The likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime have revolutionised the small screen both in terms of production and viewing culture. Having tempted the crème de la crème of Hollywood, from Robert De Niro to Woody Allen, and produced a string of mainstream hits that parallel the success of network television, this relatively new medium displays little sign of losing momentum.
The insurgence of these streaming platforms has responded to the gap in the market left by outdated physical box-sets and pricey satellite and cable subscriptions, offering an economical and bespoke alternative. They have prospered in their ability to expose new audiences to the preexisting back catalogue of great television and cinema, which has enabled the renaissance of many-a-hit gone by from Prison Break to The West Wing. But by far their biggest triumph has been in the success of their original content, which has established Netflix’s own original series’ as perhaps even more highly anticipated than the likes of HBO’s. This content has provided a long-needed antidote to a television market riddled with virile Reality TV and a Hollywood that refuses to invest in meaningful narratives. However, the streaming services risk digging their own graves if they overwhelm audiences.
“The Grand Tour guzzled a £160 million budget.”
My fear is that the great television which ordinarily would receive top-billing if broadcast by the BBC or Sky, is not receiving due diligence nor fulfilling it’s market potential on streaming services. Take Amazon, for example, who have lavished their streaming service with astronomical investment. Their current trigger-happy state has seen them releasing more high-end content than even the most avid of cinematic appetites could consume. Most notably, The Grand Tour guzzled a £160 million budget. This was obviously a strategic manoeuvre, calculated to raise the profile of their streaming service in general and to confront Netflix with some worthy competition, rather than simply elicit a quick financial return. Nonetheless it places a phenomenal pressure to return that investment or otherwise disincentivise prospective original content. If Amazon’s gamble does not pay off, confidence in other original content will waiver and they will likely begin to shy away from creative risks.
So far, this relatively new industry has derived curb appeal from its ability to make exciting, innovative television and film that simply would not have been made within a conventional television production framework. We don’t want this creativity to be stunted by the premature ejaculation of original content that risks rendering streaming services in the same catastrophic predicament as Hollywood: devoid of originality and as dependent on pre-sold franchises as junkies to heroin.
Original series’ have become the USP of streaming platforms, around which they centre their advertising campaigns and attempt to build their individual sense of brand. Competitors entering the market seek to prove their credibility in the quality of their original content, and meanwhile Netflix and Amazon engage themselves in a fierce contest to see who can offer the best value for money. But quality always trumps quality.
Streaming platforms’ reluctance to release audience-viewing figures suggests that there is still a considerable gap to be bridged between them and their traditional network rivals, who can still outrank them in their brutish ability to attract mammoth audiences in prime time slots with big-budget productions. This disparity seemingly hinges on the difference in marketing approaches; streaming services have perhaps become over-reliant on hype and word-of-mouth to attract audiences. Of course, this is symptomatic of the very nature of streaming, which is obviously not contingent on a one-off time-slot around which all efforts must be focused.
Streaming is founded on an entirely new economic model that has borne a viewing culture that offers customers the freedom to tailor their viewing experience, to binge or not to binge. Their aim is seemingly to be all things to all people, to cater to all tastes and all audiences. But this objective neglects that the best television and cinema transcends individual taste. Netflix’s flagship original series Orange Is The New Black was proof of this; a shot in the dark that exceeded the platform’s humble expectations by captivating mainstream audiences, and demonstrating the potential of the “hype” culture.
Whilst this “hype” culture remains an effective means of propelling new series to prominence, the more crowded the marketplace of original content becomes, the hotter the competition and the more challenging it will be to manufacture out-the-gate hits. So far, original content continues to be fresh, exciting, and push the boundaries, but streaming services should remember to err on the side of caution: no one likes an anti-climax.