When Nick Weidenfeld heard what happened at HBO last summer, he was thrilled. “Everyone I knew was texting that article around, saying, ‘What the [expletive]!’ ” Weidenfeld, an independent TV producer, recently recalled. A lot of people who work in Hollywood were spooked by the news, but not him: “I thought it was amazing.”
Weidenfeld was discussing the events of June 19, 2018, as reported in The Times: Around noon that day, Richard Plepler, then HBO’s chief executive officer, met with his new boss, John Stankey, at the network’s Manhattan headquarters. AT&T had recently completed its $85.4 billion purchase of Time Warner — whose holdings included Warner Bros. and HBO — and chose Stankey to head up the resulting umbrella company, WarnerMedia. Plepler’s conversation with Stankey, framed as a company town hall, unfolded before some 150 HBO employees, who soon discovered that the new guy had big changes in mind.
“It’s going to be a tough year,” Stankey told Plepler. HBO’s tightly curated cluster of shows, released seasonally and in weekly batches, no longer amounted to a tenable strategy. “It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month,” he said. “We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.” Ever more hours of overall watch-time were necessary to generate ever more data on viewing habits to help AT&T drive ever more lucrative “models of advertising” and subscriptions, Stankey declared. What was required of Plepler was a reconsidered network, “broad enough to make that happen,” as Stankey put it — because “we’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?” When Plepler pointed out that HBO was already profitable, Stankey agreed, but then he added, “Just not enough.”
“It’s so good he said it,” Weidenfeld told me, sinking into a booth at Mama Shelter, a hotel in Hollywood where he likes to take working lunches and rough out deals. Weidenfeld, who is 39, sported a full beard and wore a color-blocked fleece pullover. His business lies in helping creators devise and develop shows, then in selling them to networks and platforms — and thanks to the industrywide hunger for “hours a day,” business is booming. In the past few years Weidenfeld has placed two series on Netflix; sold a variety of pitches and pilots he can’t discuss publicly; and struck a first-look deal with Hulu to take it show ideas before shopping them elsewhere. In a couple of hours, one of Weidenfeld’s many creative partners was due to join him to refine the pitch for a new game show, on the theme of impostors, which Weidenfeld described to me with a mirthful look as “so stupid but so sellable.”
Weidenfeld takes a wry, bird’s-eye view of the television industry — sketching out macrotrends, sorting them into taxonomies, prognosticating about where it’s all headed — and for him, the Stankey-Plepler meeting captured something essential about the current state of the medium. “I know it’s not pleasant to hear,” he went on. “Especially if you’re Plepler and you’re a genius and you’ve made all these great decisions. But Stankey’s right. It’s not enough hours.”
Looming over the HBO meeting was the shadow cast by Netflix. Since its metamorphosis in 2007 from a mail-based DVD-rental library into a streaming platform, Netflix has become an entertainment hegemon, spending heavily on original shows and movies (a reported 700 of them as of last year); minting new kinds of stars (the Tasmanian meta-comedian Hannah Gadsby, the Japanese home-organizing guru Marie Kondo); and growing its subscriber numbers to 149 million worldwide. Its rise coincides with a trend of major consolidations, including AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner and Disney’s recent acquisition of Fox’s entertainment properties. Each conglomerate is readying a new streaming platform, as is the Comcast-owned NBC Universal.
Weidenfeld is intimately familiar with the trend toward volume. He made his name as the head of development at Adult Swim, a job he got when he was 24, helping to bring several notable shows to that channel — among them the brilliant sketch-comedy series “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” which played like David Lynch directing public-access TV, and the monstrously successful cartoon “Rick and Morty.” In 2012, Fox hired Weidenfeld away to build an animation studio, and after it was shuttered, he became president of programming at Viceland, a new cable offshoot of the millennial-targeting media empire Vice. Equipped with a limited budget, he practiced a philosophy of low-cost, high-quantity development of the sort that streaming platforms now also practice, no matter how deep-pocketed they are. “To fill the hours in the day for sales, we had to make essentially 300 hours a year,” Weidenfeld explained. “So we could have made a huge show. The Vice version of ‘Mad Men,’ our version of ‘Game of Thrones,’ whatever.” He shook his head. “So what? We’re spending $8-to-$10 million an episode on it, and we’ve wasted our entire budget!”
