Netflix’s push into original content was largely touched off by a desire to insulate itself from incumbents withholding content from their own potential competitor; by enhancing the value of their service beyond simply redistributing movies and TV shows from other services, they could ensure people would continue subscribing even if the legacy players completely cut them off, and perhaps provide an inducement for new subscribers. It ended up greatly accelerating the transformation of the video landscape – and Netflix had some tricks in its arsenal completely unavailable to the legacy players.
Without being tied to a linear television schedule, Netflix touched off heated debate with its strategy of releasing every episode in each “season” of its shows at once, capitalizing on the “binging” strategy that many of its customers used to catch up on old cable series. That also paid off in benefits for creative freedom, as producers were able to avoid the cheap tricks such as cliffhangers used to keep people coming back to traditional television series. Netflix has also capitalized on its ability to collect data from subscribers to aid in development; it signed off on House of Cards after determining their subscribers included enough fans of Spacey, director David Fincher and political thrillers, including those that ordered the original UK series on which the show was based through its original DVD-by-mail service, as well as enough overlap between those groups, to make it worthwhile, and even targeted its advertising of the series differently to different audiences.
Amazon’s own video service, which it originally treated almost as an afterthought and an add-on to its Prime fast-shipping service but which has begun to emerge as Netflix’s biggest rival, soon followed suit, engaging on its own twist on television’s traditional “pilot season” by posting pilots on its web site for a month or so and using user data and votes to determine what to turn into series. Its focus has largely been on comedies, with its first two original series fitting the mold with Betas and Alpha House, the latter starring John Goodman and Bill Murray. At the 2015 Emmys, its Transparent picked up five nominations on the main show and two wins, including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, joining The Daily Show as the only non-HBO shows to win multiple awards on the main show, while Netflix won only its second main-show award, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Orange is the New Black. Even Hulu, a joint venture of ABC, NBC, and Fox designed as a legal avenue for people to view their content and that of other traditional television networks online, has made strides into original content not originating on a traditional television network at all.
Since Vince McMahon took over the World Wrestling Federation from his father in the 1980s, the WWE has referred to itself as “sports entertainment”, a term that (among other things) reflects its status as a form of entertainment that looks superficially like sport, but isn’t. By the dawn of the 2010s the WWE wanted to get in on the sports cable boom by launching its own network, going so far as to announce a launch in 2012, but as mentioned in Chapter 7 of the book, cable operators are leery of launching new networks when not forced to by media conglomerates. Cable operators were only willing to pay the WWE 20 cents a subscriber for a standard sports network, and even after making it a premium outlet airing most of the company’s monthly pay-per-views that are the bread and butter of its business, the company still found cable operators wouldn’t do business on terms acceptable to them. Stymied by the cable operators at every turn, the WWE took a new route to the launch of its own network, one befitting its pseudosport status but which if anything placed it ahead of the curve compared to what real sports were doing, riding the wave that was changing the landscape of video distribution, and standing poised to change the nature of the business in a way not seen since McMahon took over the company and proceeded to use cable television and pay-per-view to systematically dismantle the network of regional promotions that had dominated professional wrestling to that point.
At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, WWE finally unveiled its plans for its network, which gave its subscribers access to the vast array of content in its back library, which pretty much included every wrestling show that mattered from the 80s and 90s thanks to the numerous promotions whose footage WWE had purchased over the years, plus documentaries on wrestling history and replays of WWE’s main shows Monday Night Raw and Friday Night SmackDown, both on demand and on a linear network that also contained live pre- and post-shows for Raw and SmackDown, first-run airings for secondary shows Superstars and NXT, and the crown jewel of the network, all the company’s monthly pay-per-views, including its biggest event of the year, WrestleMania. All this would be available for $9.99 a month; to put that in perspective, WrestleMania cost $55 in HD while other PPVs cost $45, meaning the network would pay for itself if you otherwise ordered just three PPVs. Oh, and it would be available entirely through the Internet, either through WWE.com or on streaming devices such as Roku or Apple TV. WWE felt they were uniquely positioned to blaze a trail in this space; its data suggest WWE fans consume five times more content online than average and are twice as likely to own a streaming device, with 60% voicing their willingness to watch a WWE Network on there.
