'Patriot Act' Co-Creator on Challenges of Making a Streaming Talk Show

Cara Howe/Netflix
Hasan Minhaj on 'Patriot Act'

During a panel at last weekend's Produced By: New York conference, Prashanth Venkataramanujam discussed creating a series without an airtime and dealing with the "black box" of Netflix's lack of ratings info.

Hasan Minhaj is the latest comedian trying to bring late-night laughs on a weekly basis to Netflix.

The Daily Show alum's new series, Patriot Act, which arrives on the streaming service every Sunday, bowed at the end of October, after Netflix canceled high-profile weekly offerings from hosts like Chelsea Handler, Joel McHale and Michelle Wolf.

Speaking at the Producers Guild of America's Produced By: New York conference last weekend, Minhaj's longtime collaborator and Patriot Act co-creator Prashanth Venkataramanujam opened up about some of the challenges the pair faced in making their Netflix talker.

While Patriot Act features longform segments similar to those on John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, he explained that the HBO series has something Patriot Act doesn't: an air time.

"Because they still have an air time that they have to hit, they open with topical stuff," Venkataramanujam said of Last Week Tonight's approach. "For us, because we're on demand, there's a lot of choices about how we open our show. So much of what's viewed on Netflix and on streaming is, 'Hey, I want to go back and watch something.' … We didn't want to have to add this barrier of entry where you have to watch all of these jokes about something that you have no context for anymore and then you get to the main story and it's like, 'Oh, that was the piece I was recommended to.' That was one of the challenges and one of the decisions we made for the show based on the streaming platform."

Beyond that, Venkataramanujam and Minhaj also have to deal with the "black box" of making content for Netflix, which doesn't give them ratings information, making it hard to objectively know if their show is finding an audience.

"You just don't know," Venkataramanujam said. "You're just trying to make a thing that's good, and then it goes up and you're hoping that it resonates and has an impact. We rely heavily on what’s happening online and how people respond to the show. Because we're not airing, we don't have that initial burst. People are kind of just watching the show over the next three days and we're kind of seeing the feedback trickle in. We do pay attention to it. I think because we are an internet show — we don't broadcast; it's just being put up on a website, basically — it’s important for us to have that interplay [with] our online audience, because they are the ones watching our show. They live on the internet."

One stat he and Minhaj did know going into the series was that they only had a few minutes to hook viewers.

"The way people are watching TV now, they're just making decisions really quickly about what they like, so we knew going into our first weekend that people pretty much decide if they're going to watch your show in the first three or four minutes," Venkataramanujam said. "You have to come out very, very strong to make sure that people know essentially that you're not going to waste their time. That was like the ethos of our show: Let's get to what we know how to do well and make sure viewers know we're going to give them the most amount of value we think we can provide, and then just get out of their lives and hope that they come back to us."

Venkataramanujam was joined on the panel — which was moderated by The Late Show With Stephen Colbert executive producer/showrunner Chris Licht — by fellow late-night producers Mike Shoemaker (Late Night With Seth Meyers) and Jen Flanz (The Daily Show With Trevor Noah).

Shoemaker, who previously worked on Jimmy Fallon's Late Night and spent nearly two decades as a producer on Saturday Night Live, lamented the lack of "patience" networks and viewers have had with canceled talk shows.

"I think patience is really the issue in all of these shows," the veteran producer said. "Netflix should have had more patience with Michelle Wolf, and Robin Thede's show should still be on, and Wanda Sykes' show should be on now. It takes a really long time."