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Netflix could learn a few things from cable television

It took FX some time to learn this, too


For years, Netflix never referred to itself as a network. As such it never had to abide by other conventions that cable or broadcast networks did. Now, however, Netflix is defining itself as an “internet network” and that means it needs to start treating itself as one.

Netflix needs to figure out if it’s TBS or HBO and start curating content for its audience based on that decision. Not from a financial perspective, but out of respect for the tens of millions subscribers the network now has. With more than 500 scripted series set to air this year, it’s harder than ever for audiences to pick out what is worth watching. As more mediocre shows are ordered in the battle for quantity of options over quality, it’s up to the networks to carefully curate their offerings.

History as told through FX

No one is doing this better than FX (and its sister network, FXX). For a long time, FX had similar issues. When the network launched in 1994, it didn’t have much going for it outside of Major League Baseball games that the network got through its parent company, Fox. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that FX started to take shape. Peter Liguori was in charge of programming at FX during the early ‘00s, and it was under him that shows like The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me premiered. It marked the first time FX series’ were being recognized by voting bodies at annual award shows (the Emmys, Golden Globes) and, most importantly, kickstarted the edgy tone FX would eventually become known for.

One of the biggest reasons FX has continues to be as successful as it is today is because the current head of programming, John Landgraf, is aware that it is not just a network; it curates. After years of suffering from poor ratings and being considered a low-tier network, Landgraf came aboard in 2005 and started working on series that would bring credibility to the network. He stopped focusing on ordering numerous shows and instead began to build up an empire of acclaimed showrunners (Ridley Scott, Ryan Murphy) and seasoned actors.

Netflix needs to start doing the same thing. The internet network has its own slate of acclaimed series like Orange is the New Black, The Crown, House of Cards and Stranger Things. But it’s also trying to build up its slate of slapstick, lowbrow comedies and even trying to burst into the reality TV realm with shows like Ultimate Beastmaster. In trying to build up this empire of niche shows that target every type of viewer around the world, poorly received series like Flaked and the fourth season of Arrested Development get pushed through without a second thought.

It’s not just about having more

Again, because Netflix doesn’t have to worry about the financial consequences of carrying a disappointing show, both from a ratings and critical perspective, its executives just keep testing the waters. Like HBO, it is completely reliant on subscriptions, and according to Netflix’s recent earnings report, subscriptions are steadily increasing around the world.

This means Netflix has the confidence and the financial backing to experiment. In December 2016, there were 24 original series that either premiered or returned. In January, there were 14 original series. In February, 11 new series will premiere. This doesn’t count the number of original series or films that Netflix will also debut and promote.

That’s the key word: promote. It’s not only that Netflix has unlimited space to carry series and films, but it’s which shows and movies get promoted on the front page. There’s only so much room to tease what’s premiering. As a result, there are new series that will never get the same attention as others. Sure, Santa Clarita Diet, a new series about zombies that stars Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant, will probably get great placement, but how about Legend Quest. Moreover, what exactly is Legend Quest?

The negative effect this carries

During a television conference last summer, FX’s Landgraf said the industry has been in a state of “peak TV” for the past few years. The number of scripted and unscripted series grows at an alarming rate, and Landgraf told reporters gathered it doesn’t benefit anyone.

“While there is more great television [now] than at any time in history, audiences are having more trouble than ever distinguishing the great from the merely competent," Landgraf said. "I also believe that there is so much U.S. television we have lost much of the thread of a coherent, collective conversation about what is good, what is very good and what is great.

Landgraf added that shows aren’t like cars; they can’t be made on a factory line by engineers or coders and produced at a rapid pace. Television shows need time and a certain level of attention from multiple people to grow.

“You could give me all the money in the world, and I still couldn't personally supervise 71 shows and give each series the attention it needed," Landgraf said. "Why are they [Netflix] making so many shows and is it efficient? I couldn't tell you.

“They can't double again and double again and double again because the entire earth's surface would be covered in Netflix shows in 20 years.”

Netflix’s formula has been working for the company so far — or that’s what CEO Reed Hastings has said. Netflix has never revealed how many people watch their shows, and the company doesn’t intend to release numbers anytime soon. But as Netflix’s community continues to grow, there will be more pressure on the internet network to not just cater, but curate. With an abundance of series out there to discover, networks need to help separate the mediocre from the phenomenal and focus on producing more of the latter.