Netflix Takes Page From HBO’s Prestige Playbook
In television, the burdensome label “quality” can be a hard sell to audiences. But as this year’s Emmy nominations demonstrate, you can sure as hell market it.
Netflix’s arrival as a player in the Emmy festivities — with a drama series nomination for the political drama “House of Cards,” as well as its stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright — underscores and expands on a longstanding trend on TV’s awards circuit, which increasingly separates traditional broadcasters from premium channels and those ad-supported cable networks that have endeavored to carve out their own prestige niches.
Those smaller networks (and in the case of Netflix, a digitally distributed service) are playing a different game, one where audience isn’t monetized in the traditional sense. This enables them to bask in the glow of awards without necessarily translating that into tangible evidence the public is widely embracing their product.
Although “House of Cards” made the biggest splash when the noms were unveiled July 18, perhaps the more symbolic example of this audience-challenged awards halo is “Arrested Development,” a show Netflix brought back from the dead. Three consecutive comedy series nominations and one win weren’t enough to perpetuate the comedy beyond its initial 2003-2006 run on Fox.
This time around, the Bluth family’s fortunes aren’t tethered to the vagaries of a Nielsen score, but rather an algorithm to which only the brass at Netflix is privy.
Yet if networks still play what amounts to a short game — how many viewers did you attract last night, or (more charitably) amass over the three days of DVR viewing advertisers grudgingly recognize, channels like HBO are pursuing a longer one, promoting an image, and brand, to establish their service as something consumers should want to have.
Even basic cable networks have witnessed the benefits of this kind of branding, particularly when they become embroiled in carriage negotiations with multichannel video program distributors. Sure, the old slogan “I want my MTV” had its day, but when financial push comes to shove, irate fans who want their “Mad Men” or “The Daily Show” fix potentially offer more formidable leverage — and an easier shorthand for the news media to digest and distill into headlines.
The obvious advantage of cablers emphasizing branding is that individual programs don’t have to rely on the demanding ratings criteria broadcasters employ. Witness the HBO series “Enlightened,” which earned two noms (including another for star-producer Laura Dern) even though it was one of those shows almost nobody beyond TV critics made time to watch.
Unlike networks that every year wind up triggering a mini-backlash by canceling some little-seen critical darling, from ABC’s “Happy Endings” to TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age,” HBO had the luxury of sustaining “Enlightened” through two seasons and what at least felt like an ending, before it succumbed to similar gravitational forces.
Netflix execs haven’t been shy about declaring their intent to follow the prestige playbook HBO has used for the past 25 years. In fact, it’s a sign of HBO’s maturation as a business that the critical buzz swarming around “Enlightened” wasn’t enough to keep it alive for another year.