Netflix, Binging And Quality Control In The Age Of Peak TV

Giving creatives freedom is a good thing, but is there too much of a good thing right now?
Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Netflix/AP Images

Matt Singer posed a timely question today: Why is it that the original programs made by Netflix -- the place that perfected binge-viewing -- aren’t necessarily all that binge-able?

By downplaying the importance of individual episodes in favor of longform narratives, the company has also downplayed the propulsive storytelling style and shocking cliffhangers that define the best binge-watch shows. A television show structured as a one giant 13-hour story can be highly absorbing. But without those big hooks and twists at the end of every episode, it’s very difficult to make it addictive.

Singer’s onto something here: I’ve spent the summer rewatching “The X-Files,” and there’s something about traditionally made, pre-"peak TV" dramas that often makes them deliciously binge-able. Writers on the kinds of shows that eventually made binging a thing were often under pressure from networks to hook viewers, through juicy relationship arcs, propulsive stories, exciting mythology reveals and hints that something big was coming in the next week. Not all good “binge-ers” have those elements, but many of the good ones are very good at serving up self-contained episodes, distinctive characters and moments so entertaining that you just want another hit of whatever they’re selling.

Obviously television’s ambitions have expanded since the heyday of binge-inducers like “Alias,” “Lost” and “24,” and Netflix is among the many outlets testing the boundaries of what kinds of television can sustain an audience for a binge or a leisurely stroll, even as TV redefines what success means in an era of micro-niches and all manner of nonlinear viewing opportunities.

That said, my first reaction to Singer’s piece on the binge-resistance of Netflix’s dramas consisted of a question: I really wonder how much of that is intentional. It may not be a feature, but a bug.

Singer’s theory is that Netflix executives don’t really care if it takes a few months to watch one of their original series; that’s actually a good thing, if the slow pace keeps a subscription active. That makes sense from a business perspective, but, based on statements Netflix executives have made and the shows they’ve released, I wonder if that’s their primary intent.

My theory’s different: I think Netflix and Amazon executives give their creative types a lot of rope, and I’ve often had occasion to wonder is they’re giving them too much rope. It’s common for their dramas to get tangled up and slow down, even at the pilot stage, and in the middle of seasons, Netflix dramas often sag and meander, and -- as Singer notes -- they take a long time to work up a head of steam.

“My first reaction to Singer’s piece on the binge-resistance of Netflix’s dramas consisted of a question: I really wonder how much of that is intentional. It may not be a feature, but a bug.”

But this isn’t just the case at streaming services: It’s happening a lot in the more ambitious realms of television. Maybe it’s just me, but when it comes to many shows, especially dramas, in the cable, pay-cable and streaming arenas, I see a trend toward laxness and a lack of energy and dynamic tension. There's more ambition than in a derivative NBC or CBS procedural, sure, but there’s also often a lack of urgency within an episode and, most notably, over the course of a season.

It's also fairly common to find that the character development is not strong and vivid enough to make me want to revisit these shows while they figure out how to crank up the narrative drive, as was the case with Amazon’s “Bosch” and USA’s “Complications.” I did finally begin to enjoy AMC's “Halt and Catch Fire,” especially in its second season, but most people had checked out well before it kicked into high gear, and that may have doomed the show (though I hope not).

Of course, it's unfair to cherry-pick the best examples, but let's face it, this wasn't too often the case with with the best binge-ers the Commercial Television Machine produced. Even in a bad episode of “The X-Files” or "Lost," the Mulder and Scully banter or the Hurley quips make up for a lot. Hence my current obsession with what I call B-movie TV: Genre fare that is smart and subversive but also energetic and not overly concerned with being Important. (The two best new shows of the year, Lifetime’s “UnREAL” and USA’s “Mr. Robot” may not neatly fit in the B-movie TV category, but both were pleasingly knotty, had great characters and were suspenseful from the jump. They're binge-ers, for sure.)

Sag and drift problems have cropped up throughout TV history, obviously. But I think it’s telling that it’s cropping up a lot lately, often at places that could and should know better (despite its great cast and terrific moments, I gave up on the rudderless "Masters of Sex" near the end of Season 2 and haven't seen a compelling reason to jump back on board). As Todd VanDerWerff has pointed out, TV is fumbling for direction in the age of binging and stacking and all episodes of television existing simultaneously everywhere (well, not really, but it feels that way sometimes). So as TV figures out the creative implications of the nonlinear era, some sloppiness and experimentation is to be expected.

But I think there’s more to it than that. The competition for talent and the huge desire lock down hot writers while also trying to create Signature Programs has led to situations where executives have let way too much bad writing slide.

There’s an enormous scramble for content at the moment, so much so that multiple seasons are being ordered at an accelerated pace and it’s almost normal for shows to be renewed before they debut. That was decidedly not normal only a few years ago. But Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and any number of other new players have changed the game, just as cable did a decade or so ago.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is a good thing, overall. Not every show in Ye Olde Golden Age was a keeper, but almost every network was forced to raise its game and give writers more leeway. Hooray!

