If content is king, the race to create original streaming video programming now has as many contenders as “Game of Thrones.” Last week, Yahoo announced that it is joining the likes of Netflix and Amazon by commissioning two original half-hour comedy series that will debut in 2015. On the same day, Microsoft announced its own plans for “Xbox Originals” — its own slate of TV-like programming for owners of what’s still best known as a video-gaming machine.
For Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer, the move makes perfect sense. With Google’s emergence in the past decade as the search powerhouse and the preferred email provider, Yahoo has been vulnerable — a portal without a purpose. By throwing its hat into the ring with Amazon and Netflix, it is positioning itself to be a “network” powerhouse for the new millennium.
It’s useful to consider the history of television in this regard. For the bulk of its lifetime, television was controlled by the Big Three (ABC, NBC and CBS). The ‘90s saw Fox and eventually The WB and UPN added to this mix, with cable finally breaking the old structure wide open in the late ‘90s. But in those early days, when television was as shiny and new as streaming seems now, those three dinosaurs were the pioneers.
It is worth noting that all three started as radio companies that took a gamble on a new technology. ABC and CBS were stations in their own right, while NBC was a conglomeration of two networks into a single entity. A fourth station, the DuMont Television Network, did not survive its infancy and folded in 1956 (a good warning for other companies wishing to try their hand at Netflix’s game). For the better part of four decades, these three companies were the primary distributers of video content (though no one thought of it as that) for the entire nation.
With its newly announced content strategy, Yahoo is positioning itself, along with Netflix and Amazon, to fill that role for the new century. There are dozens of competitors that would like a shot at the title, including the existing television networks. Players like Hulu, Microsoft and Google could still break through, and it’s not inconceivable to think that a juggernaut like Facebook might eventually get into the content game as well. For the moment, though, Yahoo seems best positioned to grab the kind of attention that Netflix did with successes like “House of Cards.”
Of course, the next question that will come from any cord-cutter is, “Why do we need distribution giants anyway?” The fantasy of the digital age has always been the eventual removal of middle man - the idea that at some point consumers will purchase content directly from artists who will receive 100 percent of the profit rather than the tiny fraction afforded by some unctuous exec in a suit. But the pitfalls of this approach have already been revealed by the industry that has already faced the challenge of digital conversion (with very mixed results): the music business.
When Radiohead released “In Rainbows” in 2007, it was a game changer. It was a band at the peak of its popularity and at the time considered the most forward-looking (mainstream) group. It had a rabid fan base and a dedicated media following. Even with zero promotional support from a label, the word got out and the record sold in droves. Since then, countless direct digital albums have been released, but by and large it takes a name to move them. You can record all of the garage rock masterpieces you want, but if no one hears them, they are a tree falling in the proverbial forest.
It is hard to imagine “House of Cards” or “Orange Is the New Black” having the success they did without the investment and massive promotional campaigns that Netflix ran for both.
Additionally, TV is a far more collaborative medium than music. A band can have very few members. Modern technology has made it possible for even one person to produce a professional quality recording. Video content, even at its most stripped down, requires writers, directors, actors, costume people, set designers, camera men, editors, etc.
The larger networks also have the advantage of filling these various positions with known talent. Several web series had been produced prior to “House of Cards,” but it was the draw of Spacey, Robin Wright, and Fincher that made this the one to watch.
Beyond that, Netflix and its marketers could also ensure that its shows were prominently reviewed in all the right publications, ensuring a solid critical buzz ahead of its “premieres.”
Thus far Yahoo has only announced creative talent (cult-comedy director Paul Fieg of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Bridesmaids” fame being the biggest name), but it’s hard to imagine that Mayer and her team won’t employ the same strategy of big names, big publicity and strong reviews to force their product into the public consciousness.
For those who fear that having a large distribution network will once again result in safe, middlebrow entertainment always being favored over edgier, more intelligent fare, there is hope as well. Due to the logistics of streaming, there will always be largely accurate data for viewership (unlike the glorified sample polling that is the Nielsen Rating System). Low-rated but beloved shows like NBC's “Community” or “Hannibal,” BBC America’s “Orphan Black” or even CBS’s “The Good Wife” could all be judged on their actual, loyal viewership and not on guestimate data or demographics.
Regardless of the exact shape that it takes, it is clear that we are on the precipice of a sea change in the media landscape. Whether or not it works out for Yahoo, it’s clear that this is a gamble that it has to take, at least in part to avoid becoming the DuMont Television Network of the new age.
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