If a show debuts without a premiere, will anyone watch it? That’s the multi-million-dollar koan Netflix is looking to answer. And fast.
Earlier this week Netflix debuted Lilyhammer, its first original series. Yet there was no premiere episode. It went online Monday morning, almost at random and without much fanfare, the day after the Super Bowl. The series has not been promoted on Netflix.com’s homepage, nor in its apps. Lilyhammer, with a grimacing Steve Van Zandt on its cover tile, isn’t even found in the “new arrivals” section for TV shows.
And maybe that’s because Lilyhammer isn’t a television show. The series was designed for the web, part of a larger original content strategy to compete with networks such as HBO. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said the company will spend as much as 15% of its content budget on original streaming content; to produce House of Cards, for example, Netflix is reportedly sinking $100 million into the new David Fincher-helmed series. Lilyhammer, the first result of Netflix’s new licensing game plan, demonstrates what a radical departure the show is from traditional television–not only in the way it’s promoted but what it’s intended to do.
Perhaps the most jarring (and pleasing) change from traditional TV shows is that Lilyhammer is available all at once. Rather than tease out the show, episode after episode over the course of several months, viewers can consume the entire first season of the series in about seven hours. “The Netfix brand for TV shows is really all about binge viewing,” Hastings said in a recent earnings call. “The ability to get hooked and watch episode after episode. Our release strategy … is to get [you] hooked rather than get strung out.” It’s like letting your kids ravenously open the Christmas gifts in one Tasmanian Devil-tornado of wrapping paper, rather than one by one, with a appreciative nod for each relative present.
There are pros and cons to this strategy. On the one hand, it’s killed the traditional practice of weekly installments; premieres and finales are no longer anticipated events. That means it’ll be difficult to build buzz and engagement for the show in any planned fashion. How will New York magazine’s Vulture and other entertainment blogs roll out their TV recaps for Lilyhammer–all at once? How will viewers live tweet during an episode if nobody is watching at the same time? How will this affect water-cooler chatter if there’s no common ‘morning-after’ for coworkers to discuss a particular week’s episode? And how will any show released all at once ever build suspense with a national audience, if anyone can skip to the final episode? (Imagine, for instance, if Lost was available in its entirety. Eek. Spoiler central.)
On the other hand, there are benefits to this strategy. For one, it changes the traditional metrics by which a show’s success is judged. Netflix isn’t trying to win a time slot, and it’s not keeping score by nightly ratings or worried about DVR recordings. The company has said it will judge a series’ success based on cumulative views versus total costs; how much it attracts new subscribers; and whether or not it bolsters the Netflix brand. That means a show won’t live or die by a the number of viewers who turn into a pilot–shows will be given more time to grow and build an audience. House of Cards, for example, has already been licensed for several seasons.
“What’s unique about this initiative is we’re not really wrapped up in having a big opening and a big debut in terms of ratings,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told Co.Create this week. “It’s not differentially important to me that anyone watches this show at any certain time. People will be discovering this show for the first time over the next several years, the same way they’re discovering Mad Men for the first time on Netflix today.
It’s a strategy partly influenced by Firefly, the extremely popular Fox series that was canceled to the disappointment of audiences after just 11 episodes. Netflix executives have repeatedly referenced the show as an example of how viewership is fostered over time–some have even surmised that Netflix might even resurrect Firefly, as they have with Arrested Development. (Here’s hoping Deadwood and Friday Night Lights are next on that list. Personal note: I miss you, Al Swearengen and Tim Riggins!)
Most importantly, Lilyhammer shows how Netflix plans to promote the show: by marketing Netflix. The company isn’t using the opportunity to promote some time slot or opportunity for advertisers. Paid media popping up around lower Manhattan have touted the show as a “Netflix original series.” In the New York Times‘ review of the series, the Grey Lady, likely for the first time in its TV summaries, said the show would be available “on Netflix.com beginning Monday.” (Compare that to ABC’s new series, The River, which the Times said would be available “Tuesday nights at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.”)
The idea is to use Lilyhammer as an opportunity to market Netflix’s streaming offerings–to show off how subscribers gain unlimited, all-you-can-watch access to the series, as they can with tons of other shows and movies. It’s a strategy that’s been adopted by HBO, which now features just about every episode of every original series the cable network’s ever created (with rare exceptions, so far as I can tell, such as House of Saddam).
The more series that Netflix adds–and the more seasons it adds on top of that–the more it’ll rival HBO’s and other networks’ libraries of content, original and otherwise.
[Image: Thomas Ekström/Nettavisen]