When it comes to television, it seems all eyes are on the mythical Apple “iTV.” But while the media focuses on the hype and hardware rumors, something else might be brewing right now that could wind up revolutionizing the television industry: Online alternatives to cable TV, like Hulu and Netflix, are increasingly delivering their own original content.
It’s almost like these big cheeses of streaming services, which have long suffered contentious programming deals, are giving the middle finger to the entertainment industry and saying, “Forget it! We’ll do it ourselves.” Not that they’re ditching deals with NBC, Fox, Comedy Central and the rest (at least for now), but they are clearly diversifying their offerings, hoping to rely less on these content partners. If these efforts succeed, it could completely change the way we get and consume entertainment programming across a variety of media.
On Tuesday, Hulu just launched a 13-episode series called Battleground, a new show that follows a U.S. Senate campaign set in Wisconsin, and it’s hunting for more. And Netflix recently rocked out Lilyhammer, an original series about a mobster and his trek to Norway, eight episodes of which are already live. In addition, the DVD and streaming giant began putting the pieces in place last year for a Kevin Spacey drama called House of Cards to debut later this year, and word has it, it’s also producing 13 episodes of Orange is the New Black, a comedy series from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. The series will be based on the real-life story of a communications exec who was sent to a women’s prison on drug charges. Then there’s the highly anticipated return of Arrested Development via Netflix, slated for 2013.
These aren’t low-budget Internet projects put out by kids with a camcorder and some time to kill. These projects have production value, and have lined up professionals in the entertainment industry. There’s even a rumor that CBS is in talks to create programs for Netflix.
This reminds me of where HBO, AMC, Showtime and other channels were a little over a decade ago. Back then, they were solely in the business of dishing out titles from the movie studios. But eventually they realized they needed other projects that gave them more control and fleshed out their offerings, so they invested in exclusive content. We all know what happened after that — they broke out some game-changing shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, which lead to current hits like True Blood, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Dexter and Homeland. These are some of the best programs to ever grace the boob tube, and they have set a tone for others to come up with their own takes on “destination TV.” (Even TVLand has a hit on its hands with Hot in Cleveland.)
These days, among those taking the cue are Netflix and Hulu. This is a significant development for many reasons. It has been widely reported that Netflix sees HBO as a serious rival. Given that much of the former’s popularity relies on streaming these days, it’s a no-brainer that a heavy hitter like HBO streaming its own content to smartphones, tablets and Internet-connected set-top boxes would hit Netflix where it hurts. In December, CEO Reed Hastings even described HBO Go as “the competitor we fear most.” And it should. The cable channel has a serious value proposition on its hands with original programming, and its HBO Go app gives it new life in the streaming space. Add the fact that this massively popular content provider denies distribution via Netflix and Hulu, and that has to sting quite a bit.
But it’s not just HBO. Both streaming companies, which are the undisputed heavyweights in this space, have had their fair share of issues lining up or keeping content partners. So is it any wonder that they’re doing what many cable channels did years ago and turning to original programming?
Honestly, the time is ripe for them to strike. HBO and the others seem to be merely dipping a toe into streaming because they’re protecting relationships with cable TV providers who see the technolgy as a threat to their cable TV subscription model. But if the cable channels lose a sizable chunk of audience share due to professionally produced and critically acclaimed original streaming content, it could be just the thing that gets them to finally reevaluate their stale old models of TV distribution. At the least, they might treat streaming as more than just a side venture or hobby. Ideally, though, it may inspire changes across the entire TV distribution playing field.
In other words, this could be the kick in the pants that cable channels need to finally indulge more modern ways of delivering their content, including — gasp! — direct/individual subscriptions or online-only/app-only service plans.
At this point, I know it’s a bit early to peg a complete reinvention of television based on these early Internet-only offerings. But if the past is any indication, there’s potential here… if Netflix and Hulu can score some bona fide successes. If they can do that, they might finally spark the revolution that so many of us have been waiting for.