Netflix' Sarandos at TCA Questions Future Viability of Broadcast Nets - Ed Martin

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Pasadena, CA – Netflix yesterday kicked off the Winter 2015 Television Critics Association tour with a number of panels that will collectively very likely be remembered as being among the best presentations of this two-week event. They included sessions with Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, the cast and creator of the returning thriller "The Fall" and the casts and creators of the upcoming comedy series "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and the upcoming drama "Bloodline."

(*Note: Technically, the National Geographic Channels kicked off TCA on Tuesday with an opening night party attended by their executives and personalities from many of their unscripted series and specials, along with the cast of Nat Geo's upcoming movie "Killing Jesus." But Wednesday was the official start day of the tour, and Netflix got it going in grand style.)

Sarandos handled his session with the ease of a TCA veteran even though he hasn't been here very much over the years. It was clear he should return more often, as the critics and reporters gathered here were just as enthusiastic about questioning him as they are presidents of broadcast and cable networks.

It was no surprise that many reporters asked Sarandos about Netflix's ongoing refusal to release ratings or audience measurement of any kind. Acknowledging that most journalists in the room like to report on overnight, same day and Live+3 ratings, among others, Sarandos stated that the results of such methods of audience measurement are "no reflection on our business in any way.

"We're going to stay away from it for as long as we can," he added. "You see network after network now moving to this because the numbers don't reflect the viewing audience. I don't think perpetuating bad information is a way to build confidence."

For a sense of how Netflix's programming is performing, Sarandos said he would "encourage everyone to keep watching our subscriber growth." Netflix's current subscriber base is around 53 million, he noted. "That's a lot of taste. [We] really are trying to appeal to a lot of tastes and demographics.

"Netflix was born on the Internet," he recalled. "Our demographic was younger and more male when we were beginning and is far more mainstream today."

Netflix executives have in the past predicted the demise of network TV. Sarandos noted that he has never made so direct and dire a prediction, but he did question the future viability of the broadcast television business model. With the rise of the on-demand culture and audience fragmentation, "what is the place" for broadcast TV, he wondered.

That said, he acknowledged that broadcast and cable are likely the best places for live television viewing such as sports and news, which "aren't best served by Netflix or on-demand services."

To the delight of TCA members Sarandos made multiple programming announcements, including the following: Netflix's brand-new historical drama "Marco Polo" has been renewed for a second season, the comedy "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" will debut on March 6, the new family drama "Bloodline" will be available March 20, "Daredevil" (the first of four Netflix series based on Marvel characters) arrives in its entirety on April 6, and "Grace and Frankie," the new comedy series starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, will debut on May 8.

Sarandos also said that the sequel to the 2000 feature film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" will likely premiere in August, and that the next Marvel series, "Jessica Jones," should arrive in a year or so. Pressed by the press, he said there is not yet any official word on the possibility of another season for "Arrested Development," but that everyone involved "wants it to happen."

Netflix did something that the broadcast networks are increasingly reluctant to do at TCA tours – bring in the creator and stars of an already established series, in this case Allan Cubitt, the executive producer of "The Fall," and its two leads, Jamie Dornan (who will be one of the biggest movie stars of 2015 when "50 Shades of Grey" is released) and Gillian Anderson. There were only five episodes in the first season of "The Fall," and there will be six in season two (which will debut on January 16). Cubitt and Anderson both expressed interest in continuing the show for many seasons to come, something that likely wouldn't be possible without the involvement of Netflix. ("The Fall" is a BBC series that received a second season order only after it had run on Netflix and the service, according to Cubitt, "put money up front for season two.")

Anderson, who first appeared at a TCA tour 21 years ago to preview "The X-Files," was asked about the difference between the way people watched that show (and endlessly discussed it online between weekly episodes, back when the Internet was something new) and the way people are watching "The Fall" and other shows today on Netflix. "That was a different planet, before any of this," she laughed. "'The X-Files' was the beginning of appointment television. We're at the end of appointment television."

A series developed by NBC Universal Productions for NBC, Tina Fey's "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" went over like a cloud of mold spores when the network announced it as a midseason show last May at its upfront presentation. The network since passed on it, but Netflix picked it up, and throughout its session yesterday it began to take on the energy of a big hit in the making. Fey talked about the luxury of being able to go back through the seven episodes that had been produced for the network and remove lead-ins to commercial breaks and add new footage, and also about the feeling of creative liberation the "Schmidt" writing team feels now that it is free of NBC's standards and practices restrictions.

"Season two is going to be mostly shower sex," she teased. When the cast members on stage blanched – including Jane Krakowski and Ellie Kemper -- Fey assured them that the shower scenes would be done with new cast members who have yet to be added to the show.

For what it's worth, I think few people do a better job of selling a series to the TCA membership than Tina Fey, who happily said that it would be a pleasure watching her new series without irritating graphic distractions at the bottom of the screen that now compromise the experience of watching virtually every broadcast and basic cable show.

Netflix closed its morning event with a panel for "Bloodline" that included series creators Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman and Glenn Kessler (the creators of the FX/DirecTV series "Damages") and cast members Kyle Chandler, Sissy Spacek, Norbert Leo Butz, Sam Shepard, Linda Cardellini and Ben Mendelsohn.

"This looks like an HBO cast," one critic mused. "Is Netflix the new HBO?"

"I think Netflix is its own universe," Todd Kessler replied. "It's unprecedented, what they are doing and what they continue to do."

Ed Martin is the Editor of Planet Ed and MediaBizBloggers and the television and video critic forEd MartinMyersBizNet. Follow him on Twitter at @PlanetEd.

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