Even at a much wealthier outfit, like HBO or Netflix, he said, “there’s only so many ‘Games of Thrones’ you can make, so what you wind up having is some premium-premium content, and then you need the low-cost, high-margin stuff,” Weidenfeld said. “If you’re AT&T, you have to say, ‘We’re gonna make premium content, but we also have to find an on-brand way to make game shows.’ ” He added: “That’s why when you open Netflix now, there’s this glut. I’m not hating on it. That’s the business, and cool things will come from it. But they have to feed the beast.”
As Stankey’s remarks to Plepler laid bare, the dominant force driving TV in the Netflix age is the same one driving social networks, video-sharing platforms and online publishers: the relentless pursuit and monetization of our attention. For media companies like AT&T, the real value of HBO-style “prestige” programming is not that it produces works of art as profound as “The Sopranos” but that it offers a viable market alternative to all the gaming videos, makeup tutorials and alt-right primers that millions of people spend millions of minutes watching on their phones every day. Randall L. Stephenson, AT&T’s chief executive, has expressed his desire for 20-minute edits of “Game of Thrones” — a length more optimal for mobile viewing. In a similar vein, the Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg is building a new streaming service named Quibi, for “quick bites,” devoted to lavishly financed, big-name programming that will reportedly be delivered in phone-friendly 10-minute chunks. As the Netflix boss Reed Hastings put it in 2017, making a half-joke about bleary-eyed binge-watching that was no less dystopian for its tongue-in-cheek delivery: “We actually compete with sleep. And we’re winning.”
One big question is what all this means for us, at home, fishing in the cushions for our remotes: If even a network as seemingly sacred as HBO can be pressured by corporate bosses to crank out more shows in order to better compete with smartphones, what new era are we entering?
I asked Weidenfeld if he could really see HBO experimenting with a game show anytime soon. He was emphatic — “Yes, 100 percent. They have to” — then thought for a moment. “They might not call it HBO. It might all go under this WarnerMedia O.T.T.” — an abbreviation for over the top, which is industry-speak denoting a stand-alone streaming service — “where you can have HBO still be premium. But yes, if you’re paying $10.99 a month for it, they have to have volume.”
All of our screens are now TVs, and there is more TV to watch on them than ever. More dramas, more comedies, more thrillers, more fantasy-adventure series, more dating shows, more game shows, more cooking shows, more travel shows, more talk shows, more raunchy comedies, more experimental comedies, more family comedies, more comedy specials, more children’s cartoons, more adult cartoons, more limited series, more documentary series, more prestige dramas, more young-adult dramas, more prestige young-adult dramas — more, more, more.
In the golden age of what’s now called linear television — when viewing patterns were more predictable and, DVRs notwithstanding, more controllable — people had to watch what they wanted to watch when networks wanted them to watch it. But the advent of digital platforms streaming video on demand (S.V.O.D.s, in trade lingo) has broken the 24-hour day into infinite possibilities. Questions once crucial have been made irrelevant: “Does this show deserve a prime-time spot?” “Would this make a good lead-in to that?” The success of a given streaming show isn’t determined by how many people watch it but by how many subscriptions it helps to generate or maintain. The programming goal of an S.V.O.D., then, is an overall atmosphere of plenitude, a constantly updating slate of would-be “tentpole shows,” buttressed with enough theoretically watchable other stuff that viewers don’t flee once “Stranger Things” is over. As one producer put it to me, the mission at a streaming service like Netflix is “to basically create channel surfing within Netflix” — to entice us into a walled garden where the plantings are so copious we never think of leaving.
If you were to argue that this hyperabundance is, on balance, more of a good thing than bad, you could point to an underlying economic truth of streaming-era TV: It puts less pressure on an idiosyncratic or otherwise “challenging” series, because the viewership numbers needed to justify a show’s existence are lower than ever. Precisely how low is hard to say — streamers like Netflix self-report their ratings in the very rare instances when they disclose them at all — but certainly much lower than was historically true in the broadcast-TV era, when prime-time real estate was scarce. And lower too, perhaps, than was historically true even at HBO, where a series as critically enshrined as “The Wire” teetered on the edge of oblivion throughout its five-season run, canceled, uncanceled and threatened with cancellation again, according to the show’s creator, David Simon, in the face of a consistently meager audience.
