Tuned In

Netflix, Cable and Redefining the ‘Hit’

As Netflix creates original series — without weekly airings or ratings — it will further tangle the already knotty question of what constitutes a "hit" in television now

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I’m not at the TCA TV critics’ tour in Pasadena, Calif., this winter — someone’s gotta stay out East to shovel if it snows — but I’ve been keeping close enough tabs on the announcements and on Twitter to know that one of the big news stories this year is what Netflix is up to. The streaming-video company is getting big into original series this year, including the Kevin Spacey political drama House of Cards debuting next month and the reunion of Arrested Development, whose cast will be doing a panel at TCA.

Netflix has not been without critics, including FX chief John Landgraf, who knocked Netflix for not releasing data as to how many people watch its programs. Though I followed his remarks secondhand through reporters in Pasadena, he made much the same criticism last year at the TCA FX panel I did attend: that unlike TV networks that release Nielsen data, Netflix is not offering a “report card” by which to judge its success.

Of course, that’s coming from a competitor. (Though one of the ways that these new venues for TV are complicating the business is by raising questions like: Who exactly are Netflix’s closest competitors? Cable channels like FX? Pay channels like HBO? Hulu? YouTube? All or none of the above?)

But Landgraf is right that Netflix’s emergence as a content creator will further tangle the already knotty question of what constitutes a “hit” in television now.

The basic question is almost a moral one: Is a “hit” a show that a lot of people watch, or one that is a business success for its maker? The former is a measure of absolute reach and cultural influence. (Though that’s not cut-and-dried either — people log millions of hours watching Wheel of Fortune a year, but that doesn’t mean it has proportionally deep cultural influence). The latter is, well, what determines whether a show stays on the air.

And that became a complicated question long before Netflix. I say this a lot, but it bears repeating: no one makes money from the physical act of your watching a show. They make money because advertisers will pay for ads because you’re watching (in which case your value depends on your demographic worth to advertisers). Or — with the rise of HBO and Showtime — because you subscribe to their service. Or — as digital media have multiplied — because you pay to download the show or watch it on demand or on DVD, or buy ancillary soundtracks and iTunes downloads.

Thus we live in an era of cable “hits” that have a couple of million viewers and network TV “bombs” that have twice the total audience. We have programmers like HBO and Showtime that keep shows around because of calculations that are as much art as science: because they lend an aura of prestige, or because, though overall ratings are low, they bring in a viewership that otherwise would never watch the channel at all. If a mere million people watch a show on Starz, but every one of them subscribes to Starz solely to get that show, that show is a hit.

Now enter Netflix — and Hulu (which has started running original programming) and maybe others to come: pure-digital enterprises that never “air” anything in a way that is measured by Nielsen boxes. You may never know how many people watch their programs, if they choose to keep their streaming data to themselves.

And if you did know, what would it tell you? As with HBO, the money for Netflix is not in advertising but subscribers. Viewership for a given show is correlated to that, but not absolutely. More important is the general, less quantifiable, sense that the service is something you need to have to be culturally current.

A further twist with Netflix is that people won’t watch their shows as they do the first run of Game of Thrones, a week at a time. They’ll watch like people watch series on DVD (or on Netflix): the company will post the entire season of a House of Cards or Arrested Development, and you’ll watch all in one marathon, or gradually over a year.

This won’t just potentially change the way we measure success in the TV business. Ultimately, it could change the very way we experience TV as a cultural artifact and the way we share and discuss it. TV criticism and fandom have changed a lot with the growth of online discussion forums and recaps. Those could in turn change again if more shows follow the Netflix model. If you watch House of Cards over a weekend, and I watch it over three months, will it support the same kind of online recapping and fan communities?

It’s all a fascinating change — and, I’ll bet, a challenge for companies like Netflix that have to promote shows without the phenomenon of buzz building over time through weekly airings. How will you know, in this new environment, if a new show is a hit or not? Maybe simply by seeing whether they ever make another episode of it.