What’s next for Netflix? Possibly a return to classic TV

Nina Metz
Chicago Tribune

What’s next for Netflix? In an effort to stem the loss of subscribers that was first reported last month and expected to continue in the short term, the streaming service might be seeking out a lineup that looks awfully close to what’s on offer from the broadcast networks.

“Netflix has told Hollywood agencies it’s now looking for large-scale shows with resonance,” according to a report from Business Insider. “In reality programming, that means competitions like classic broadcast hits ‘American Idol’ and ‘The Voice,’ or social experiment shows like ‘Survivor.’ On the scripted side, that means broad comedies, contemporary action thrillers, action comedy and sci-fi that appeals to a mainstream audience — but costs less than $10 million per episode.”

What's next for Netflix?

Once streaming became ubiquitous, most shows on broadcast TV were treated with derision. And yet here we are. Everything old is new again. Or maybe Netflix is scrambling and this is just one of many ideas that are in contention. But if the streaming service does attempt to emulate network TV, that would be a pivotal change in philosophy, especially if Netflix eventually gets around to launching a cheaper ad-supported tier. Because then the transformation into old school TV will really be complete. What a strange turn of events. Will enough viewers pay to subscribe to a TV experience they’re already getting for free on NBC or CBS?

This possible shift may not be as surprising as it sounds. There are workhorse shows over on “regular” TV that still draw 7 million-10 million viewers on any given day in prime time. Far more people are watching procedurals or shows like “The Voice” on broadcast networks than are watching most streaming originals. You can see why Netflix might look at that and think: We’re in a rut — that’s worth trying.

The Entertainment Strategy Guy, a streaming analyst who writes a newsletter anonymously under that pen name, often tracks viewing data provided by third-party companies, recently comparing “Judge Judy” reruns on CBS (Judy Sheindlin concluded her 25-year run with the network last season) and her new streaming show “Judy Justice” on Freevee (the free, ad-supported streaming service owned by Amazon that was recently rebranded from IMDb TV). The new show, which premiered in November, is nearly identical to her old show — and importantly, it’s churning out new episodes.

Guess which version is drawing more viewers? The reruns on CBS.

“Her show in reruns is doing in one week what ‘Judy Justice’ did in its first three months,” said Entertainment Strategy Guy. The caveat is that “Judy Justice ” is a new show on a streaming service that few people know exists. But it also means, don’t discount what’s happening on broadcast TV. Netflix clearly isn’t.

“The value of adding broader shows is that after someone has watched that buzzy show they signed up for, they’ll stick around to watch a cop show or a sitcom and have it on in the background,” said Entertainment Strategy Guy. So these likely wouldn’t be shows that compel people to subscribe, but more along the lines of certain staples that currently keep viewers around on the streaming service, including “Criminal Minds,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Seinfeld.” Most streaming shows are serialized, but audiences want variety and people like self-contained stories, notably the kind you can get watching procedurals or sitcoms.

You know what else has been missing? The kind of lighter fare that the USA Network used to call its blue-sky shows, such as “Royal Pains,” “Psych,” “Monk” and “White Collar.” A few years ago, USA switched gears and went darker with “Mr. Robot.” And then abandoned original programming altogether. TNT and TBS are also out of the scripted game, news that was announced just last week.

That leaves a big hole in the marketplace for the TV equivalent of easy listening and it sounds like Netflix wants to fill it. The aforementioned Business Insider story included this choice quote: “‘Emily in Paris’ could not be referenced more,” a TV agent said, regarding new shows Netflix is eyeing. “Emily in Paris” is not a good show by any measure. But a lot of people watched it. Possibly because it is such a light show.

No other cable network or streaming service is supplying a steady diet of that kind of stuff right now. So greenlighting a bunch of laundry-folding shows — that you can watch semi-distracted and still follow along — makes a certain kind of sense, even if it doesn’t sound very exciting. “I actually think that’s true of a lot of sitcoms too,” said Entertainment Strategy Guy. “On streaming, the bigger miss right now are comedies that are funny. Too many comedies are dramedies, and that’s where Netflix could fill that niche.”

This year’s breakout hit comedy “Abbott Elementary” is an ABC show that also streams on Hulu, and it proved that there’s still an appetite for traditional sitcoms. So why ignore that and leave money on the table? Netflix has tried and so far failed to launch a hit sitcom.

But in at least one case, it is returning to a formula it relied on years ago, when it commissioned revivals of once-popular network shows, resulting in “Fuller House” and “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.”

Up next, the streaming service has given a 10-episode order to “That ‘90s Show,” a multicamera comedy spinoff of “That ‘70s Show,” which will see the return of parents Red and Kitty (played by Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp) now as grandparents watching over a new generation of teenage misfits.