In the streaming era, “you don’t have to pull in a massive audience” to justify a show, says Ravi Nandan, who directs the television efforts of the boutique studio A24 — known for its dedication to moderately budgeted, auteur-driven material like the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight.” Nandan brought up an appealingly bizarre A24 series from 2017 called “Comrade Detective.” A mock Cold War thriller, it was set in the 1980s, shot in Romania for peanuts with local talent and featured the voice acting — dubbed with intentional ungainliness — of Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “For us it was, ‘This is a fun experiment,’ ” Nandan said. “Who knows what the outcome’s gonna be, but we’re in a time when we can take this chance, so why don’t we do it?” That hunch proved true when Amazon bought the show.
The same principle holds at volume-driven Netflix, says Eric Newman, showrunner of the hit drug-trafficking series “Narcos.” “I don’t think they’re looking to hit the ball out of the stadium every time,” he said, “and that takes a lot of the pressure off.” The company, he noted, keeps viewership data even from him: “I’ve asked them: ‘Do people like this character? Should we kill them off in Episode 6?’ And they say, ‘Do you think we should kill them off?’ ”
That sense of creative freedom has enabled a fundamental mutation in television’s DNA. TV has long been a medium defined by familiarity — comforting narrative rhythms, stabilizing themes, repeatable formulas. In trusty 22-minute cycles, family tensions and romantic spats flared up only to resolve themselves in time for the end credits; crimes were committed, solved and punished; news anchors and late-night hosts, besuited and paternal, shepherded us through the day’s events from behind sturdy desks; their perma-tanned morning-show equivalents garlanded our breakfast hours with pleasant mundanities.
By contrast, the animating force behind today’s best streaming TV is a horizon-expanding sense of unpredictability, whether it’s the slippery narratives of offbeat magical-realist series like Netflix’s “Russian Doll”; the impressionistic, shaggy-dog plots of “High Maintenance” (which began as a web series before moving to HBO); or the jarring encounters with broadly unfamiliar perspectives typical of “Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy,” a Netflix documentary series about the role of laughter in strife-torn international locales.
This means that characters can change as shows progress, instead of retracing the tightly drawn circuits of personality typical of network protagonists. Episode lengths have become similarly elastic — 60 minutes here, 16 minutes there — as has pacing. “Forever,” a dreamlike Amazon comedy starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, took two episodes to even introduce its central conceit (spoiler): The protagonists die and are forced to navigate both marital troubles and mysteries of the afterlife. In a network context, “We would have had to explain it in the very first act, if not the very first scene, if not the very first line of the show,” Alan Yang, a former “Parks and Recreation” writer and a creator of “Forever,” told me. “We were excited about making something where it’s constantly evolving and you get genuine surprise because audiences have been so conditioned on what to expect.”
According to a 2019 survey by Deloitte, 77 percent of Americans who watched streaming TV consumed an average of four hours per sitting. Online binge-watching can have an emboldening effect on outré creative impulses. In addition to “Forever,” Yang was a creator of the Netflix series “Master of None,” with Aziz Ansari, following the romantic and gustatory searchings of Ansari’s lead character, Dev. “The ability to have all the episodes available at once,” Yang says of both shows, “made us feel like we could take bigger chances” — that is, they could move in unexpected ways from one episode to the next without disorienting people. Likewise, “Maniac,” a Netflix series starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, was able to play frenetically with genre, time and tone in a way that would have risked incoherence were the series released over several months rather than all in one go. (Releasing a whole season en masse is, of course, another way to keep us planted in front of our screens — and logged into one service — that much longer.)
Yet another upside to programmers’ boundless appetites has been the opening of television’s gates to historically excluded voices. This includes young showrunners of color, like Donald Glover (“Atlanta”), Ramy Youssef (“Ramy”) and Issa Rae (“Insecure”); and members of other marginalized groups, like Ryan O’Connell (a gay man with cerebral palsy who created and stars in the Netflix series “Special”) and Lindy West (the comedian and fat-acceptance activist whose writing inspired the Hulu series “Shrill”).
