When Netflix first started negotiating distribution deals for television shows, the standards and prices were set by a decades-old syndication strategy. That meant that Netflix made deals on content that had no interest to affiliates and cable stations - serialized dramas and shows that had yet to reach the 80-100 episode threshold.
Netflix relied on binge-viewing of content—the one place where heavily serialized and a lower episode count helped. As the model became more successful, they added prestige cable shows. Netflix syndication became a boon for some of these, the most notable being Breaking Bad, where the viewership increased sharply in the last three seasons.
The importance of Being the First Place to Binge For Content
But to quote FX Networks EVP of Research, Julie Piepenkotter, “Breaking Bad did a whole lot more for Netflix than Netflix did for Breaking Bad.” This is nakedly absurd when you first read it (Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has credited Netflix for allowing it to work beyond the second season). Piepenkotter is getting at something that’s trickier, at first, to work out: being the first place to binge-view a season is nearly as important as being the first place to watch an episode.
Consider what Netflix does to syndication deals for shows that have their entire runs available via Video on Demand before Netflix receives them: they slice the potential payment by up to 50%. Netflix understands the importance of being the first place to be able to binge for content. The studios that sell the content are growing reluctant to make full-season, On Demand deals because that means losing out on Netflix money. Networks, aware that word-of-mouth can sometimes take months to build around a show, don’t want to lose potential On Demand ad space because people just decide to wait for the Netflix binging session. To networks, Netflix is potentially cutting into their profits.
Binge-Viewing Only Works When There's a Surprise
Breaking Bad is the go-to example of Netflix’s ability to boost a TV shows prominence and ad revenue, but even AMC hasn’t had 100% success with the Netflix strategy. This spring, Mad Men saw its lowest premiere rating since season 4 or 5.
Let’s look at the content to see why this might be. Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead (the other AMC juggernaut) are a specific type of content where the weekly surprise is as important as anything else. Part of the experience is the week-to-week, the act breaks and the cliffhangers. Mad Men is about none of those things. Mad Men Creator, Mathew Weiner, has stated that he rarely considers the act breaks when writing his show, which means that watching Mad Men live is sub-optimal in its author’s eyes. He’s built a show for binge-watching and viewers have picked up on it.
The Rift Between Netflix and the Networks
And here’s where the rift between Netflix and networks becomes even clearer. Since Lionsgate produces Mad Men, AMC makes no money on the Netflix deal. All they can hope for is a boost in ratings due to the binge-viewers that only comes if the show somehow becomes a cultural hit that never loses its cache (i.e. Breaking Bad, True Detective, “Dudes with guns and problems shows”). A show about people getting old in the ‘60s is nearly the definition on non-standard compulsive viewer. Therefore, AMC would be happier to have the entire season of Mad Men to use before Netflix gets it. With On Demand content, AMC can brand the show as a part of AMC and potentially sell the ad space during the commercial breaks. They can also make sure that when cable subscribers find out that Mad Men, yet again, picked up steam around episode 10, they won’t get sad, hold their head in the hands, moan, and decide to wait for it “just come out on Netflix.” Instead, they can watch it immediately.
When Netflix capitalized on the old logic behind syndication and found cult serial dramas for cheap, it kick-started the binge-watching phenomenon. And now its dealing with networks that want binge-watching to happen within the network’s release window. How is that window extended? Netflix wants to own binge-viewing, but networks will exert their authority to ensure that doesn’t happen. Instead, the Amazon/HBO deal points to the future. The SVOD platforms will be comparable to TV Land or affiliate reruns and networks will own the rights to the most premium binge-watching experiences. Viewers have already extended the viewing window with DVR and season-long, catch-up marathons. Now, Netflix is dealing with the growing pains of a television industry that’s adapting to the new reality. The week-to-week model barely matters anymore. Netflix changed the landscape and the networks will take it back.