The media world is going ga-ga over the prospect of Netflix possibly getting into the business of transmitting original high-end programming, raising the notion of the red-envelope company transforming itself into the HBO of the broadband video set. Yet for all the heated talk of a possible "Netflix original," this high-flying tech firm could still run into the same old problems that have snagged other purveyors of TV favorites for decades.
Yes, the merest whiff of speculation about Netflix picking up a Kevin Spacey-and-David-Fincher-backed series from studio Media Rights Capital called "House of Cards" is getting everyone hot and bothered. The Wall Street Journal's Deal Blog recently posted the headline "Netflix: Hollywood's Worst Nightmare," even though Netflix has yet to confirm 80-skate different blog reports and other journalistic dispatches surrounding this affair.
Keep in mind this simple fact: Among broadcast networks, nearly 80% of new programs fail. You can count on 10 hands the number of high-falutin projects coming out of Hollywood's boob-tube assembly line that have missed the mark -- remember CBS's "Bette" sitcom starring Bette Midler? NBC's General Motors-supported spy drama "Your Own Worst Enemy," featuring Christian Slater? How about this season's flop "Lone Star" on Fox, once touted as the must-see drama of 2010? Cable networks can keep something on the air a little longer, but they, too, won't hesitate to yank a series if a substantial fan base doesn't cotton to it pretty quickly, prestige be damned. Fare thee well, AMC's "Rubicon."
What we mean to say is this: Quality and big names are no guarantee of a show's success, or of the success of a backer of that show, for that matter.
You also have to take into account that Netflix would have to promote the program in an entirely different fashion than any TV network, a process that could work to the company's detriment. Sure, Netflix has more than 20 million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada -- a nice number, but one that falls short of the weekly audience for a single episode of Fox's "American Idol" or even CBS's "NCIS."
Now add this to the stew: Netflix's viewership watches different pieces of programing at different times. The bulk of the TV networks' audience watches the same show at the same time (to be sure, a good number are now watching shows on computer and DVR at different times as well). What we mean to show is Netflix's big challenge of having to promote a new, original series virtually one-on-one -- advertising the program to individual viewers, rather than an audience base tuning in en masse. That's not easy to do -- and seems even more daunting when you consider the fact that even shows that get promoted during a big-ticket sports broadcast sometimes fall flat on their face. After all, for all the promos that run on NBC's high-rated "Sunday Night Football" broadcasts, you'd think the network would have more hits on its air.
There's another wrinkle. Media Rights Capital, the studio behind "House of Cards," has had a mixed record on TV. Yes, the company has produced some successful and critically acclaimed material for both the big and small screens. Even so, MRC was the company that the CW turned to back in the 2008-2009 TV season to help it program Sunday nights, then a true thorn in the network's side. MRC's portfolio of programs -- shows with names such as "Easy Money" and "In Harm's Way" -- were "below expectations," CW Chief Operating Officer John D. Maata wrote in a note to affiliates just a few weeks after the programs debuted on CW. CW opted to air reruns of old shows and old movies in the programs' stead.
Netflix's ability to create a new market and pipeline in just the space of a few years is admirable and, honestly, worthy of hype. Yet as the company ponders changing itself from a distributor of content to a producer of same, it will face the same bumps that more experienced outlets wrestle with every day.
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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter: @bristei.