Netflix and O.D.
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Feud), with astonishing nine-figure deals. FX’S Landgraf, whose network was built in part on Murphy’s contributions, compared Netflix’s predations to being shot in the face with a water cannon, except “it’s money coming at you.”
Murphy and Rhimes may both be assets, hugely successful commercial producers with just enough bite to keep things interesting, but no one would consider them the bleeding edge of quality TV. Indeed, to the extent that Murphy has made some offbeat shows, he recently sounded as if he’s backing away from them: “I’ve gotten away from sexuality and violence and how far I can push the envelope.”
Amazon Studios also appears to be headed to the mainstream. The company is known for supporting indie films and ambitious original series such as Mozart in the Jungle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Transparent, Goliath, and The Romanoffs, a forthcoming show by Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men. But after ousting its head of production, Roy Price, who was accused of sexual harassment last year, Amazon avoided the cable companies and indiefilm world in its search for a replacement; instead, it went to the networks, seizing on Jennifer Salke, head of NBC Entertainment and a former Fox exec, who developed crowd-pleasing family hits like Glee, This Is Us and Modern Family. Amazon did sign an exclusive first-look deal this past spring with Jordan Peele (Get Out), who has two series currently in production, but Salke has reportedly been given a mandate to come up with a new Game of Thrones, and the service reportedly paid USD250 million to exploit the already well-mined Lord of the Rings (a deal in the works under Price). According to an executive at a rival company, “They’ll be chasing properties that don’t rock the boat, like the next Spider-man and Star Wars.” Reportedly, Amazon—which declined to comment—has been pursuing the rights to the James Bond franchise.
HBO has been the gold standard for television ever since The Sopranos, proving in the process that quality, contrary to conventional wisdom, pays. Last year, the channel made USD2.15 billion in operating profit on USD6.3 billion in revenue, and it has signed up 30 percent of its subscribers in the past five years. But while HBO may be the jewel in the Time Warner crown, the channel, a talent-based company politically and culturally on the left, looks to be a poor fit with its new owner, AT&T, the data-based tech company out of Dallas. John Stankey, an AT&T veteran who now oversees HBO as head of Warnermedia, is a contributor to Republican campaigns and an entertainment novice. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he had trouble coming up with a title when asked for his favorite movie or TV series.
Stankey is pushing HBO toward a full week of programming, when historically the channel has packed its original series into the Sunday-night slot, relying on reruns and movies to fill the other six days. Citing digital consumers, he wants HBO more engaged with its subscribers; that is, he would like his new acquisition to become more like Netflix. But if the uneven performance of recent Sunday-night shows like Vinyl, the second season of True Detective, and, most recently, Here and Now is any indication, HBO is already stretched thin.
Compared with Netflix, with its USD12 billion budget for original programming, Hbo—which spends no more than USD1.2 billion on original programming, with an additional USD1.1 billion for movie rights— is at a distinct disadvantage. And Netflix is only one of HBO’S newish competitors. Big money from Apple’s cannon has also splashed the network in the face. Assuming 2017’s Big Little Lies would be a oneshot, seven-episode adaptation of the titular novel, HBO had no deals in place when the show became a runaway hit, and the channel tried to sign the cast for a second season. In the meantime, however, one of the stars and producers, Reese Witherspoon, who’d reportedly been paid in the neighborhood of USD300,000 per episode for the first season, had been offered USD1 million-plus per episode for a new show by Apple. Sources have said that HBO had to match her salary and give the rest of the cast comparable bumps. “We’ve been...sort of raped,” groaned the co-head of drama, Francesca Orsi. As one agent put it less colorfully in The Hollywood Reporter, Apple’s largesse “inflates the whole ecosystem of Tv-actor salaries.”
Aside from bloating salaries, however, there’s no reason news from Apple should make its rivals break a sweat. Banking on the “Spielberg magic,” the company that gave us the iphone is resurrecting Amazing Stories, an anthology series Steven Spielberg produced for NBC in the mid-1980s that wasn’t amazing enough to avoid cancellation after two ratings-challenged seasons. Apple has also hired the dreadful M. Night Shyamalan to produce a series. Moreover, it will be interesting to see how the company, which prides itself on the diamondlike precision of its products, will deal with the messiness of TV production, not to mention talent.
If history repeats itself, which it has an annoying way of doing, we can expect that cable companies, under the pressure of rising costs, will need not only big returns if they’re to compete with the new, deeppocket arrivals, but also guaranteed returns. To this end, HBO is considering up to five Game of Thrones spin-offs. But CEO Richard Plepler says he isn’t worried about compromising quality. “AT&T understands that we have no interest in being Netflix,” he says. “We’re trying to be a turbocharged version of ourselves. We’ve had one hand tied behind our back for the last six, seven years.... We were under tremendous pressure to deliver more and more money to Time Warner. Now we no longer have to say no to what we wanted to say yes to.... The exciting thing about this merger is, instead of being 25 percent of Time Warner, we’re now 2 percent of AT&T—NO more than a rounding error.”
If Plepler is upbeat about AT&T, Landgraf is similarly bullish about Disney, FX’S new home. The network used to consider itself a “free HBO,” which is to say, it spearheaded quality programming on ad-supported basic cable. “We make a kind of programming that Disney doesn’t,” he says, “programming vital to their ability to scale up a large streaming platform. . . . I know that FX would not be able to thrive as a brand if it didn’t have more resources and wasn’t part of one of these large companies, so I consider Disney to be a potential savior.” Both he and Plepler anticipate a shakeout in cable, and they expect their services to benefit from it. “You don’t make art just by throwing money at it. If you try to turn everything into Game of Thrones, it doesn’t necessarily make it better,” Landgraf says, adding, “We’re making too much TV. That may not be the wisest thing for a TV executive to say, but that’s how I feel.”
Or, as one anonymous Hollywood executive with experience in both film and television production observes, “It already feels like the pendulum is swinging back. A lot of viewers are feeling the anxiety of keeping up with all these multipart, multiyear narratives. It’s not fun anymore. Come Saturday night, you want something that doesn’t say ‘commitment.’ You want a self-contained one-hour, forty-eight-minute narrative. What we call ‘a movie.’ ”