As some of you are already well aware, I’ve spent the last year or so working on a book about the rise and fall (and pending rebirth) of the ABC daytime drama One Life to Live. My main reason for embarking on this project was to highlight the truly unusual experience of working on a five-day-a-week scripted series, as well as the series of small miracles it takes to produce affecting entertainment under grueling time and budget constraints, but it goes beyond that; I’ve also watched soaps’ dwindling presence on the TV dial with the growing fear that they could be a sort of canary in the coalmine for scripted entertainment in general.
That might seem like a silly thing to say about a medium nobody takes seriously, but daytime serials have been at the vanguard for a long time now — they demonstrated the viability of serialized TV long before anyone else thought to take a stab at it, and they were among the first shows to suffer when cable and the web started slicing and dicing a formerly captive monoculture into infinite niche audiences. As their margins fade and the bottom line looms larger, the networks need shows to be cheaper, and they no longer care as much about pretending to fulfill any sort of obligation to entertain. What happens when even reality TV is “too expensive” to produce?
I’ve worried about what these questions mean for American pop culture in general, but I didn’t take something else into account: The way the rise of subscriber-driven “walled garden” companies like Netflix could upend the mass media paradigm by not only redefining the concept of a “hit,” but doing away with it altogether.
Media junkies are already well aware the audience is fractured. Music fans have been joking for years about how little it really takes to top the Billboard charts most weeks, and the Nielsen ratings are no different; a quick look at the estimated audience for the top-rated show in 1986 vs. 1998 is enough to show you that trying to entertain by consensus has been a losing battle for decades. Most mass media companies have reacted to this by cutting down on the number of releases they’re willing to pay for, and aggressively seeking to broaden the appeal of the ones that do make it to market, but that’s often had the unsurprising effect of making the results too bland to enjoy.
It’s a dumb approach to a problem that isn’t going away, but when it comes to the major TV networks, there’s no real alternative yet; they depend on ad dollars to stay afloat, and those revenues have long been tied to how well their programming does with specific demographic groups. As it stands, they’re simply not equipped to make full use of emerging technologies to offset their shrinking traditional ratings — both because the metrics for measuring those ratings are outdated and because improving them won’t matter until ad delivery methods catch up to the audience.
All of which is why I’m so eager to see how House of Cards, Netflix’s $100 million investment in original content, plays out. In terms of going from a passive conduit for pre-existing media to a source of new entertainment, they’re obviously following in the footsteps of HBO and Showtime — but because you don’t have to be a premium cable subscriber to access their wares, the audience barrier is much lower. I don’t know what the company’s break-even point is on something like House of Cards, but at $7.99 a month, a Netflix subscription is something close to an impulse buy, and it’s easy to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which enough Cards-type production deals entice enough new subscribers to turn them into a bona fide “channel” in the 21st-century sense of the word, with something like a full slate of on-demand programming to go along with all their licensed films and TV shows.
Living on the Internet, and depending on subscribers rather than ad revenue, means Netflix is uniquely positioned to change a lot of things. Not only can they “air” their series however they wish, they get to define “success” however they like — which means they can do something like, say, releasing the entire first season of House of Cards on the same day, triggering eulogies for the golden age of television, and they don’t have to worry about ratings. The vast majority of its (current) $7.99/month accounts might have been opened in order to gain easy access to the other stuff Netflix has licensed, but they also effectively gave the company a license to curate new content, and it’s kind of thrilling to watch them do it.
Obviously, a $100 million investment in anything is a risk, but again, their Internet roots allow Netflix to know more about their users’ behavior than a traditional “network.” Rather than depending on Nielsens and focus groups for feedback, they can parse viewership data down to the second and tailor their content thusly. It’s an approach that’s already worrying some pundits, but it doesn’t bother me yet — and what might interest me most of all is the company’s (almost) totally opaque approach to Cards’ ratings. Netflix obviously has its own reasons for this, and I’m sure none of them are altruistic, but by making us question how we’ll know whether the show is a hit, they could be opening the door to a mass media landscape in which the concept of a “hit” evolves beyond recognition — or hell, dies off completely.
Okay, so maybe that last bit is science fiction, but I hope you’ll forgive me a bit of excitement — where it once looked like the death of the monoculture would lead to a reality show-dominated hellscape in which screenwriters have gone the way of the cobbler, the original-content arms race between Netflix and Amazon seems like it might actually point the way to a brave new world where even if our media consumption habits are hopelessly divided, our aggregate strength as subscribers is enough to squeeze highly potent entertainment out of the companies that need our money to survive.
At the moment, it’s still an evolving system, and it’s far from perfect; as Will Arnett recently pointed out, Netflix’s deal to produce new episodes of Arrested Development included some worrisome concessions for the actors. And as for whether this model will ever be strong enough to support a medium like soaps, in which characters can continue producing stories for decades and across generations? It seems unlikely. But hey, you never know — and with One Life to Live and All My Children set to rise again as Web-based series this spring, we’ll soon have a chance to find out.