Established filmmakers, like David Fincher, Barry Jenkins and Errol Morris, are also making episodic TV for streamers in ever greater numbers. “It feels like I have the ability to tell a story outside any traditional format or structure,” says Ava DuVernay, whose feature films include “Selma” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” She has directed two Netflix titles: “13th,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about the racist underpinnings of the carceral state, and “When They See Us,” a four-episode drama about the black teenagers falsely convicted of raping a white jogger in Central Park in 1989. In envisioning the latter as a streaming mini-series, DuVernay told me, her thinking was, “We could make this a two-hour movie and put it in theaters, or we could make it a four-and-a-half hour movie” — divided into chapters and available on your laptop.
The appeal of streaming TV to Hollywood auteurs is that it can offer more expansive creative possibilities than the feature world. The appeal of such shows for platforms is manifold. Multiseason smashes like “Game of Thrones” and “The Sopranos” are still possible but increasingly rare. They require considerable budgets that, from a development perspective, might be more judiciously spent on a flurry of marquee titles, which run for only a season or two but still create a promise of quality amid the deluge and generate valuable buzz. Like the proverbial water-cooler hits of the linear era, these shows heighten our sense that if we don’t subscribe to a given S.V.O.D., we’re missing out on some vital part of the cultural conversation. The difference today is that it’s impossible ever to feel fully caught up on all the things your friends and the internet tell you “you’ve got to see” — a feeling that is great for getting us to shell out, month after month.
As rival megaliths face off in the streaming wars, it’s imperative for platforms that when we dig through their digital heaps we find something great, or at least great-ish, often enough that we don’t go digging elsewhere. This is where recommendation algorithms come in. Unlike an old-school broadcaster, a digital platform generates oceans of second-to-second data about viewing habits, sign-ups and subscription loss. Platforms use this data to group customers into different segments, organized around viewing preferences — and if all is working as it should to recommend shows that match those preferences.
Data affects deceptively simple decisions, like which still image will represent a given title in a scrolling menu: If you streamed a bunch of romantic comedies on Netflix, the image algorithmically deployed to tempt you into watching “Groundhog Day” might be one of Andie MacDowell building a snowman with Bill Murray. If your history is heavy on absurdist comedies, you might see a portrait of Chris Elliott wearing a beanie instead. If the algorithm decides correctly, this benefits Netflix’s relationship not only with customers but also with the creative community, helping to ensure that a show finds a substantial and enthusiastic audience. (One producer, who asked not to be named because he occasionally does business with Netflix, said he has heard creators express wariness about selling projects there, for fear they will get lost amid the surfeit of offerings.)
But how much does data influence the creation of shows in the first place? In March, I joined a meeting at Hulu’s headquarters, in Santa Monica, Calif., as 12 executives discussed concrete ways to bring data science to bear on content creation. Founded initially “to combat piracy,” as Craig Erwich, the company’s senior vice president of original programming, put it, Hulu began as a jointly owned venture between Fox and NBC, offering broadcast TV on demand. The platform, which is now under Disney’s full operational control, has also entered into partnerships with premium-cable channels like HBO and Showtime, and invested in originals: In 2017, Hulu became the first streaming service to win an Emmy for best drama series, for its hit adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
As we gathered around a conference table, I looked out at an airy communal space. Around the office, several employees worked at standing desks, including a guy perched atop some hoverboard-esque balance ball that, he explained, when I asked him about it, helped with “core strength.” On a set of blond-wood steps, life-size Simpsons statues sat together — referencing another Fox property that has slid into Disney’s pocket. When I asked Erwich how Hulu might change if assimilated into Disney+, he told me that given the latter’s family-friendly image, it could make sense to set off series like “The Handmaid’s Tale” — whose story lines have included rape and female circumcision — under a different shingle. In this scenario, Hulu’s originals would function, within Disney+, like a boutique tucked into a megamall.
In the conference room, Erwich introduced Jason Kim, head of analytics, who was “a half-week into four weeks of work” on a new data-research initiative. Speaking in a jargon-thick lexicon, he explained that this would involve “taking different content-investment scenarios” — What if we devoted this many dollars to these kinds of programming? — “pumping them through a model and then predicting the forecast subscriber growth as well as engagement growth” — how many more hours people spend on Hulu — “for each of those scenarios.”