The project got off to a rocky start. Although cable operators would seemingly still make more money by airing WWE’s pay-per-views than not (McMahon called it “found money for them”), DirecTV announced it was dropping all PPVs while Dish Network decided it would decide whether or not to carry each PPV on a case-by-case basis. Needing a million subscriptions to break even, the company seemed to plateau at about two-thirds of that number, which, combined with a new television deal with USA and SyFy for Raw and SmackDown that fell far short of expectations given the media landscape, sent share prices tumbling. In October, the company dropped a requirement for a six-month commitment. But by the dawn of 2015, the network crossed the million-subscriber threshold and seemed poised to stay there even after a controversial finish to the Royal Rumble event caused #CancelWWENetwork to trend on Twitter and after WrestleMania had come and gone.
For outlets that might otherwise attempt to collect subscription money from cable operators, “over-the-top” platforms such as WWE Network are looking like increasingly viable approaches. Upon leaving Fox News in 2011, conservative political commentator Glenn Beck elected to start his own streaming news network anchored by a continuation of his TV show and a simulcast of his radio show, initially called “GBTV” but later renamed TheBlaze. It proved popular enough to earn a slot on Dish Network and other pay-TV providers the following year, while still maintaining 300,000 customers paying $9.99 a month to stream it directly. YouTube introduced a series of sports-oriented channels carrying niche content in 2011. The UFC launched the “Fight Pass” network carrying not only cards not shown on pay-per-view or as part of its contract with Fox, but even cards from other MMA promotions. The NFL launched its own streaming service, NFL Now, in 2014, boasting a high degree of customization based on customers’ favorite teams, delivering relevant news, highlights, archival footage, and other content. Several other entities, including Sports Illustrated and the NHL, came together to launch 120 Sports, delivering fast-paced news, highlights, and commentary in 120 seconds or less. Even major media companies have taken the plunge. In November 2014 CBS launched CBSN, a 24-hour news network with 15 hours of live anchored coverage per weekday, with the ability to start watching at any point in each hour, and additional content from other CBS properties.
Nor does turning to these streaming services have to mean watching on the tiny screen of a smartphone, tablet, or even laptop. A booming industry of devices makes it possible to stream content from all over the Web to the same television set you might otherwise hook up to a cable box, including “smart TVs” that can connect to online sources without going through any sort of intermediary at all, and indeed most streaming services catering to cord-cutters tend to focus more on these devices than on more general-purpose computing devices. Roku has been the longtime leader in this field, making devices since 2008, with Apple and Google joining them with their own platforms and Amazon jumping into the field with Fire TV in 2014. But the most popular such devices might be game consoles from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo; as they have added online capabilities while streaming boxes incorporate the ability to play games, the line between the two has become decidedly blurred and might be in the process of vanishing entirely. Also in 2014, Google shook up the field with the Chromecast, a small device resembling a USB stick with most of the same functionality of existing streaming boxes plus “casting” technology that allows one to access a video on their phone and “cast” it to the device. Roku and Amazon have already since introduced their own similar streaming sticks.
More than any streaming service, it’s this that most exemplifies the change coming over the living room and the existential threat it poses to cable TV as we know it today. Soon your entire entertainment experience will be controlled by a single device that unites video player, game console, and potentially, even desktop computer, and if the FCC gets its way, it’ll serve as your cable box too – one device that serves as the gateway to the entire universe of visual entertainment, with traditional cable TV at best one source of it, potentially presented to the consumer as many sources. Content providers are already maneuvering to take full advantage of this revolution, but it’s an open question how or whether legacy cable and broadcast programmers will adjust to it, or whether they’ll find themselves swept up in its wake.