At this point, Netflix is a bit like a clothes-sale bin late in the day. There are many excellent items to be had, but you have to dig hard, rustle through the stock to find what fits. Every week, it seems, a new series or two arrives on the streaming service, on top of all those series that have made it onto Top 10 lists that you’ve been meaning to watch. It’s a crowded bin.
So I wish super-producers Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy luck with their lucrative commitments to Netflix, which is reportedly spending some $7.5 billion on content this year, up from $6 billion last year. Back in August, Rhimes forsook ABC — where she has been an MVP since her “Grey’s Anatomy” buoyed the entire primetime schedule in 2005 — and signed a multiyear Netflix deal estimated at $100 million. And now Murphy has forsaken Fox — where he has had a string of critically respected hits, including “Glee” and “American Horror Story” — and signed a multiyear Netflix deal estimated to be worth $300 million.
On one level, these deals are a plus for everyone involved, except, perhaps, ABC and Fox (although they will continue to run the Rhimes and Murphy shows they already have, including a “Grey’s” spinoff and Murphy’s drama “Pose”). Rhimes and Murphy will be swimming in cash and resources — and they won’t have to deal with commercial breaks and the desires of advertisers. Netflix will be way ahead in the corporate war for big talent, and it will have secured a stable of experienced producers. And, most likely, viewers will find that more a competitive TV market means better comedies and dramas to choose from.
And on that same positive level, Rhimes and Murphy will premiere their Netflix shows to a massive number of potential viewers. The service’s subscriber numbers just keep climbing, with global subscriptions reaching 117.6 million by the end of last year, some 54 million of them in the United States. Netflix series don’t get syndicated, but they do sit on the service seemingly forever, waiting to be discovered and rediscovered.
But both producers are running risks by putting themselves in the Netflix bin. When Netflix first started making original series, the likes of “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards” seemed to get scads of attention. Each show was singled out. Over the years though, many good original Netflix shows have been getting a little lost in the shuffle, a shuffle that includes children’s shows, Marvel series, and docuseries as well as scripted comedies and dramas. You’ve got “Narcos,” “Ozark,” “Mindhunter,” “Godless,” and “Altered Carbon,” you’ve got “Love,” “Easy,” “Dear White People,” “Atypical,” and “American Vandal,” you’ve got pickups from other networks including “Black Mirror,” “Arrested Development,” and “Longmire,” and you’ve got a growing number of foreign language series and coproductions, including “Dark,” “Alias Grace,” and “The End of the [Expletive] World.”
That’s a lot of material to pick through, unlike the more ruthlessly curated programming we find on the likes of HBO, Showtime, and FX, where each show is usually given special treatment. And of course all those Netflix shows — most of them added since 2015 — are competing with peak TV, which will see some 500 new shows released this year across all TV outlets. Occasionally, a Netflix series breaks through, like “Stranger Things,” but will series from Rhimes and Murphy be more apt to get lost at Netflix? It’s certainly easy to get lost at Fox and ABC, but still: Netflix doesn’t run commercials to promote its own shows like almost all other channels.
Also, the binge model, while popular, does reduce the amount of attention a show gets. Instead of weekly chatter about each episode, viewers watch entire seasons in a vacuum. There are no promotional bumps every week or two, where showrunners and actors appear in the media to discuss each plot twist. Murphy’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” is a good example of a show that generates interest throughout its weekly run, as each hour focuses on each of Andrew Cunanan’s different victims. On Netflix, “Versace” wouldn’t have the same build.
Netflix loves to give the people what they already want, based on the tons of data the company has about our viewing habits. Many of the shows that the streamer offers have been devised based on numbers involving genre, actors, and back catalog. So it makes perfect sense that it is now pursuing proven successes such as Rhimes and Murphy, giving subscribers what they already like watching elsewhere. Our news feeds give us what we want to hear, and Netflix gives us what we want to watch.
By getting pulled up into the content sponge that is Netflix, both Rhimes and Murphy are in danger of losing brand identity and distinction. They run the risk of getting buried in what is a kind of Filene’s Basement of TV.