Kim, who wore a fitted gray sweater and had spiky hair buzzed at the sides, clicked through graphs projected on an overhead screen. “We break down Hulu’s addressable market” — the pool of current and potential customers — “into these eight audience segments, which have distinct content-viewing behaviors and needs,” he said. “The healthiest of these segments is what we call ‘broadcast generalists.’ From a consumption standpoint, they overindex in” — watch above-average amounts of — “broadcast dramas and comedies. They value next-day TV” — last night’s episode, streamed today — “which is a core part of Hulu’s proposition, and they’re very healthy on our service. In 2018 they had the lowest churn” — cancellation — “of any of these segments, and they were one of the largest-engaging segments as well.”
Less healthy, Kim said, “were ‘content miners.’ They overindex in movie consumption. They really like to browse and treasure-hunt, and when they do watch TV it’s less next-day TV or broadcast TV and more cable series.” I recognized myself among this group — uninterested in last night’s “This Is Us,” eager to check out the season finale of HBO’s black comedy “Barry,” happy to discover that “Dazed and Confused” is streaming and disappointed to see that Andrea Arnold’s last movie, which I missed during its brief theatrical run, isn’t. The other audience segments included “comedy watchers,” “for the family” and “drama watchers.” Five of these, Kim said, “are generally pretty healthy,” as measured by how often they visit Hulu and for how long, whereas the remaining three were less so.
The originals team scrutinized Kim’s graphs, and Erwich piped up to identify the limits of the research so far: “This tells you, Maybe you need more” of a certain kind of drama. “What it doesn’t tell you is whether you should buy ‘CSI’ or make a new one.”
Kim nodded. “There’s a lot more to do,” he said.
Val Shimabukuro, Hulu’s content-scheduling manager, presented next. “When I schedule a show,” she explained, “I ask, Is this gonna be a subscription-acquisition driver, or is this gonna be a show to engage and retain our current subscribers?” These two categories translated, broadly speaking, to “tentpole series” and “smaller, niche shows,” with Shimabukuro trying as much as possible to steer audiences attracted by the former toward the latter. Hulu has more than 25 million subscribers, and Shimabukuro noted the importance of spontaneous P.R. opportunities in attracting new ones. When Hulu learned that Netflix was preparing to release a documentary about the Fyre Festival controversy — in which a supposed grifter sold exorbitantly priced tickets to a functionally nonexistent Bahamas music festival — they saw a chance to kneecap it. Hulu had its own Fyre documentary ready to go, which it rush-released in what Shimabukuro referred to as “a surprise stunt.”
Toward the end of this presentation, Belisa Balaban, responsible for documentaries at Hulu, mentioned that she and Shimabukuro had discussed timing the debut of a film acquired at Sundance, about a prominent sexual predator, to coincide with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” all the better to feed off what she called “the ‘Handmaid’s’ halo” of viewership. Erwich furrowed his brow at this line of reasoning. “That’s a stretch,” he said.
Old-fashioned guessing, it turned out, still played a role in such matters. Shimabukuro pressed the case: “I think it could be an audience that’s interested in strong female, #MeToo movement. …”
Erwich squinted. “All right,” he replied, not yet fully sold. “O.K.”
After the meeting, Beatrice Springborn, Hulu’s vice president of content development, told me she enjoyed attending such data-heavy presentations: That way, “you’re not saying, ‘Why is this piece of development good’ in a bubble.” All the same, she added, “You have to bring a human touch to it.” Springborn studied journalism in college, later getting a job in development at Pixar. At Hulu, she has instituted recurring “quiet-time” meetings for the originals team: “Just us sitting there, zoning out, saying: ‘What do you wish was on TV? I just saw this Eric Rohmer movie I loved — is there a version of that that’s a TV show?’ ” Without such introspection, Springborn said, “it’s a content farm.”
Success in the streaming game isn’t zero-sum, but it might be close. According to a February report by the research firm Ampere Analysis, after years of growth, the S.V.O.D. market is “showing signs of reaching saturation,” with the number of subscriptions per household staying firm at about three from late 2017 through late 2018. You can get an anecdotal sense of the ceiling for this market by asking yourself, How many different companies am I willing to pay $6 to $15 a month for TV before I max out?
