If Netflix Is Going to Be Like a Cable Channel, What Will Its Network Identity Be?

When Netflix and other content distributors like Hulu and Amazon Prime announced that they were going to start producing their own content in-house, my assumption was that this was really an effort to establish a stronger bargaining position with other content producers by trying to prove that the streaming services could get along without Starz, CBS, or whoever they were negotiating with at a given moment. Now, it seems like one company, at least, might have gotten hooked on making its own content. Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings has suggested at a conference in San Francisco that Netflix will increasingly resemble a cable channel—and he’s said he might even pitch Netflix offering as part of a cable bundle.

All well and good. But given the weird combination of content Netflix has ordered up—the deeply odd mobster-in-Norway comedy Lillyhammer, an inexplicable remake of the British masterpiece House of Cards, and a revitalization of Arrested Development—it’s hard to grok what said channel’s identity would be. I wrote about this for The Atlantic last week as part of a meditation on the confused identities of both Lillyhammer and Hulu’s Battleground:

Over time, most television networks settle on what kind of programming fits their brand: NBC’s known for its quirky comedies, CBS for its bland, broadly appealing sitcoms and cop dramas, ABC is full of soap suds, while HBO goes dark and Showtime goes abrasive. Hulu and Netflix, if they continue to develop full original programming slates rather than using a few original shows as leverage to cut better deals with original content companies, will likely figure out what works for them, too.

But if Battleground and Lillyhammer are any indication, both companies pulling elements from many different kinds of shows together rather than aiming for a single demographic around which they can build an audience. It’s one thing to get people to come to your site because you get them access to everything from Sons of Anarchy to Dora The Explorer. But you’re probably not going to get all of your subscribers, or even a large number of them, to tune in to any given show. The sooner the people who deliver content recognize that, the better their original content projects will be.

Ultimately, if Netflix and Hulu are going to persuade people to subscribe on the strength of their original programming rather than their acquired content libraries, they’re probably going to have to come up with clear brands that are narrower than the scope of their acquisitions. You can’t compete with HBO, and FX, and Showtime, and Starz, and AMC all at once and do it right.