It occurred to me the that NBC’s best comedies are currently not on NBC. Other Space and fan favorite Community and Other Space are over at Yahoo and binge-watcher favorite Kimmy is airing (aired? is hosted?) on Netflix. So what is going on?
The story behind Community is a messy and well documented one. I’d recommend this article and the movie Harmontown to get caught up if you don’t already know. The end result is that after giving it five season they let the property go. Those five seasons are actually pretty generous by network standards when you take the in-house atmosphere and the low viewership. So after it was let go Yahoo picked up the show and unveiled it as their premier online show, trying to get in on that sweet, sweet, streaming money that Netflix and HBO Go/Now are known for.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has had a different path to meeting viewers. It was ordered by NBC and was actually written, filmed, and partially edited before NBC decided to let the show go. They ended up re-editing some episodes to expand it for cuts made due to time constraints. When it went free agent Netflix bought it, had them recut the show and now it’s a big fat hit.
Other Space was also bought by NBC, who passed on it later on. Paul Feig managed to buy the rights back and then shopped it around, with Yahoo taking him up on the offer.
So what does this mean for networks? Trouble. Industry behemoths like record companies and television networks have always been slow to react to changing distribution methods. They love new media but not new ways to disseminate it. What happens is when a new method of distribution shows up it’s usually helmed by pirates, fought by existing companies, and them refined into a marketable method of distribution by someone new. Eventually the big companies try to step back in but they are always playing catch-up. It’s those guys in the middle that really push progress. Netflix and Amazon are now essentially TV networks and cable companies combined, but just use data instead of hardlines or satellites. HBO, probably fearing the restrictions of bundled cable packages, was smart enough to figure out how to fly solo. And since these companies have an income independent from their produced material they’re a bit freer to be experimental. HBO is an exception in that they are strictly tied to their programming for income but seem able to hang in with the internetworks (see what I did there?) by dint of their solid track record.
With HBO, Netflix, Amazon, and (I’ll be magnanimous) Yahoo as emerging networks, what place do the old ones have? If NBC is any indication not much. But their biggest weakness is also their biggest safety net. The TV networks are too big to adapt quickly enough to be relevant, but they are also too big to fail. Their cable and over the air distribution is so ubiquitous and the parent companies so mind bogglingly rich that they’re not going anywhere. If you look at the offerings now it looks like the internetworks have a lower output, but of better quality, than the networks proper. That split is likely to grow. I foresee that networks will scramble with more “throw everything at the wall and see what stick” short seasons fleshed out with cheap unscripted shows. Seems chintzy but it’s a moderately sure way to bump up viewer numbers. I also suspect that the online companies will quickly show a strong pattern of good programming. It’ll be easy for them to check their actual viewership numbers instead of relying on the very flawed Nielsen system. Their strong shows will continue and their weak shows will not, but internetwork seasons are short so they won’t hit on the budget too hard.
Is there a fix? I imagine in a perfect world where everyone is willing to try more experimentation when it comes to program creation and distribution the networks might have a chance. Their best bet is to bud off a smaller subsidiary and let it function like an independent online production house. They’d have to work on their online distribution because, oddly enough, Youtube is a terrible way to try and put out a show. Web series are really difficult to queue up and stream from your couch, even in this age of the super-cheap chromecast and internet-ready TVs. Subscribing to a channel is more akin to following a showrunner’s show as well as diary as well as commercials. There’s no easy way to say “I want to watch Haphead, make it stream”. Sure, you can queue it all up into your watch now list but that won’t auto-load the newest episode after that. But I do think that funneling cash to a stand-alone team to make shows and then adopt them as they grow is the best thing the big networks can do.