Five lessons Netflix can learn from HBO
In the move to create its own content, the rental giant can follow cable’s example.
Pundits are a-twitter over the news that Netflix beat out major cable networks to provide a home for David Fincher and Kevin Spacey’s series House of Cards, a political thriller inspired by the rush to succeed Margaret Thatcher. The show isn’t quite Netflix’s first foray into programming—from 2006 to 2008, the company distributed theatrical releases like Sherrybaby and Helvetica through its Red Envelope Entertainment label. But it’s the first time the rental giant has bypassed conventional release channels entirely. Because Cards will stream through Netflix Watch Instantly, even the phrase “TV series” seems inaccurate.
Is this the wave of the future? Industry insiders compare the move to HBO’s push from being a content provider to a creator of its own high-profile programming. And just because Netflix is venturing into untested waters doesn’t mean it can’t learn a few lessons from Home Box Office.
1. Take advantage of timing.
In releasing a political series during the 2012 election season, Netflix is actually following in the footsteps of Robert Altman’s mockumentary series Tanner ’88, which aired on HBO as Bush and Dukakis were slugging it out on the campaign trail. Timeliness helps to sell a series, of course, but Netflix also has the advantage of its potential to change when people watch new shows, and in what quantities. That model began to change with HBO on Demand, among others. (How many viewers played marathon catch-up with The Sopranos and The Wire, as opposed to watching each episode as it aired?) With streaming video, it’s possible that the days of seeing only one episode per week are numbered.
2. Don’t think of yourselves as second-class—hire the right talent.
Netflix seems to have already figured this part out. Even in its first big decade of programming, HBO had a history of working with major talent: Beyond Altman, the network collaborated with Jim Henson (Fraggle Rock), Robert Zemeckis and Walter Hill (Tales from the Crypt) and Carl Franklin (Laurel Avenue). In-house movies like And the Band Played On assembled all-star casts.
3. Past success is no guarantee of future success (unless it is).
Know when to fold. We’re suggesting this selfishly, of course, because we don’t want Fincher to spend the rest of his career directing movies for laptops. But a lot of great programming is a one-and-done affair: Just because David Milch’s Deadwood developed a following didn’t guarantee success for his John from Cincinnati, canceled ignominiously after one season. That said, fans of JFC argue that the show wasn’t given enough time to find a viewership, and the relatively easy means by which Netflix could leave episodes online—it’s not as though it requires giving up a prime-time spot—suggest there’s new potential for more rarefied programming to cultivate a cult following.
4. Be provocative.
Part of HBO’s initial appeal was that its content wasn’t censored. Netflix already streams plenty of movies that are too hot for Hulu, but a steady supply of edgy material is a must if the company wants to build a brand. So bring in someone like Steven Soderbergh (who worked with HBO on K Street and Unscripted) on a contract basis—we hear he’s retiring from film.
5. Reality bites (but sells—at least on TV).
Netflix’s model works only if it can find a way to get subscribers to pay a premium—it seems hard to believe that a significant number of people who aren’t already on Netflix would sign up just to see House of Cards. If the model goes south financially, there’s always reality programming, a reliable cash cow on TV (in part because it plays so well while channel surfing). If House of Cards doesn’t work out, Netflix should launch its own equivalent of Taxicab Confessions. May we suggest a partnership with Chatroulette?