Netflix has just picked up Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a new show from Tina Fey and her 30 Rock collaborator Robert Carlock. The show was originally intended for NBC this spring but has since found greener pastures online with a two-season commitment from Netflix. (NBC, for clarity, is still producing the series.)
With Tina Fey’s track record as a writer few people would have reason to question that Kimmy Schmidt will be a comedic success. So why would NBC pass it up? Well, it’s simple. NBC has very little use for critical success anymore.
What we do as modern viewers with our most beloved TV shows is binge-watch. We no longer need to wait for the next installment of our favorite program, so we don’t. Netflix swooped in to fill that void. NBC is not where you go to binge-watch. By it’s very nature, it can’t be. NBC is a company that live-broadcasts programs into homes 24 hours a day. That means in order to be successful whatever they’re airing must be able to be viewed whenever a viewer happens to tune into it. It used to be that people would schedule a time to settle in front of their TVs to watch a specific show. “I need the TV, my show is on at 8:00.” Fewer and fewer people are sticking to those schedules anymore.
There’s a reason why morning shows consist of dozens of short segments on various topics that interest a huge amount of people. The networks have no idea when somebody might wake up and turn their TV on or what they may be interested in. So, like the radio, they jump around from segment to segment only staying with a topic long enough to satisfy a passing interest. Find the hosts you like, leave the screen on and tune in and out as you please during your morning ritual. Late night TV essentially functions the same way. As NBC is slowly finding out, prime time TV is going to end up in the same pattern.
It’s no longer in NBC’s interest to create high-quality long form content anymore. What they’ll be smart to focus on is Shark Tank style shows, where the viewers is invited to watch as much or as little as they like, or 30 minute sitcoms that people feel less invested in. The formula is working for CBS, the nation’s highest rated network. The-Two-and-a-Half-Men and Big-Bang-Theory-style shows of the network are what keep that ship afloat, not The Good Wife. Even CSI serves to underline this point. It says something that the highest rated drama in the country does not need to be seen in order, or even in full, to be enjoyed.
Netflix, on the other hand, is a different story. Netflix is a streaming service that operates without advertising and therefore is not beholden to nightly ratings reports or sponsors demands. They’re not even completely beholden to public interest. If you like one show they have the exclusive rights to you’ll purchase the service and therefore pay everything else they produce. If a show isn’t popular on a broadcast network the advertisers don’t pay for the eyeballs they aren’t getting and the show gets pulled. Netflix, however, is free to be an old-fashioned patron of the arts. They can give a show time to find an audience and whenever that audience is found immediately provide them with every episode that’s been produced.
30 Rock was a highly acclaimed and much beloved show on NBC. It’s ratings on the other hand… well, they were never very good. It’s a marvel and a miracle that NBC kept Fey and company for as long as they did. Other recent NBC comedies, such as A to Z and Bad Judge, didn’t get that chance and it’s doubtful that any others will. Unless the audience shows up week to week (and immediately) there simply isn’t a financial incentive for them to creep along. Comedies like 30 Rock or The Office, or to use modern examples Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project, benefit from the binge watching that Fox’s deal with Netflix has provided them. It gives them a chance to build jokes and immerse the viewer in the worlds and voices that the shows are creating.
However, traditional three camera sitcoms simply become grating to watch in batches. It’s unlikely that you’ll see Netflix or a similar company doing such a show anytime soon. Everyone loves an episode of Friends but if you attempt to swallow a dozen at once it quickly becomes apparent that the lack of depth in each chapter makes the experience fairly hollow.
Netflix is flush with cash right now and they’re investing it fast. Why shouldn’t they? Again, you only need to be interested in one show on their service (even a show they don’t produce!) to spend the money to subsidize everything else they create. Consumers don’t always know best. As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Netflix’s model puts the producers and the artists back in the driver’s seat where they belong. If it was up to viewers we would continue to see dozens of American Idol clones and Arrested Development would have never been produced or resurrected.
Industry leaders see the writing on the wall. In the case of Kimmy Schmidt, one NBC executive said “When the opportunity arose for Tina Fey and Robert Carlock to premiere their new show on Netflix with a two-season commitment, we decided this was the best possible scenario to launch this captivating new series. While it was originally developed for NBC, we have a very drama-heavy mid-season schedule so we’re thrilled about this Netflix opportunity; it’s an instant win-win for everyone.”
“The very construct of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — its offbeat premise, hilarious and rich characters and serialized storytelling — make it a perfect Netflix comedy series,” said Cindy Holland, VP Original Content at Netflix.
Netflix and all it’s resurrected series, such as The Killing, Arrested Development, and Longmire, sort of stand alone here too. HBO is still laboring under its deals with the cable companies, promising but still not delivering an online-only subscription, still trickling episodes out week by painful week. Hulu and it’s advertising partners are on the same schedule, complicating matters with sponsor feedback and weekly ratings numbers driving the ship of which shows it will produce. Amazon has made some promising steps towards produce original content with it’s Prime service and it’s recent hit series Transparent. One hopes they’ll provide Netflix with some much-needed competition in the arena for the new King of Primetime.
Don’t feel bad though, broadcast networks aren’t going away anytime soon. The instantaneousness and reliability of the service they provide will always be a useful tool for audiences. There’s no better place to watch the Superbowl. The Internet simply isn’t ready to reliably carry that kind of event to such a large audience in perfect tandem. News programs, talk shows, musical performances, and award shows will never benefit from binge-watching and barely benefit from being available online. We’ll simply see a shift towards focusing on this type of content as the most useful way for a consumer to make use of the networks as tool.
TV is an always-changing market. For once it is leading the pack in content industries for how to better service consumers in an ever-connected market. The music industry would do well to take note of the power of a streaming service to woo consumers.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, by the way, looks fantastic.