But there was sigh-inducing side to that revolution: There was too much imitation and a blind pursuit of uninspired dramas about tortured white guys. These days, as TV expands into what FX president John Landgraf has called peak TV, there's a lot of great TV, but the signal-to-noise ratio is not necessarily heading in a reassuring direction. As TV competes to keep eyeballs on its ever-expanding array of content, we’re being subjected to a lot of empty spectacle and rote brand extension. And it’s worth pointing out, as Linda Holmes does in her great essay series on TV's growing pains, that the kinds of people who get to make TV now are usually the kinds of people who always have gotten to make TV. Diversity is a buzzword executives know they should throw around these days, but their commitment to it seems tenuous at best.

So this revolution has its frustrations, among them the problems Singer neatly delineates. And given that the issues he noticed and I've described are mostly taking place in the streaming, cable and pay-cable arenas, the following statement mostly applies to them: Maybe its because they have too many shows to keep track of, or maybe it’s because they’re working with writers they think might try to get a better deal somewhere else, but I get the sense that a number of networks and executives are not exercising the quality control they used to. It’s a problem.

Too many times lately, with too many shows that are well cast and clearly expensive, I’ve wondered why the people in charge appear to be asleep at the switch. “Fear the Walking Dead” is repetitive and boring, but AMC wants to keep “Walking Dead” mogul Robert Kirkman in the corporate family, so that show’s going to be what Kirkman wants it to be, for good or ill. The last two seasons of “American Horror Story” haven’t been very good, but they’ve been noisy enough to get a lot of eyeballs, and FX wants to be in business with Ryan Murphy, so that show will continue to be variable and frustrating (and maybe occasionally excellent, who knows). “Bloodline” assembled various prestige TV markers without going anywhere all that compelling with them, but it seems like the kind of show Netflix should be making -- and if they didn't make it, someone else might -- so it got renewed. And so on.

The power dynamics in the industry are unstable -- only in certain places, of course, and only for certain people. But the current scramble for talent has given some writer/producers more power than these kinds of folks have ever had in the past, and the side effects of that development aren’t always good. For one thing, in part due to talent flight, drama pilots on the broadcast networks have been mostly lame and terrible for years, with a few rare exceptions, because those who don’t want to deal with a lot of network interference are going elsewhere. (The CW, which has been on a roll, is the exception among the broadcast networks, but that's a story for another day.)

“The current scramble for talent has given some writer/producers more power than these kinds of folks have ever had in the past, and the side effects of that development aren’t always good.”

As many writer/producers head to what they perceive to be greener pastures, executives are doing whatever they can to lock down talent, and the end result of this whole process can sometimes be self-indulgent and lazy television. Drift, repetition and laxness are things a good executive can spot, catch and help correct. With the good or improving shows, that's likely at least part of what's happening. Given the glut of bad, lazy or directionless dramas, that's not happening enough, or some creatives just aren't listening. When a drama like "True Detective" goes that off-course and wastes that much potential, it's not just a chance to have fun with memes and hashtags, it's a sign that something has seriously gone awry in the quality-control systems that helped TV get to where it is now.

HBO, once the strutting king of the TV scene, can't openly criticize newcomer Nic Pizzolatto, lest he bolt and the network's reputation as a welcoming haven for top talent take a hit. Netflix and Amazon go further: They openly celebrate their hands-off approaches. Executives at both places have basically said that because they're not married to the usual commercial television models, they’re letting their talent do … whatever.

“We are not really in the solid outcome business, you know,” Amazon Studios head Roy Price said at an Amazon executive panel at the Television Critics Association press tour recently. “We are not really in the programming business.”

“It’s not the intent to draw the biggest audience from any single show,” Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos said at TCA. “The shows are built and designed and we invest in them based on the audience that we believe the show can attract. And it’s successful if it attracts that audience segment."

Joe Lewis, Amazon’s comedy chief, said something similar: “I think we are … just looking for shows that are our customers’ favorites.”

That all sounds good, in theory. And in practice, it’s occasionally resulted in wonderful television. Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” is as weird a concoction as I can think of, but it’s incisive and funny even as it goes to some heartbreaking places. I’m glad that Amazon is betting big on “The Man in the High Castle,” which may supply the smart sci-fi I’ve been searching for. And of course, all of television is a crapshoot; most shows fail, good ones are always hard to make and great ones are always rare.

But these streaming executives are indicating that they think non-interference is the only way to get good shows.

“[W]e built the company on this in this internal culture of freedom and responsibility, and we really did apply that to our showrunners too,” Sarandos said at TCA. “We decided it would be our role not to coach the creatives because it really wasn’t our wheelhouse. It was going to be our role to pick the right projects, pick the right worlds, pick the right talent to run those shows, and then really try to create an environment for them to do the best work of their lives.”

This statement kind of floored me, honestly. If the executives not there to make shows better, what are they there for? Also, can I have an executive job at Netflix? Because I would really like to make a lot of money to not do things. They give many millions to those making their shows, but telling them how to spend that money wisely? LOL, pass.

Of course, some of this is just the kind of chest-thumping tech-exec hyperbole that “Silicon Valley” lampoons so well. And that’s the analogy I’ll stick with: Amazon and Netflix executives don't seem to consider themselves TV executives, and it may be more useful to think of them as the kinds of guys who run Uber and other boastful, well-funded startups. They hacked television, bro, and they’re going to do it better.

