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Netflix Has Come Up with Great New Shows; Now, About the Way It Unveils Them…
July 16, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 7 comments

Netflix has done a great job presenting original programming this year, but there’s one problem it hasn’t solved: how to keep word spreading after a new show premieres…

In television, building on a success is a wonderful problem to have. Many broadcast networks struggle for years to find one breakout series that will garner loads of advance press and truckloads of effusive reviews. Cable networks can rebrand themselves on the basis of one attention-getting new series, as FX did with The Shield and AMC did with Mad Men.

Yet Netflix, which really isn’t a network in the conventional sense – just a rental and streaming service with national reach and a deep library of movies and TV series – has been astoundingly successful, almost Pixar-like, in rolling out its first few made-for-Netflix original productions.

House of Cards, an Americanized adaptation of a vintage British miniseries, came first, starring Kevin Spacey and putting Netflix originals on the map. A Twilight-ish misfire, Hemlock Grove, came next – and even though it was a creative mess, Netflix renewed it anyway.

But after Grove came the reboot of the former Fox comedy Arrested Development, a creative success, and rebirth of a beloved cult sitcom, that drew even more attention to Netflix than had House of Cards. And last week, on July 11, Netflix presented its fourth original TV series of 2013: Orange Is the New Black, by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. It’s another excellent TV show.

In a way, Orange is Netflix’s biggest surprise yet. The service’s other shows basically met expectations: House of Cards and Arrested Development were, as predicted, outstanding, and Hemlock Grove wasn’t.

But Orange Is the New Black starts out confidently, and strongly, and just gets better and better as it goes along. I watched all 13 episodes over the weekend – most of them clocking in at just under an hour, with no commercials or interruptions – and left extremely impressed by just how rich a series it was. The women-in-prison story, rather than being an excuse for exploitation and sensationalism, instead spent its time introducing us to more than a dozen complicated characters, and making us know, and care about, each and every one of them.

(For a full review of Orange Is the New Black, see Ed Bark’s Uncle Barky’s Bytes. And to read or hear my report today (Tuesday) for NPR, check out the Fresh Air with Terry Gross website.)

With Orange Is the New Black, Netflix has now scored big with three of its first four original productions. That’s a batting average of .750, while some outfits, like NBC, have spent more than one season swinging and missing. So for Netflix, that’s the really good news.

But here’s the bad news. While binge viewing has its instant-gratification rewards, it doesn’t keep the pop-culture conversation going the way a weekly TV series, rolled out one episode every seven days, does. The way Netflix rolls out a new series, with all of a season’s episodes available at once, the conversation becomes: It’s coming! It’s here! And… that’s it.

Reviewers who dive instantly into the entire season don’t give away too much, because they don’t want to spoil the experience for those who watch at a more leisurely pace. But that means the late-season revelations, like the guest star appearances on House of Cards and the secret-revealing twists on Arrested Development, never get talked about, and enjoyed and dissected and shared, the way they should.

Compare that to, say, the week earlier this season when Sally Draper caught her father in a compromising situation on Mad Men. Or the bloodbath at the wedding on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Or the bathroom-reading stunner on AMC’s Breaking Bad, or any of a handful of sudden deaths on AMC’s The Walking Dead, or Alicia’s allegiance-changing decision on the season finale of CBS’s The Good Wife.

All those moments caught fans by surprise, and were buzzed about endlessly, in private conversations and on the Internet, after they appeared. So on Mad Men, just to use that series as a specific example, that AMC series got the benefit of at least three trips to the pop-culture well: when it premiered for the season, when it pulled that shocker with Sally, and after the season finale. Netflix series, by comparison, are denied those second and third experiences.

All 13 episodes of House of Cards premiered on Friday, Feb. 1. Had that show rolled out like a traditional TV series, with one new episode per week, its season finale would have “aired” on April 26. Arrested Development, with 15 episodes beginning Sunday, May 26, could have kept showing weeky original episodes until Sept. 1, and gotten a summer’s worth of occasional follow-up stories in the process.

