The television, once the pinnacle of the consumer culture and a staple of all living rooms, now lies defunct, supplanted by its smaller brethren, who are smarter and faster, more capable, and perhaps more importantly, more portable. This change was sparked by the rise of so called “cable cutters,” individuals who believed that streaming could and would be the future of media. With services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and HBO Go, it truly seems the future is now. But if the death of network television does occur, the future may not be as bright as it currently seems.
At first glance, streaming seems to have no disadvantages. No advertisements, no week wait between episodes, exclusive series, like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, which are critically acclaimed. However, most content that does appear on Netflix is not original, but licensed out by NBC, ABC, USA, or one of the many other television networks. And these networks rely on viewers and the resulting Nielsen ratings to make their decisions on which series to keep and which to cancel. The issue lies in the fact that Nielsen ratings have dropped heavily across the board due to the lack of viewers of live television, resulting in shows like Agents of Shield, which has strong viewer numbers in the category that includes DVR and streaming from the ABC’s website, to have incredibly low same day ratings. Furthermore, at the moment, Nielsen ratings have not yet been implemented in Netflix and other streaming services. A prime example of the influence of ratings is Firefly, a show that, while loved by many, suffered from sub par ratings and was ultimately cancelled after its first season. Forever was one of my personal favorite tv shows last fall, but it also suffered from low ratings, along with a bad timeslot, which would lead to its unfortunate cancellation.
Ratings aside, network television allows for the experimentation with a wide variety of content. While Netflix may be able to produce a few television shows, like Daredevil and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it lacks the scope and capital to take risks and invest money in more than a couple original ventures. However, funding new content isn’t a problem with the size of network television. Each channel has 10 hours it can allocate to primetime content, and the networks aren’t afraid to take risks and fund a variety of shows. When some series inevitably fail due to lack of viewership, the managing network simply picks itself up and dusts itself off, continuing searching for the next Breaking Bad. While Netflix shows may not be as dependent on ratings to survive, as evidenced by Marco Polo, it’s catalog is far more limited than its live counterpart. Similarly after its success with Transparent, Amazon tried to scout out the next big show by funding a variety of pilots, of which Bosch was selected to be fleshed out and receive the full season treatment. Streaming services don’t have the luxury that the plethora of networks have to try and produce something new. And as a result, the television cannot die.
And yet Netflix must produce original content to survive. As many have noticed, Netflix’s library is frequently changing, because as Netflix picks up new content, it must let previous contracts expire to maintain its pricing scheme. And as of late, the new content is far from impressive. In order to retain subscribers who have binge watched almost everything they wanted, Netflix must turn to content creation, stepping away from content curating. And that might just mean the cutting of television shows from the service to fund original ventures. Television shows that people may have to buy from Google Play or iTunes to watch. It’s a troubling trend, and one that reflects the status of Netflix and its impact on television.
Television fostered the rise of shows that challenged the public’s version of acceptable, such as 30 Rock (a list of complaints against it can be found here). It has shaped public opinion. It has captivated, entranced, motivated. And while network television is struggling now, it cannot and will not die. It’s still got a ton of life.