At Netflix, the strategy from the beginning has been to try to please as many people as it can. As Cindy Holland, Netflix’s vice president of original content, put it to me, “We want to entertain the world.” Treating that as a concrete objective rather than a bit of grandiose sloganeering, she explained, required forethought and infrastructure. “When we first set out thinking about original series, I asked, What do other networks do?” she went on. “Well, most have a command-and-control-style organization system, usually personality-driven, with decisions coming from one person at the top. Depending on what kind of network it is, say they have a 10-to-30-show slate of scripted originals. We knew our long-term appetites would be bigger, so very quickly I thought, from an organizational standpoint, How do I accomplish the goals not of one network but of six networks? So my team is essentially the equivalent of six or so networks, on the scripted side. Each has their own focus in terms of content they’re searching for, and I’ve delegated authority so the power to greenlight extends down.”
Echoing what I heard at Hulu, Holland told me that when it came to data, Netflix uses it mainly for “sizing investments.” She said, “We have projection models to help us understand what the minimum audience threshold for a given project might be.” For example, Netflix knew from DVD-rental histories and other consumer habits that Kevin Spacey vehicles and David Fincher films performed well on the service, which bolstered their decision to spend hundreds of millions of dollars making “House of Cards.” More recently, “Stranger Things” came to life not long after Netflix gleaned from its data that there was an unmet audience desire for what Holland called “higher-budget young-adult programming.”
When Netflix began streaming its own series, it adhered to recognizable prestige-cable contours: “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” could have fit on HBO or Showtime. As the company’s offerings have multiplied, that has changed. “Nailed It!” a hit baking-competition show, looks and feels like a Bravo title; you could imagine “BoJack Horseman” on Comedy Central; “Amazing Interiors” might be an HGTV show. As for Netflix’s brand-new game show, “Awake” — in which sleep-deprived contestants are made to compete in “challenges both eccentric and everyday for a chance at a $1 million prize” — it’s hard to say where such a concept would fit in. Japanese reality TV? Hell?
It bears noting that Netflix, the most consequential contemporary force in Hollywood, was born 335 miles north, in Silicon Valley — a place driven by venture capitalists who, seeking gargantuan investment returns, prize scale above all else. Netflix tends to play down the threat posed by its streaming rivals. Yang says that when he first started working with Netflix, the feeling was: “We don’t see ourselves becoming the next HBO; we see ourselves becoming the entirety of cable.” In a late-2018 earnings letter, the company situated itself on an even grander plane of competition, reporting that “we compete with (and lose to) ‘Fortnite’ ” — a multiplayer online video game — “more than HBO,” and mentioned that, when YouTube experienced a global outage in October, Netflix’s own new-subscription and engagement numbers rose. (YouTube has experimented with original series, but its principal draw remains ad-supported user-posted videos.)
It’s fair to wonder how far any TV-maker can spread itself before its output suffers. For all the talk of epochal change around streaming television, the emphasis on sheer volume at Netflix and other platforms has already created a dispiriting new phenomenon reminiscent of old ones — like entering a Blockbuster in 1994 and navigating aisle after aisle of VHS tapes, half of which seem to be “Jurassic Park,” and straining to find one you actually want to rent; or flicking through 150 cable channels in 2004 and wondering if anything decent is on now that “Sex and the City” is over.
When I brought up the tension between quality and quantity to Holland, she rejected the premise. “That’s a paradigm set by our competitors,” she argued, “who have much smaller budgets and less ability to provide a large volume of content to their viewers.” But budgets are only one part of the equation. Someone who works in series development framed this matter for me using the benchmark example of “The Sopranos”: When HBO broadcast that series, beginning in 1999, it boasted a roster of not just top-tier actors, writers and directors but also of cinematographers, casting directors, location scouts and so on. This was possible because its creator, David Chase, enjoyed his pick of talent in an industry that had done a pretty good job till that point of squandering it on far less ambitious shows (if not outright junk). Twenty years later, it’s harder to picture that kind of concentration of talent in a single project, because the proliferation of shows has splintered and scattered those writers, actors and scouts — leading the medium from its early-aughts “golden age” to what some critics have called the era of “good-enough” TV.
The move into streaming can put premium-cable programmers in an especially awkward position: The attributes of their networks that people most cherish — craftsmanship, discernment, consistency — seem directly at odds with the growing mandate to pump out hours. And John Stankey’s comments last June did not inspire confidence that HBO, the golden-age standard-bearer, was going to lead the good-enough era anywhere better. After the town hall, higher-ups there and at AT&T strove to soften that impression. Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming, recently assured me, “We’re not looking to increase volume by lowering our standards.” And Randall L. Stephenson likened Plepler’s network to Tiffany & Company. But another troubling indication of AT&T’s priorities arrived last fall, when it spiked the beloved arthouse-cinema streaming service FilmStruck, describing it as “niche.” Then last February, Plepler announced his departure from HBO amid reports he was unhappy with his decreased autonomy. (Plepler gently declined my request for an interview, citing his desire “to allow the current team to have the stage to themselves.”)
