Back at the beginning of the year, I suggested five ways that television could save itself in 2014: new year’s resolutions that the networks needed to follow as they navigated “this strange new world of streaming, stacking and binge-viewing.”
Those 2014 resolutions:
- cultivate more event programming (check: they are embracing more awards shows and live events),
- work to make C7 – getting paid for commercials viewings up to seven days after the original air date – the new advertising standard (check: the networks made important C7 strides this year),
- plan for life after talent competitions (half a check: Fox did try to do that after dropping The X Factor, but its solution was the quickly-canceled reality series Utopia),
- plan more limited series (check: Showtime’s Twin Peaks revival and a new limited series with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, among many others) and
- challenge Netflix by pushing for more in-season stacking rights and cultivating more unique programming (nope: the stacking struggle still continues, and aside from the terrific Black-ish, I wouldn’t categorize any of the new broadcast shows as “unique”).
With 2015 just around the corner, it’s time for a fresh set of TV resolutions. But this year, I’ve departed from the one-resolution-fits-all approach in favor of individual resolutions for the industry’s key players.
The streaming service’s deafening buzz continued in 2014, despite the fact that Netflix didn’t launch any new shows this year on the level of 2013’s House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Its newest original series, the just-released Marco Polo, has been excoriated by critics. Yes, Orange and House are still racking up nominations and awards, but Netflix desperately needs a couple of its very promising upcoming shows, like the Kyle Chandler drama Bloodline, to break out.
It took some time, but Amazon finally has its own signature series with Transparent, which like Netflix’s Orange, is legitimately among the best shows on TV (and received two Golden Globes nominations, giving Amazon its first-ever major awards recognition). But that also raises the bar considerably for its other series, which aren’t measuring up (August’s third round of TV pilots seemed like a step back from the second round, which had included Transparent). Expectations will be high for its fourth round of pilots, debuting early in the new year, to yield at least one groundbreaking show like Transparent.
In 2014, Hulu made some big moves to try and stay in the race with Netflix and Amazon, including an $80 million-plus deal acquiring the rights to all seasons of South Park and ordering three new series produced by the likes of J.J. Abrams, Jason Reitman and Amy Poehler. But those new shows, and South Park, need to deliver, and make Hulu a worthy streaming competitior. Oh, and Hulu, you know how you’ve been considering cutting back the number of ads running on Hulu Plus? Do that. Immediately.
One of the biggest events of 2015 will be the launch of HBO’s standalone companion to HBO Go (whatever it ends up being called), which HBO will sell direct to consumers. From pricing to infrastructure, this will have a seismic impact as more audiences consider “cutting the cord.” (HBO’s decision to outsource its streaming infrastucture to MLB Advanced Media instead of relying on its shaky in-house service is a good first step.) And other services like Showtime, which is also planning its own standalone version of Showtime Anytime in 2015, will be intently watching HBO’s rollout.
Showtime Networks President David Nevins said to me in October that in his battle with HBO, “we have the dominant show there a lot of the year,” including summer (Ray Donovan), fall (Homeland) and winter (Shameless). “But,” he admitted, “Game of Thrones still reigns supreme in the spring!” The network needs to close that gap, and find a series that will make a bigger spring impact than Nurse Jackie, which airs its final season this spring. One possibility: Happyish, which Showtime has recast with Steve Coogan after original star Philip Seymour Hoffman’s shocking death in February.
This fall, the broadcast networks went on a development spree in which they made deals for seemingly every movie released in the past several decades. But the Fargos of the world are few and far between. Instead, the broadcasters need to take a cue from fall’s biggest successes, including How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish and The Flash: distinctive writing, and standout performances, are what keep audiences watching week after week, not a recognizable brand.
USA and AMC learned this lesson the hard way this year, as they were forced to retrench after trying to expand beyond their core audiences and taking their focus of the shows that resonate most with their audiences. Especially as consumers continue shaving the cord, if not cutting it all together, they need reasons to keep watching their favorite networks. If AMC’s upcoming Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Caul Saul, doesn’t deliver, the network is going to have a difficult time convincing viewers to keep tuning in for any shows not called The Walking Dead.
We’ve reached the saturation point for quality TV shows, but new content providers are still trying to enter the fray, including Sony PlayStation Network, with its upcoming detective series Powers. At this point, there’s simply no room for anything less than the very best. Upstart content providers: is your new series as phenomenal as Orange is the New Black or Transparent? If the answer is no, don’t bother: take a cue from Xbox Entertainment Studios and fold up shop.