Critic's Notebook: Has Anyone Noticed That the TV Industry Has Lost Its Shit Lately?

From Netflix to FX, nobody is standing still on this shaky ground.
Courtesy of Apple
Just wait until that screen is filled with Apple's own shows.

 

At this point in the daily earthquake world of the television industry, it's advisable to not look away for too long. You might not recognize the ground when you look back.

Recent news suggests that Amazon Studios has been told to stop messing around with F. Scott Fitzgerald and go get some George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones-type action. In other words, Jeff Bezos, the head of all of Amazon, is asking Roy Price, the head of the TV and movie division, to go in the backyard and lasso that unicorn over by the gerbera daisies.

Who doesn't love magical thinking?

And over at Netflix, where they have historically spread around more money than entire networks make in a year, the bleep-bleeping CFO told Wall Street that "we might be to the point where me might start seeing more budget constraint." If financial spinning is not your thing, that's a little like President Trump telling General Kelly that he might be at a point where the chief of staff might see the president stop tweeting so much.

So Amazon has a mandate to stop throwing $80 million at Woody Allen for six scoops of vanilla ice cream and to cease making boring costume dramas with actors nobody really cares about, and instead try to find the next worldwide hit. And Netflix will not only stop printing money in a back room and gloating about it to broke-ass niche cable channels, but it will also likely keep an eye on the bottom line, a revelation that comes not long after Disney said it's going to stop storing its content at Netflix in 2019 and open Disneyflix or some such thing for all of its Star Wars, Pixar and ginormous Disney vault stuff.

Five or six pages back in that issue of Crazy Industry Times, you might have read that FX has created its own no-commercial streaming service, which is what AMC just did as well — oh, but don't worry, both purveyors of prestige scripted series are still committed to the linear cable model, aka the coal industry.

Nothing to see here. Keep moving. Another boring week in the world of television.

Not long ago I had drinks with a very savvy veteran TV executive who scoffed at the idea that Netflix could keep planting flags all over the globe and using cash from new foreign subscribers to fuel its wildly excessive content spending. At some point, this person said, a publicly traded company always hears from smart investors who believe more in market saturation than in the concept of infinity, and that's when "budget constraint" becomes a thing.

Our own THR story reported that David Wells, Netflix's CFO, speaking at something called the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference in New York, said his company's content budget would not be an issue so long as the "topline" growth of Netflix continued — but that topline growth is essentially growth in worldwide subscribers, which brings the conversation back to the giddy TV exec who was toasting to Netflix being annoyed by bean counters.

All of this is happening, by the way, just days before Hulu — the perennial underdog in the streaming world — might just kick everybody's ass at the Emmys with The Handmaid's Tale. Isn't it odd that Hulu is considered the cheap content spender because it's only going to put $2.5 billion — yes, that's a "b" — into buying new stuff while Amazon Studios puts something like $4.5 billion toward it and Netflix, when David Wells is not looking, is putting anywhere from $6 billion to $7 billion into glitzy new things? Those stingy Hulu bastards!

Of course, that's $2.5 billion domestic. Unlike Netflix and Amazon, Hulu is not an international player. Yeah, who's cheap now, bitches?

Let's just go ahead and say that on Sunday, Hulu kills it with Emmy wins. It's a pretty safe bet that HBO is also going to do well, poverty-stricken losers though they are.

Will Monday be happy time at Amazon and Netflix? Who knows? And who cares because there's an even better, more sublime element to all of this, a twist you knew was coming: On Emmy night, rabbit ear antennas will be jutting outside that spaceship in Cupertino, trying to pick up a fuzzy picture of Stephen Colbert congratulating all the winners at the Emmys.

Ah, to be at Apple Park while Eddy Cue tells a handful of secret aliens that in two years a huge chunk of that hardware will be theirs.

Yeah, Apple is in the TV game already. And if you haven't yet figured out that's got Netflix and Amazon and Hulu thinking a little bit about how many zeros to put on a check for content, you are lying to your own face. And that look has been recognized on your new iPhone X!

Just thinking about all of this tumult is as sentimentally heartwarming as when Cersei Lannister told all the other houses to go get their asses eaten by the dead and she'll mop up whoever's left. Think about these giddy times we live in, as of, say, last week: Amazon is revamping its strategy as its boss is demanding a worldwide hit, not some twee costume drama about Zelda Fitzgerald. Netflix is talking openly about budget constraints. Both streamers are canceling series. Meanwhile, streaming gnat Hulu might be a much bigger threat than most realized, especially after Sunday. In less than two years Disney is going to get in your wallet no matter what you're saying now. All three premium cable channels — HBO, Showtime and Starz, have an OTT component that grows bigger every week. And out there in the hamburger hills of ad-supported cable, prestige players like FX and AMC are about to seriously complicate your skinny-bundle decisions.

That's not all of it, of course, this industry craziness. But it's a lot. Next week Oprah could buy NBC. The point is, don't sleep on the TV industry if you like crazy, because next week just might be more disruptive than last month.

comments powered by Disqus