Netflix the game changer

Left: Netflix's US$120-million The Get Down, starring Herizen Guardiola and Justice Smith, is one of the most expensive TV shows made. Above: FX Networks chief John Landgraf.
Netflix's US$120-million The Get Down, starring Herizen Guardiola and Justice Smith, is one of the most expensive TV shows made.PHOTOS: NETFLIX, BLOOMBERG
Left: Netflix's US$120-million The Get Down, starring Herizen Guardiola and Justice Smith, is one of the most expensive TV shows made. Above: FX Networks chief John Landgraf.
FX Networks chief John Landgraf.PHOTOS: NETFLIX, BLOOMBERG

The streaming service's prodigious output of original shows and willingness to spend big bucks worry network rivals

Content-streaming service Netflix has disrupted the television industry and delighted binge-watchers and critics in recent years.

However, one group that is not cheering are the traditional TV channels, which are finding themselves outspent and outmanoeuvred by the new TV giant.

No American TV executive has been more outspoken about this than FX Networks chief John Landgraf, who has blamed Netflix for what he says is a glut of original series. He believes this phenomenon, which he dubbed "peak TV", makes it harder for viewers to separate the wheat from the chaff and find good programmes that they like.

Last week, Mr Landgraf upped the ante, warning that the platform's prodigious output of shows may eventually give it a monopoly over TV content and creators, in the same way that Facebook dominates social media and Google Internet searches.

Addressing a group of American TV critics who gathered in Beverly Hills recently for previews of upcoming shows, Mr Landgraf - whom some critics have described as "the smartest man in TV" and "TV's philosopher king" - said: "It would be particularly bad for storytellers and our culture if one company were able to seize a 40 or 50 or 60 per cent market share in storytelling."

The FX chief - whose network makes hit shows such as American Horror Story and The Americans - says there will be more than 500 original scripted series for adults in the United States next year.

Netflix accounts for 71 of the more than 500 original scripted series for adults in the US next year.

Netflix alone accounts for 71, compared with FX's 17 or 18, and the overall number of original shows is expected to continue to grow the following year, with another streaming service, Amazon, going on a spending spree to make more of its own programmes.

Mr Landgraf argued that this sheer volume inevitably means less quality control and noted that while traditional networks need to ensure quality to boost ratings and retain advertisers, Netflix does not, instead relying on subscriptions and keeping its viewership numbers a secret.

This is one reason he believes "the average quality of the shows (Netflix) puts out is not as good as ours - and I think that's a lack of careful attention". He did not attempt to quantify this claim, although at next month's Emmys, FX is up for 56 awards, two more than Netflix's 54 nominations.

Speaking to the same group of critics as Mr Landgraf, Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos was grilled about the quality of some of its offerings.

One reporter asked if its renewal of the widely panned Real Rob - a sitcom about comedian Rob Schneider that debuted last year - was "confirmation that it is literally impossible for a Netflix show not to get a second season".

Mr Sarandos laughed this off, claiming that Schneider "has a ton of fans who love this show and we're proud to put it on, so it supports itself just fine".

In addition, he said Netflix looks not just for shows "that are going to pop right away", but also those "that have multiple-season arcs... and that's why our shows tend to go more than one season".

He confirmed that the company will continue to spend big on original and acquired content and said the US$6 billion (S$8 billion) budgeted for this year will go up next year.

But Netflix's deep pockets is changing the game for the other players. For example, this year sees it unveiling two of the most expensive TV shows made - the US$120-million Baz Luhrmann musical series, The Get Down, and the US$156-million royal drama, The Crown.

In an exchange published in The Hollywood Reporter last week, NBCUniversal chief Bonnie Hammer told Mr Sarandos that sort of expenditure is "starting to absolutely kill us poor people here in basic cable" because the producers of NBC's shows hear what Netflix is paying and want to be paid more too.

Yet, despite his criticism of Netflix, Mr Landgraf conceded that the streaming service does put out some quality programming, including the comedy Master Of None, which he is a fan of.

The series by Asian-American comedian Aziz Ansari also exemplifies one area Netflix seems to be doing better in than many traditional channels: making shows that feature ethnic minorities and women, which include series such as the acclaimed prison drama Orange Is The New Black.

Freedom from ratings pressures means subscription-based services have greater freedom to take creative risks and make shows with less obvious commercial appeal.

Netflix is also at the forefront of creating original series outside the US, including for non-English- speaking markets.

Mr Landgraf described a report last year in trade magazine Variety on the lack of female and minority directors on major TV shows as a "well-deserved kick in the butt".

It prompted him to ask all FX showrunners to be more inclusive in their hiring and, as a result, female and minority directors will now occupy more than half of the network's 149 directing slots for its next TV season.

"We hope the example of FX more than quadrupling our percentage of diverse and female directors in such a short time sends a message to our whole industry that it is well past time for change to happen."

• The 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place on Sept 18.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2016, with the headline 'Netflix the game changer'. Print Edition | Subscribe