How Netflix Is Making Traditional TV Better

By  · Published on December 5th, 2013

It wasn’t too long ago – just last year, in fact – that journalists and pundits started drafting Netflix’s eulogy. A Google search for the words “Netflix is doomed” reveals that many smart people thought the company would soon go the way of Blockbuster, becoming a fearsome industry giant only to have the rug pulled from under it.

And then House of Cards happened, and Orange is the New Black after that. (If there are any other Netflix originals worth recommending, please discuss them in the comments.) A Netflix subscription became necessary to (legally) watch those buzz-worthy shows. With just a couple of hits – really, two seasons of TV – the former mailed-DVDs service became a network.

But what’s noteworthy about Netflix’s continued success is the rapid emulation of the company’s business model by its competitors. Specifically, its practice of ponying up for a full season of TV without seeing a pilot – a situation Orange creator Jenji Kohan exploited to create one of the most diverse shows in the history of television to wide acclaim – has become such a game-changer that even broadcast networks are following suit. What can only follow is better TV, with writers enjoying an even greater sense of control and ownership over their works, though those writers will likely be small-screen veterans with a proven track record instead of up-and-comers who might be considered risky investments.

In an excellent overview of this pilot-skipping phenomenon, Vulture notes that “Fox is leading the way, handing out series commitments to more than a half-dozen 2014 projects, including a high-profile comedy from Tina Fey, the fantasy adventure Hieroglyph, and the Batman-inspired Gotham. ABC, CBS and NBC have all also ordered at least one early series sans pilot.”

This marks a sea change in the way the broadcast networks have done things, which has been to order twenty or thirty new pilots every year, scrap the ones that don’t work, and air the more promising ones. It’s essentially throwing shit on the wall to see what sticks – a very expensive, even wasteful (ha), process, since only about a third to a half of all pilots are actually ever seen by viewers.

With early commitments for a full season, though, the quality of TV is likely to rise – as long as the selling point of the show is the writing, not the stars. Skipping the uncertainties and cramped schedules of pilot season give showrunners more time to put their series together and free themselves from the pressure of ratings and the network notes that result thereof. In other words, this new system of patronage seems as though it will let writers focus on story and production.

Unfortunately, such a level of creative freedom will tend to be accorded to showrunners who already have at least one successful series under their belt, like Kohan, Fey, and Carlton Cuse – the former Lost showrunner who sold A&E the first season of Bates Motel without a pilot. This is, of course, already the case with most TV, so perhaps it isn’t such a big deal after all.

But to commit to a full season of TV, networks should value pen-to-page imagination more than star power. Orange proves that a big name isn’t at all necessary for a show’s actors to win new fans. Conversely, the considerable charms of Michael J. Fox can’t overcome the blah-ness of the scripts of The Michael J. Fox Show, which received a 22-episode order, apparently based solely on the excitement of Fox’s return to TV.

The overwhelming quantity and the wide diversity of TV today means that “voice” matters more than ever in pulling in audiences. Thanks to Netflix’s no-pilot model, TV as a whole is allowing more writers to express theirs.

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