Netflix announced today that it has struck a deal with E! host Chelsea Handler to broadcast, beginning in 2016, a new talk show. It's a truly crazy idea, and one that might well work! But thinking particulars reveal what Netflix is, and what it is not.
Handler, who's been very vocal about her distaste for E!, sees herself, perhaps rightly, as an innovator. She is the only woman with a talk show currently airing in late night. But there's a difference between providing a jolt of energy to a staid medium and trying to entirely reinvent it. There's an existential question about a talk show on Netflix: Why does it need to exist?
Talk shows on broadcast TV are easy enough to understand -- they're inexpensive to produce and provide soothing, easy entertainment at an hour too late for much else aside from dead air. But even they are under siege, given the existence of DVRs and, well, Netflix. Who'd tune into Jimmy Fallon at 11:35 when there's so much else available? The recent experience of Larry King, who's had a daily talk show that airs on Hulu and that has far less cultural reach than his old perch on CNN, is instructive here -- people go to Hulu expecting to watch an episode of "Scandal," not a news-talk program, for which they'd, still, more likely go to CNN. Placing a Handler-led talk show directly in competition with everything else in the world of entertainment is not going to favor Handler.
That's leaving entirely aside, too, the question of how the show will air at all. Netflix has, until now, dropped an entire season of a show at once for "binge-watching" purposes. But a talk show doesn't function the same way as "Orange Is the New Black" -- or, at least, a Handler-fronted one, reliant as she's been through the years on daily celebrity gossip for inspiration, certainly wouldn't. If not late night, when, exactly, will new episodes appear? And in what quantity? A backlog of "Frasier" episodes on Netflix looks like a challenge to be surmounted, but a backlog of talk show episodes just looks like reams of yesterday's news.
To wit: More or less every celebrity has their appearances on Letterman and Leno archived on YouTube, but when would one ever refer back to them? In order to clear the bar for active viewing -- rather than passively keeping the TV on for "Chelsea Lately" because it's 11 p.m. -- Handler will have to make the vast majority of her interviews sensational. And given the difficulty of booking stars in an ever-more-atomized universe (Handler, launching a new show on a streaming service, will be competing with all of the more congenial hosts on broadcast TV), that may be an uphill battle. There seems to be little compelling reason to put Netflix into the talk-show game, but for the presence of a star who couldn't get a foothold elsewhere on TV.
In Handler's defense, she has time to figure out what, exactly, will make her talk show worth watching on-demand, online, and maybe her talk show will look like something entirely new. But her very demeanor -- abrasively up on the nitty-gritty of today's contemporary gossip -- seems antithetical to the self-soothing haze that overcomes the Netflix viewer. Handler has enough fans to make each one of her books best-sellers, but even getting them to keep making the affirmative decision to watch her in late-night has been tough, as her ratings have fallen over the past several years. The argument might be that Netflix will allow them to watch their favorite star at their convenience -- but first, the talk-show model will have to, somehow, meet hypothetical any time viewers exactly where they are. Maybe Netflix's 2015 plan is the better one: Before Handler's talk show launches, she'll be doing occasional specials for Netflix that are not meant to be time-sensitive. One can imagine a Handler fan stacking them up for a binge.