Except … really? They think they’re going to do it better than the kinds of people responsible for the Commercial Television Machine? I mean, maybe someday they will, and if they get to that point, break out the Champagne. But their track record isn’t nearly there yet, and it’s more than a little grating that they’re so dismissive of the kind of TV-making processes that led to the creation of so many good and great shows -- the very binge-able content they so eagerly bought up and built their businesses on top of.

And that brings me back to my reaction to Singer’s essay, which boils down to this: Giving people a lot of rope is not necessarily how the best TV gets made. It can produce good results, in the hands of a disciplined professionals who know what to do with that freedom -- and what not to do with it. If the discipline, vision and restraint are lacking and are not supplied by the showrunner or by executives, the results are usually ponderous messes (“House of Cards,” “Hand of God,” "Low Winter Sun").

It’s worth noting that Jill Soloway (“Transparent”) and Jenji Kohan (“Orange Is the New Black”), who created the best shows in the streaming realms, are longtime veterans of the Commercial Television Machine. And all that has happened before has happened again. Long before those shows were a gleam on some site’s server, Ron Moore reinvented “Battlestar Galactica” by taking the best of what he’d learned in a long career as a writer for various “Star Trek” TV series and blowing up the rest. I really wish streaming executives wouldn’t valorize throwing out the baby with the bathwater, at least not until their rosters have more shows like “Transparent” and “OITNB” and "Battlestar Galactica" and fewer sludge piles like “Hand of God” and “Marco Polo.”

Quality control matters in television; look at how USA nurtured "Mr. Robot" into an accessible yet deeply adventurous show, and the showrunners of "The Americans" often talk about how executive input helped the show go from good to great, to name just two examples. And this concept matters even more when you think about the fact that Amazon and Netflix -- like many networks -- are ramping up their content machines. The efficacy of quality control is partly related to volume, and it’s moderately terrifying that this phenomenon of peak TV could result in 400 primetime scripted shows in 2015 alone.

FX Research

At TCA, Landgraf said he’s capping the number of shows FX and FXX make.

“I really don’t care how much money a business has to spend. As someone who struggles every day to program good and great television, who still reads nearly every script and watches every rough cut of every episode we program, I believe it’s impossible to maintain quality control with too many shows,” Landgraf said.

His Peak TV speech contained a lot of food for thought, some of which good critics are still chewing on, but he's right about that. Despite my fears for my sanity, I generally think Peak TV is a good thing -- without it, we don't get weird gems like "Rectify" and "BoJack" and a more diverse array of creators and protagonists. Given how many more shows are being made and how many of them have less experienced or inexperienced showrunners, however, now's not the time for executives to just let people sink or swim, but signs of floundering are already all over the place. All in all, I am very concerned about whether we're going to get more good TV, or just more TV.

There are certain kinds of quality control that Netflix and Amazon executives seem amused by or appear to think is unnecessary. And stories of the excesses of overly controlling, uninspired and unhelpful networks executives are not hard to find and easy to mock, but the good ones are also partly responsible for sweetest fruits of the Commercial Television Machine.

Of course, writers, actors and directors are incredibly important when it comes to a show’s quality, but knowing how to shepherd, shape and market a show — these are real and important skills. If you read Difficult Men and The Revolution Was Televised, you’ll come across many instances of writers doing their best to rebel against whatever network strictures had frustrated them in the past. But you’ll also come across TV executives who knew what they were doing and helped birth great shows and unquestionably helped turn those programs into the juggernauts that they became. These are the shows we all binged at some point or want to binge someday -- and they didn’t appear by magic.

Covering TV for the past 15 years has taught me that the best shows tend to have two elements embedded in their DNA: Collaboration and tension. I don’t mean conflict, not exactly, which is not unknown on the sets of ambitious shows, of course. Conflict is inevitable when grown people work together on any project for any length of time. But what I’m referring to is the kind of creative tension that exists when people who work together don’t always agree but find ways to let the better and smarter ideas win. Sharp people questioning each other, pushing each other, testing each other and leading each other to epiphanies -- those are among the conditions that can lead to great TV, and sometimes those exchanges involve executives who care and know television. They exist, and right about now, I wish there were more of them. Maybe they exist at Amazon and Netflix, but if so, I wish their bosses weren't so disparaging of the work they were (possibly) hired to do.

Every writer I’ve ever spoken to has told stories about executive notes that were dumb -- and notes that were brilliant. Dealing with feedback from an executive -- even an executive a creator doesn’t much like -- can force a writer to better articulate her vision. Probing questions can lead to stronger and clearer choices and even dumb questions can lead to breakthroughs. As Joss Whedon has said, “It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.”

Who is asking questions these days? How smart or dumb are the ideas under consideration? And is anyone listening? As we head into the uncharted waters of peak TV, those are some of the questions I have.

Ryan McGee and I talked peak TV, streaming, Netflix, Amazon and much more, in addition to discussions of "Killjoys," "Fear the Walking Dead" and "Show Me a Hero" on the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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