Can Netflix save TV?

By rescuing cancelled shows, the company has a chance to democratize the viewing experience like never before

Topics: Pajiba, Netflix, house of cards, Arrested Development, TBS, Firefly, Stargate, ,

Can Netflix save TV? (Credit: 20th Century Fox)
This piece originally appeared on Pajiba.

Pajiba There are a number of headlines floating around about Netflix the last few weeks, especially because of the upcoming return of “Arrested Development” and the debuts of “House of Cards” and “Hemlock Grove.” What used to be the common refrain of hoping that TBS might save a cancelled show, or that the network in question would recognize its terrible mistake once the DVD sales numbers detonated, has now become the hope that Netflix will be the white knight of disgruntled fans. I’ve seen headlines in the last few weeks, trade news stories written solely about what one disposable Netflix executive or another said when asked about Netflix picking up some random show.

Every single time a show is cancelled, the question comes up. “Futurama” getting the axe for a second time? Better ask Netflix if they’ll pick it up. “Happy Endings”? Same speculation. Three years after cancellation, a petition started up to convince Netflix to make a third season of “Stargate Universe.” Even though it’s been off the air for almost as many years as it had episodes, there was a headline this last week for an entire article based off of a vague explanation by a Netflix executive why “Firefly” wouldn’t be a good fit for them. To his credit, it was highly nonspecific instead of just the cry “it’s been ten years, get over it” followed by a wall cracking scream.

Netflix needs something else to avoid just turning into a weaker version of the various networks. They’ve been working on putting together their own original content as a natural next step, which is really the only thing that they can do. As long as their focus was on DVDs, Netflix could just be an updated version of the video rental chains that they put out of business, insulated from the industry by being essentially a middle-man taking a role that the content creators didn’t really want to bother with. But as their business has moved to be dominated by the streaming end of things, that leaves the company in an odd position of both strength and weakness.

The strength is that Netflix is the market leader in the next generation of entertainment. And while there are other services out there from Hulu to Amazon Prime, Netflix is the clear leader. In a way it’s the Apple of its particular industry. Not exactly the first one there, but the one which despite mistakes ends up being genuinely liked by its customers instead of just being the lowest bidder for their entertainment dollars.

The weakness though is that at its heart the streaming model is extraordinarily vulnerable to the ire of content creators, because at its most basic it’s just another website with streaming video. Three or four companies could drive Netflix out of business almost overnight just by refusing to license their catalogs for streaming , and putting it all up on their internal pay-for-viewing streaming service.

Original content is the way Netflix can add enough strategic leverage that that doesn’t happen. And this is what makes Netflix the perfect company for this proposal. They’re a company that people actually don’t mind liking in the first place, which is a tremendous market advantage if leveraged properly.

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So here’s a modest proposal for Netflix. Give the people exactly what they want. Be the company that saves beloved television. I don’t mean that hyperbolically, I mean, Netflix can be the hero Gotham needs if it feels like it, but I had an actual business idea that didn’t involve spandex costumes, which is always a first step towards credibility.

Netflix should form a little working group of accountants, lawyers, pollsters, and maybe even an entertainment expert or two. Then this group should make a list of every television show cancelled in the last decade, and do a very specific and detailed write up of it. How much would it cost to produce per episode? What are the salaries of creative people involved? In other words, do the legwork that produces an estimate of what it will take to make this happen.

Then make a Kickstarter page for every single one of those television shows, with a special twist to it. Make all the research completely transparent and right on the donation page. Give fans a line-by-line description of exactly what money would be needed and why.

And then add the second twist. Other than the usual sort of Kickstarter flare of offering t-shirts and the like for certain levels of support, make it so that every single person who donates gets shares of stock in the project proportional to their donation. Let the fans own what they are helping make happen. Make fans your informed investors by the millions instead of just the guys you’re trying to get to give you eight bucks each month.

For many shows it would be readily apparent that costs were such as to make it an impossible venture. Those are in many ways the most important ones to get up in a system like this, because they give those fans closure. And Netflix will have earned the lasting goodwill of those fans. And maybe, just maybe, someone occasionally swoops in with an irrational amount of money that makes an impossible project into one that gets greenlit instead.

The beauty of this proposal is that it leverages the passion of fandom and hooks it into a sustainable engine rather than just a one off mechanism for projects getting done seemingly at random. And it’s certainly not a charity operation. If Netflix pulled something like this off, even if they never managed to make a single one of these shows, they would for relative pocket change position themselves as not just another content provider, but the champion of fans.

Netflix would be the company that gave the power of creating television to the people, instead of keeping the decisions hidden in backrooms. Right now Hollywood works like this: executives decide behind closed doors what they think people will like, pay money to make it, and then ask people to pay to consume it. The big flaw in this arrangement is the assumption that executives know what people want. How about we create a system in which the people decide what they want, and put their money directly to it? Netflix is in a unique position to do exactly this for the simple reason that not being one of the entrenched companies means they actually stand to gain from changing the state of play.

That’s how you democratize an industry.

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