TCA Journal No. 2: Netflix, Weird Outsider

It's not cable. It's not broadcast. But it's TV. And here to stay.
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Sarandos and Netflix. Sorry, you're not on the list.

THR's chief television critic Tim Goodman will be doing a number of these journals from the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena. He'll also be tweeting nonstop. And writing reviews.

Last night I noted, looking at the schedule for Day 1 of TCA, that Netflix was going to kick things off by walking into the cable portion of the press tour. Like a boss.

The reason for that notation is that if you were a critic or a reporter looking at the cable schedule you wouldn't see Netflix's nearly three-hour appearance listed (it was noted separately, on the TCA's own website).

The point is, lots of people who cover the industry (and people inside the industry) don't know what to do with or what to call Netflix — it's not a cable channel, so that implied nose-in-the-air, you're-not-one-of-us listing snub was understandable. And for people who cover the industry there's still this loose, nonstandard description of it as an "online content provider" or "streaming service." It sounds as if Netflix itself likes "digital company," though it's far from poetic.

There's also, for TV reporters and some critics (and seemingly every executive in the industry who does not work for Netflix), this annoying element to the digital company in that it won't release ratings numbers. This drives reporters (and the those aforementioned rival executives) batshit crazy. The reason is that when Ted Sarandos, who is chief content officer — aka The Guy With the Vision — for Netflix says that Orange Is the New Black or House of Cards is a huge hit, nobody knows for sure whether he's spinning things like a huckster because he's not producing those notoriously reliable Nielsen numbers to soothe us.

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I get that. I get that maybe he shouldn't have it both ways — if you're not going to show proof that people are actually watching Marco Polo, then don't come out and say it's doing great. I think cynicism there is warranted. On the other hand, as a critic, ratings are the last thing I care about. I mean, sure, if I end up loving a broadcast or ad-supported cable show — it's possible, people — then it would be disappointing to have it canceled after one season. But when I'm writing a review of a series, the content is the only thing I care about. Whether the show is good or not is the point; whether it will find an audience is irrelevant in the moment.

And this hostility toward Netflix over the ratings seems an oddly business-like approach to art. Who cares if Netflix isn't making money? If the company — digital company — pours money into seven or eight more shows like House of Cards (just as an example) and then files for bankruptcy because their business model doesn't work, it's not your money. I'm more interested in Netflix being in the original series business and less interested in whether anyone other than myself and five friends is watching.

So here we are, Day 1 of what I call the Death March With Cocktails, and the rapidly changing nature of television stands up immediately and says, "Hey, I'm here! I just jumped the line."

Show us your ratings!

"Bo-ring."

Netflix's existence got exponentially more interesting when Amazon Studios got involved because, like Netflix, it too is a "digital company" albeit with a shit-ton more money. As Amazon has become keenly more interested in making television as an aside to selling you "free" two-day shipping, its Studios is doing fine work (see: Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle). When Amazon Studios made its first TCA appearance it was treated by many like a curio. But our shifting definition of "television" really boils down to, "You are not your building. You are your content." So I'll take anything that's good from Amazon Studios and Hulu and Netflix and not care about its institutional pedigree, whether it gets listed on the TCA cable schedule or, for that matter, how many people see it or if Sarandos loses money while making it. Reminder: Not my money.

I'm OK with a guy and a company — a digital company — that was there to take Tina Fey's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt from NBC, which made and owns the show but ultimately believed it would do better on Netflix. That's a public service. That's a kitten rescue right there.

NBC gets something out of the deal and Netflix gets something out of the deal and because the show is funny and Fey brilliant, viewers get something out of the deal.

Had Netflix not existed, you wouldn't have received this deal.

When NBC thinks it's going to have trouble launching a Tina Fey comedy, something's broken. When NBC, a broadcast network, thinks one of its own shows will do better not on a broadcast network, that is saying something (something people involved have graciously declined to articulate with the kind of horrified honesty I was hoping for).

Netflix also picked up Longmire for more seasons and, most famously, Arrested Development before that. Sarandos said there's no hard or fast rules about picking up network or cable leftovers. It's about being "opportunistic," he said. See, that's new-school thinking. If it's going to work for Netflix and its viewers, why not pick it up? Rarely do broadcast networks or cable companies pick up someone else's sloppy seconds, no matter if it makes programming (or common) sense. Those are old-school rules.

And that school is not only out of session, it's been torn down to make way for server farms.

So maybe we should be less judgy about digital and where it fits, shall we?

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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