It’s television upfronts this week, the time every year when the broadcast networks announce which lucky shows have earned subsequent seasons, which unfortunates are getting cancelled, and most importantly, which of the many new projects in development will be going forward—and then try to convince advertisers that they should be excited to buy ad spots in these new and returning shows, and to be part of a new, rearranged schedule.
The enthusiasm the network executives will display at their presentations to advertisers, and the amusing site of actors like Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman dressing up as their dueling liberal and libertarian characters from Parks and Recreation to do schedule announcements, is deceptive. Many of the shows that are being presented as the next great thing will prove to be creative or commercial failures: NBC, for example, cancelled almost all of the shiny new shows it offered up to advertisers and to viewers with such great hope last fall, and is starting over with shows like a sitcom from Michael J. Fox and a drama starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Dracula. And the fancy presentations and celebratory air at the upfronts disguises that the process by which the networks select which new shows they’re moving forward with is hugely expensive and exhausting. The networks may put as many as 100 shows into development, going through the process of writing the pilots, casting actors for them, pulling together sets and wardrobes for those actors to work with (or investing in special effects), shooting said pilots, testing them extensively in front of audiences, and then making their choices. It costs an awful lot of money, and leaves a lot of people waiting a long time to learn if they’ll have jobs.
Last week, when I spoke with Kevin Spacey, who stars as villainous Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood in Netflix’s adaptation of the British series House of Cards, one of the reasons he mentioned for wanting to work with Netflix rather than another outlet was the way Netflix approached the development process.
“What was great that they were the only network that said ‘You don’t have to do a pilot,'” he said. “Because David Fincher and I really didn’t want to do a pilot, because when you do a pilot, you’re kind of obligated to spend 45 minutes establishing all of the characters. And we didn’t want to do that. We just wanted to get on with telling a story, and tell a story over a long period of time. And they said ‘We believe in you, we believe in David, we love this series from Britain. How many do you want to do?’ And we were like, ‘Um, two seasons?’ And they were like ‘Okay!’ It was a risk on their part, but they’ve been great partners.”
What’s striking about Spacey’s description of the development process with Netflix isn’t just that he and Fincher were excused from shooting a narratively conventional pilot that pushed back storytelling in favor of character development, but that Netflix, unlike other networks, was able to make decisions quickly, and to offer Spacey and Fincher significant commitments up-front.
We’ve already seem some networks make similar concessions to large stars they’re eager to get on their airwaves. Fox, for example, decided to shorten the run of The Following to accomodate Kevin Bacon, who stars in the serial killer show as FBI agent Ryan Hardy, and who was reluctant to commit to the rigors of a standard 22-episode season. And Amazon has adopted an approach that’s similar to the ones that the networks have to decide what its first crop of original programming will be, but making the process of focus-testing rather more transparent. Amazon puts its crop of pilots online, and has said it will use some combination of audience feedback and the rates at which the pilots are viewed—though it hasn’t specified exactly which combination—to determine which it will develop as full series. But even as the established networks try to make some accommodations to land bigger talent, and alternative outlets like Amazon try to protect themselves from the dangers of gambling big on programs that their executives like, but that haven’t been tested with audiences (Netflix, for example, spent $100 million on two seasons of House of Cards, a figure that’s not out of line with network spending on a drama), the alternative outlets seem likely to remain more nimble than their network competitors.
There are a number of reasons for that flexibility. Amazon and Netflix don’t have to sell advertising, meaning that they can greenlight shows based on the extensive proprietary data they already have about what their viewers like in scripted programming, without having to try to triage the interests of both viewers and advertisers. Hulu, which sells both advertising and subscriptions, can balance what they think will bring in passionate viewers, and what will attract advertisers. Additionally, Hulu’s interactive tool, which lets viewers tell the service whether ads are relevant to them or not, can help advertisers place spots more effectively than the networks. Alternative outlets also aren’t restricted by the tyranny of timeslots. They can order as much or as little programming as they like without worrying that picking one show means not going forward with another, or without anxiety about how their shows will fare in specific timeslots, flow together with their existing programming, or play against programming on other networks. The elimination of those restrictions gives alternative outlets enormous freedom that’s unavailable to network television—and an enormous comparative advantage when it comes to attracting the kind of talent who can make subscribers decide to pony up for a service.
“I’ve been talking about and believing for about eight years that this was going to be the future,” Spacey told me. “If you look at these companies like Google, or YouTube, or UStream, or Netflix, these companies that have made a tremendous amount of money as portals for content, that eventually if they’re going to want to compete, they’re going to want to start creating their own content.” But what makes the alternative outlets threats to broadcast television in particular isn’t just that they’re in the game at all. It’s the way they’ll be able to play it.