Bloys, who now reports to Plepler’s replacement, Robert Greenblatt, conceded, however, that the ever-increasing drive for volume creates distinct pressures. “My challenge is to make sure we don’t lose the handmade feel,” he said. “That’s partly a matter of hiring more staff for our programming teams. It’s also about making sure we’re not taking on things we wouldn’t otherwise have done.” Bloys estimates there will be about 50 percent more hours on HBO in 2019 than there were last year — a result of development decisions that predate the AT&T merger but that an infusion of AT&T cash made possible. All the same, he emphasized, “there’s nothing on our air in ’19 or even looking forward to ’20 that we wouldn’t have programmed five or 10 years ago.”
Using Nick Weidenfeld’s example, I asked Bloys whether viewers could expect to see an HBO game show soon. He replied in two parts: “There’s no newfound mandate to go into new areas all in the name of volume, but at the same time, we’ve never been totally closed off to anything. We’re not actively looking for game shows, but I can tell you, a few years ago we were thinking about a game show, saying, Could we do our version of that?”
Not all networks have responded to the demand for volume in the same way — a point underscored when I spoke with Gary Levine, president of entertainment at Showtime. Like HBO, Showtime established itself in the ’80s and ’90s as a premium cable channel and has since entered the nonlinear world: You can watch its shows through a stand-alone streaming app or add it to your Hulu or Prime subscriptions. Showtime’s recent flagship titles include the brash late-night show “Desus & Mero,” the soapy Wall Street hit “Billions” and well-pedigreed limited series like “Twin Peaks: The Return,” a continuation of the surrealist ’90s mystery from David Lynch and Mark Frost.
Unlike HBO, Showtime was not recently purchased by a telecom company with a stated interest in bulking up. “I don’t have a John Stankey telling me I have to produce more,” Levine said good-humoredly. Showtime is part of the CBS corporation, which announced last year that Showtime’s subscriber numbers exceeded 25 million for the first time. That figure is half of HBO’s domestic subscribers, but the message to the press from Showtime is that bigger isn’t necessarily better, as long as the network makes money and remains adaptable. On the subject of industry consolidation, Levine said: “We’ve never been arrogant about hoarding our programming. We’re happy to get it to people through Comcast or Charter or AT&T or Amazon or whoever. We don’t mind being the add-on.”
Speaking in relaxed tones, Levine sounded convincingly like a man positioned to one side of the fray — happy to be in a position to share.
Before I left the bar at Mama Shelter, Nick Weidenfeld put TV’s current upheavals into historical context for me. Much was new about streamers, he said, but in one regard they were retracing a path trod decades ago by cable TV: “Everyone starts off licensing other people’s catalogs or libraries, ’cause the margins are the best,” he said. At a certain point, “you’ve built a brand on other people’s content, and you say, we don’t own this, we can’t merchandise it, we can’t license it, we don’t have any revenue streams against it, but we do have X number of viewers coming to our network — why aren’t we making our own stuff?”
He took the example of Cartoon Network, which started as a venue for Ted Turner to sell ads against material from the Hanna-Barbera library, among others, and which he gradually augmented with originals whose copyrights he owned, like “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Johnny Bravo” — “shows with billions of dollars in merchandising, and now that’s your money,” Weidenfeld said. “And that’s the entire industry.”
The parallels to Netflix were obvious: Start out licensing, then create programming you own outright. But Netflix’s exorbitant push into originals — the company says that as of next year, it will devote a vast majority of its multibillion-dollar programming budget to such content — speaks to a contemporary dynamic. Those platforms that control the largest content libraries are regarded as having the best shots at streaming-war success. This means that many rights-owning studios once happy to earn extra money licensing shows to Netflix are letting such agreements expire as they build S.V.O.D.s of their own: Why let others thrive off your titles when you can use them to lure customers your way, instead? This is long-game thinking, with studios betting that what they sacrifice in licensing revenue will be justified down the line by the market edge they create for their streamers. In turn, the portion of Netflix’s library consisting of stuff owned by others is increasingly imperiled.
