News Column

Network Previews Reveal Genius of Netflix

May 19, 2013


Last week's "upfronts," the big five networks' announcements of what will grace their prime-time schedules for the 2013-14 season, included a fair number of solid prospects for repeat viewing, including the Rebel Wilson-led ABC comedy "Super Fun Night" and NBC's "Dracula" and "The Blacklist."

But the promising series pilots that the networks left on the table -- and the reasons why they passed on them -- speak volumes about why their programming model might be on the way out, and why the streaming services have an opportunity to completely change the game.

Take, for instance, "Super Clyde," a comedy about a fast-food employee played by Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley in the "Harry Potter" films) who decides to moonlight as a superhero. According to Entertainment Weekly, CBS passed on "Super Clyde" because it did not match tonally or thematically with anything else on its schedule. The network's programmers have proved masterful at aggregating similar shows together for maximum nightly viewer retention, and "Super Clyde" was the odd man out. This does not seem to matter much at the cable level, and it's completely immaterial at Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime.

Similarly, CBS passed on a title that looked like a sure thing: "Beverly Hills Cop." In this television sequel, Brandon T. Jackson plays Axel Foley's son, who also fights big-money crime for the Beverly Hills Police Department. Eddie Murphy was an executive producer and was slated for several guest appearances, and Judge Reinhold was coming back to the force, but CBS reportedly considered the pilot "too retro." Does that argument hold any water at HBO ("Boardwalk Empire," "Game of Thrones") or AMC ("Mad Men")? Does it even matter at the streaming services?

The most personally appalling instance of a network blowing it was "Mulaney," a sitcom starring fast-rising stand-up comedian and "Saturday Night Live" writer John Mulaney. This was tipped to be one of the great sitcoms of the season and possibly, as EW noted, "The next 'Seinfeld.'" But NBC, which seems to run screaming from success at almost every opportunity, is trying to build some kind of "family sitcom" strategy. NBC seems to be trying to recreate the success they enjoyed under good king Brandon Tartikoff in the 1980s, but this is not a time for "Silver Spoons"/"Family Ties" simplicity. And have they paid attention to what Louis C.K. is doing at FX? The farther north you go on the cable listings, the more history is being made. "Mulaney" could have been part of that.

Sunday, Netflix will begin what could be a teachable moment about the dangers of the networks moving too far into the middle on their programming strategies. "Arrested Development," a series that was deeply beloved by its small-but-faithful audience over the course of three seasons but was handled so dismissively by Fox that the network scheduled the series finale up against the opening of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, debuts its belated fourth season on Netflix. All 15 episodes land at once on Sunday, all ready for consumption at individual paces or rabid binge viewing.

Netflix and its streaming ilk do not worry about a series being just like everything else on its schedule. These services are looking for things that will get people excited and pull eyeballs toward their streaming hubs, while the networks seem to be basing their programming around pre-DVR, pre-Internet models. Netflix might not reveal how many people watch the fourth season of "Arrested Development" and, based on the service's behavior following the release of "House of Cards" and "Hemlock Grove," it probably will keep actual numbers close to the vest. My guess is that Netflix is about to find out that there's always money in the banana stand.


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