And Orange Is the New Black, with a standard weekly 13-episode rollout, would continue to entertain us, and generate press from time to time, until October 3.

Netflix execs say they’re playing by different rules, and in one way, they are. Just as the raw ratings for a series from HBO or Showtime matter less than whether those shows have a fan base loyal enough to keep them subscribing to their premium networks, the viewing numbers for Netflix shows – which, at this point, they refuse to release, even in general or percentage terms – matter less than acting as bait to get new subscribers, and to retain current ones.

But HBO and Showtime, in that respect, get to have their cake and eat it too. They produce the original programs that engender subscriber loyalty, yet they also roll out their shows weekly to extend the promotional and conversational windows. Would Game of Thrones, if unveiled on HBO a season at a time, have built the momentum it has with a traditional release pattern.

I don’t think so. And I think, in time, Netflix and its competing streaming services should experiment with a traditional weekly unveiling, just to compare the impact to its current binge-viewing practice.

But tinkering with release patterns is the easy part. Coming up with shows worth watching in the first place, that’s tough.

And in that regard, Netflix doesn’t seem to need any advice at all.

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I have a new series that HBO would love. It is called, "The Reformers!" The opposite of, you guessed it, "The Transformers", it is about a group of educators who strive to make their school, and the world, a better place! There are no robots in this series, just humans. In one episode, though, the Reformers come across Sentinel Prime, and have to fight him o
Aug 31, 2016   |  Reply
David, have you weighed in on the new Hulu series? Or is that a different level of quality than what we see at Netflix? (Though that said, I've enjoyed Moone Boy and Spy, though some of the other exclusive offerings have left me a little cold.)
Aug 14, 2013   |  Reply
Chris Manna
David - I grew up on the television education you provided regularly in the Daily News. That paper's television coverage has never been the same since (not telling you anything you don't already know). I take very seriously any recommendation you suggest. While I am looking forward to enjoying House of Cards and Orange when time permits, wasn't Lilyhammer starring Steven Van Zandt Netflix's first foray into original programming? I remember watching the entire first season last year over the span of a couple of days and quite enjoyed it. And I know Steven left part of Springsteen's tour so that he could film season 2. I wish this unique series would get more attention.
Jul 23, 2013   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Dear Chris -- Thanks for the very kind words, and for staying with TVWW to read more of mine. As for Lilyhammer, I think it was a case of both the show, and the star, being a lot weaker than Kevin Spacey and the scripts for House of Cards.
Jul 24, 2013
I really liked this post. It questions what kind of viewing experience television has to offer. I like to think that these new series are more like novels and buzz is all about the launch. Check out my post if you have a chance. Love the blog!

Jul 22, 2013   |  Reply
I love being able to binge-view an entire season over the course of a couple of weeks or so, (if that counts as 'binge'). That said, a potential compromise between an all-in-one and a weekly-episode release strategy would be for Netflix to release a certain number of episodes at a time (e.g., 4 at the beginning of each month). It would help keep up the momentum of and interest in the show over a season while allowing we who like to feast on several episodes in a row our gratuitous pleasure. It also keeps viewers a bit more in sync with other viewers. Speaking of which, I also think Joel's idea (below) is a good one.
Jul 18, 2013   |  Reply
Constance Bevitt
Consider the Hulu exclusive series: The Booth in the back. Mysterious, surprising. I'm definitely hooked. Comes from the UK one commenter said. Simple to view - really a conversation between the requestor and the "man" in the booth, but the results are often surprising. Good stuff
Jul 16, 2013   |  Reply
Most of us don't have the time to binge-view; I haven't even started Orange yet. But when I do start, I won't be in synch with other viewers. This might be useful: a bulletin board for reviews and viewer comments with a web page for each episode. Visiting the pages as you progress through the episodes would simulate viewing episodes as the are broadcast, then discussing them.
Jul 16, 2013   |  Reply
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