1000 hours of TV

Netflix and entertainment inflation

DECEMBER 7TH, 2016 — POST 331

There’s no such thing as “peak TV”. FX CEO John Landgraf said in 2015 that we had reached the saturation point for televisual content. Earlier this year, he revised his prediction: the “peak” will come in 2017. With the recent phenomenon that was Westworld, as well as popular releases this year that included Stranger Things and Atlanta, it seems we might need to push this prediction back a little. If we want to take Landgraf’s word for it and it does come next year, there’ll be one company to blame. Variety this week reported on Netflix’s plan for next year, a plan that includes the addition of 20 unscripted series (an obvious choice) and will see their original portfolio grow to 1000 hours. You’d need to spend almost 3 hours a day watching Netflix in 2017 if you wanted to see it all.

In terms of scale of original production, the kind for which the video streaming monolith has become most notable, no one can hold a candle to Netflix. But at the same time, no one can hold a candle to their scale of distribution either. The other key players in TV production — HBO, FX, Showtime, AMC — simply don’t stand on their own legs if they stand in countries outside the U.S. at all. Whilst Netflix is able to serve customers their original content directly, all the other players that matter are funneled into local cable packages that severely kneecap their reach and money-making potential. Even if HBO or FX could court the kind of money Silicon Valley investment brings with it to keep pace with production, they probably wouldn’t have much capacity to turn enough revenue to recoup it because of this limited reach in distribution.

But even if he could produce and distribute at Netflix’s scale, Landgraf wouldn’t want to. Because, after all, he’s adamant in his belief that quantity cannot usurp quality — and that at Netflix’s quantity, quality has to suffer. As Landgraf said at the Television Critics Association earlier this year:

“You could give me all the money in the world, and I still couldn’t personally supervise 71 shows and give each series the attention it needed.”

Whilst most consumers won’t be persuaded much by the economic potency of Netflix’s scale, the real threat such scale poses is a devaluing of entertainment content, one where a single series becomes inherently less satisfying and as such a consumer is driven to consume more to get their fill. Much like how the inflation of monetary currency lowers the value of a single currency unit, the fear is that a single unit of entertainment currency (in this case, a single series) becomes worth-less.

Amazon’s The Grand Tour is a particularly pertinent case. Many, myself included, hoped the series would be destined to prove the viability of creative freedom and meritocracy that the glut of streaming-originals embody. With hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May “saved” from one of the most historic (and arguably autocratic) entertainment providers in the BBC, The Grand Tour ought to have proven that steaming simply can do it better, that the quantity/quality argument doesn’t hold much water. But whether through a lack of executive oversight, a fetishisation of the storied hosts, or the loss of institutional knowhow in the series’ “migration” from BBC’s Top Gear, The Grand Tour increasingly looks unarguably bad.

There is a sense in which Landgraf’s fearmongering shoots from a bunker of elitism, however. Just like it’s pretty obvious that Netflix’s horrible talent-driven comedies aren’t for “us” but could very well be for someone, it’s not much of a stretch to claim the same about all manner of the “merely competent” (Landgraf’s words) TV that gets floated onto these services. Landgraf’s responsibilities at FX as far as quality is concerned is to deliver series of a standard consistent with a U.S.-based cable subscribing audience (and kind of an Anglophone-based cable subscribing audience in countries like the UK, Canada, and Australia). This is certainly far smaller than the audience Netflix currently serves or that which Amazon has clear intentions of serving. It might then be the case that any one TV series isn’t being devalued by this scale, but rather allowed to exist within specific value structures that aren’t familiar.

For example, as Netflix Content Chief Ted Sarandos says about the upcoming Sylvester Stallone unscripted series Ultimate Beastmaster (a show that by the title, I can guess wouldn’t be like to rank highly in our value structure):

“When Beastmaster hits in Korea, they’ll never have seen anything like it.”

Netflix’s scale, then, is actually the only thing protecting the quality of the narrow slate of series “we” praise — Stranger Things, House of Cards, Amanda Knox. If they weren’t delivering at such scale, there would be reason to expect more shows to pander cross-culturally, pander to markets where Netflix wants to expand. Look at feature films: as budgets climb higher and produce fewer movies, the lure of a growing Chinese market often turns Western movies into things we don’t much care for (or distorts their content). Right now, there seems a category of features “we” simply can’t have because of the influence of a market that isn’t our own. Available in over 190 countries, no one would seem to be more susceptible to the influence on non-native markets than Netflix. So whilst they will add a bunch of stuff that to our eyes looks mediocre-to-bad, we can look at that as padding: reasons for other countries to get on board and keep money flowing through the company, money that we can reliably expect will funnel into at least a small handful of series each year that we would consider great.

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