There’s a particular pressure on WarnerMedia to make its service alluring: In figuring out how much to charge for monthly subscriptions, which will include access to HBO, WarnerMedia must remain sensitive to the rates currently charged for that channel by its cable-carrier partners, whom Warner relies on for significant revenue. That sensitivity has already created an effective price floor of $15 on HBO’s O.T.T. service, HBO Now, which is roughly what most cable providers demand from customers wanting to add the channel to a monthly package. This makes it trickier, in turn, for Warner to charge less than $15 monthly for their entire streaming service — which is more than competitors currently charge (though rates across the sector are expected to keep rising).
It’s unsurprising, then, that one emblematic streaming-war skirmish centers on a WarnerMedia property, “Friends.” That epochal ’90s sitcom remains so valuable to Netflix that the company, which once reportedly licensed the series for $30 million, agreed at the end of 2018 to pay Warner a sum approaching $100 million for one more year of nonexclusive rights. Just a few weeks ago it was announced that Netflix’s library will soon take another hit: Despite a reported $90 million bid to keep the rights to “The Office,” that series will head over to NBC Universal’s new streaming service in 2021. [Update: After this article went to press, AT&T announced that the name for its streaming service will be HBO Max; that it will include programming from HBO, Warner Bros., CNN, TBS and Turner Classic Movies, among others; and that “Friends” will leave Netflix and become exclusive to this platform.]
In the ongoing scramble for hours, international shows have emerged as another significant frontier. Importing such shows was once largely the province of PBS, but now Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime are full of series licensed from or made in partnership with studios from Britain (“Fleabag”), Spain (“Money Heist”) and Scandinavia (“The Bridge”). Executives see them as affordable — which means that they are becoming more expensive.
When it comes to building a viable streaming service, the cost of entry has become prohibitively high and is rising. For its Apple TV+ service, Apple is spending a reported $2 billion to create original shows and movies, featuring prominent partners like Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and A24. Amazon, which is cagey about numbers but has an estimated 101 million Prime Video customers, is investing heavily in both licensed material and splashy programming of its own, recently paying, according to news accounts, some $250 million for the rights to make a new series based on “The Lord of the Rings.” Weidenfeld told me that, a few years ago, he investigated starting a streaming platform devoted to animation: “I was looking at financing, and they told me, straight up, ‘You need X amount of hours per month to make Y amount of subscriptions.’ It’s a math equation.” When I asked Nandan whether A24 had considered starting its own streaming platform, he laughed before answering: “Starting a subscription service today without billions and billions of dollars is virtually impossible.”
It was on this theme that Nick Weidenfeld’s mood, otherwise so bright about the state of television, started to darken. Right now, he said, it was a very fun moment to develop and sell TV shows, because a variety of well-funded competitors were adopting messy, fecund, throw-mud-at-the-wall programming tactics. But he feared that this moment was about to grind to a halt. The exorbitant costs involved in amassing hours of programming, he explained, combined with parent-company consolidation, were already ushering in a period that he called “the Great Reclamation of Content — everyone’s gonna pull back what they own.” The coming landscape, as he envisioned it, sounded grim. “Once it consolidates and settles, like anything else, certain production methodologies and creative methodologies will be put in place, and they’ll become sacrosanct, and that’s all there’s gonna be for a while.”
The nightmare version of this would be a TV replication of the Hollywood blockbuster model. It’s possible that Disney — whose holdings include ESPN, Pixar, the “Star Wars” franchise and a vast chunk of the Marvel universe — will program its streaming service much the same way it programs its theatrical slate, organized around a loud parade of Jedi titles and interconnected superhero movies. In the movie business, the supremacy of blockbusters has come at the expense of a once-robust calendar of smaller-bore, midbudget titles. It would be paradoxical, though hardly inconceivable, if TV — a much-heralded refuge for exactly that kind of storytelling — fell victim to a similar fate.
“Three giant telecoms are gonna make and own all the content, and they’re not gonna want anyone else to make it,” Weidenfeld went on. “There’s not gonna be a lot of innovation. ‘Russian Doll’s won’t get made for a while.” Weidenfeld grinned. “In a few years,” he predicted, “it’s gonna suck.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the platform that carries the show “Russian Doll.” It is Netflix, not HBO.