attack of the Three-Foot Robin

You may recall that I’m a relative newbie when it comes to really big  TV. Our family room’s western wall is now dominated by a 60-inch Samsung plasma  screen is dominated by a stunning picture of a red robin who must be at least three feet tall. There’s a common yellow throat, also larger than my dog. A bufflehead. An olive-sided flycatcher. These are among 118 birds that receive full screen credits, alongside author Jonathan Franzen, legendary Central Park birdwatcher and tour guide Starr Saphir, and other humans who, particularly during the migration months of late spring, watch birds in Central Park. You can watch them, too.

I watched Birders: The Central Park Effect on Netflix, mostly because I was too tired last night to make any sort of meaningful viewing selection. My wife found Birders, enjoys bird watching, and so, we both spent an hour stunned by the images, a pleasant story, and the depths of, well, dweeb behavior (the word used by Franzen to describe his feeling when peering through binoculars and shutting out the rough-and-tumble big city).

Birder-GirlWhen the day winds down, my wife and I try to catch at least an hour’s worth of television viewing. Apart from two or three network series, we mostly forget that CBS, ABC, FOX, and NBC exist. We watch HBO, but never when the network schedules programs. Just about all viewing is on-demand, and nowadays, most of that viewing is done on Netflix.

When we first subscribed to Netflix’s online service, it was just awful. That’s no longer true. Not with every episode of Mission: Impossible (some tedious, some superb), a wide range of foreign and independent films, and lots and lots of interesting documentaries. Recent viewing includes a doc about 1960s-1970s singer Harry Nilsson (whose life story causes every ‘and then I found myself howling at the moon’ episode of Behind the Music seem like child’s play), another about the strident, talented, and fatally flawed 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs, and, the list goes on. It’s all available any time, any where, on any device, so the idea of tuning into anything that’s scheduled for somebody else’s convenience on a plain old TV seems, well, kinda silly.

Originally, we re-subscribed to Netflix to watch Kevin Spacey pretend to be a powerful congressman on House of Cards. We’ve now watched three or four episodes. We’re done. Spacey is consistently terrific, but the it’s difficult to justify watching smarmy Washingtonians sluggishly gumming up the works of government when there are three three foot tall American Coots and Dark-Eyed Juncos in the room (no, I never tire of ridiculous bird names). I’m told the British series is excellent, and it’s likely that watching somebody’s else’s screwed-up government will be more entertaining than watching our own dysfunction. But it’s not high on the list.

Much higher, and now just completed after six one-hour viewing sessions, is Stephen Fry in America. Fry is a popular, literate Brit who travels through the lower forty-eight in his black London Cab (which made its way across the Atlantic by boat). Below, he is enjoying life in a hot tub on a houseboat on a man-made lake with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline–“quite extraordinary” in his words.

Stephen-Fry

Fry travels to visit one of the few remaining residents of a Kansas ghost town (who remains optimistic about the tourist potential of his tumble-down main street), the man who runs Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, to paddle the Mississippi River with a man who truly loves his river, to hang out with Morgan Freeman in his blues club near the crossroads where Robert Johnson traded his soul for some superior guitar licks, spends a leisurely afternoon with a Western family that’s okay with the many nearby bears but not so much with the increasing number of aggressive wolves who have lost six of their dogs and an eleven-day-old coat to their hunger, and on from there.  We watched the series on Netflix. You can watch every minute of his adventures, for free, in high definition, on YouTube.

YouTube is becoming one my favorite “channels” (I don’t know the correct term, but video library seems clunky). This past weekend, I watched Paul Newman and Jane Curtin in an extraordinary big-screen production of Our Town, which was done on Broadway for Showtime and PBS. It’s here, and I’ve now recommended it to a lot of people because it is just terrific–a very different experience from our English class read aloud experience of the play in, what, tenth grade.

So what’s the point? Well, I’m pretty sure the point now goes well beyond binging on House of Cards (oy!), or Breaking Bad (not for me, either), or more than 250 original episodes of Mission: Impossible or Mary Tyler Moore or any number of other old TV series. There is a spectacular range of interesting programs now available, for free or at very reasonable prices, programs and films that you can watch on any device, on your own time. The only problem: it’s tough to know what’s available because (sorry to hammer this) House of Cards and its kinfolk get too much of the press. So here’s my attempt to shift the course of that river, one TV set at a time.

Why Netflix won’t become a TV channel

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Netflix is bidding against HBO and AMC for a new TV series, House of Cards. It’s a drama starring Kevin Spacey, directed by David Fincher (The Social Network) that will cost about $4-6 million per episode (high, for series) with an apparently unheard-of two-season upfront commitment.

Is Netflix starting a TV channel? Nope. They’re smarter than that.

For Netflix, there are two key success metrics. One is subscriber count (20 million as of December, 2010). The other is dollars per subscriber per month. In 2010, more Netflix customers paid $7.99 per month for unlimited streaming than $9.99 per month or more for by-mail DVDs.

Which means: Netflix must press hard to find–and keep–their online customers. Increasingly, motion pictures and TV series are available from lots of TV, video, internet and other sources. To stay ahead, Netflix needs its own stuff. But they don’t need to offer a 24/7 channel. Instead, their relationship with customers is based entirely upon on-demand viewing–anytime, anywhere, any device, etc.

Which means: in some ways, Netflix is establishing a new model. USA Network, AMC, HBO–these companies program TV channels first, and offer programs on various platforms second. By focusing on the ways we’re all learning to use our iPads, phones, etc., Netflix is jumping over the old linear TV model. And if they have the right programs–always the biggest possible “if”–they may succeed, and cause some damage to competitors. If they flop, only industry insiders will notice. Netflix’s customers will just continue to happily stream movies and TV shows, unaffected by this particular adventure.

http://www.deadline.com/2011/03/netflix-to-enter-original-programming-with-mega-deal-for-david-fincher-kevin-spacey-drama-series-house-of-cards/

http://www.csmonitor.com/Innovation/Horizons/2011/0316/Netflix-The-next-HBO

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