ENTERTAINMENT – From idiot box to empire

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The digital revolution and television: silent but relentless progress.


While the media world was fretting over the demise of celluloid, another, quieter upheaval was rolling in with the digital revolution. In television.

Time of cultural death on TV was called in the late 1960s, when terms like ‘boob tube’ and ‘idiot box’ were coined. Then, in the mid-80s, worldwide cable TV came along and a decade later US cable broadcasters – led by HBO and Showtime – started creating their own, edgier programming free from the strict codes regulating content, profanity and nudity that networks have to endure.

By the beginning of the millennium, pay TV had exploded, in quality and quantity. Fed up with Hollywood’s increasingly bloated marketing budgets at the expense of production budgets and creative enterprise, filmmakers and writers fled to cable, and shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Weeds and Dexter quickly amassed cult followings worldwide, and countless accolades. 

Even prestigious film actors landed their own shows, including Glenn Close (Damages) and Holly Hunter (Saving Grace). Auteur directors – Gus Van Sant (Boss), Agnieszka Holland (The Wire) and David Fincher to name but a few – also started helming TV episodes or developing their own projects.

Academy Award-winning screenwriter-director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) created what is currently one of the biggest hits on cable, AMC’s The Walking Dead. In 2011, Oscar winner Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) said he took his project, The Borgias, to Showtime because cable was a “wonderful domain for film directors like me who enjoy the kind of material that Hollywood finds too boring for words”. (Viewers certainly didn’t find the papal programme boring: over 30,000 gave it eight stars on IMDB). By 2011 we were watching what we wanted, whenever and for however long we wanted – on our computers, to boot. For 2007 had seen the arrival of two online streaming sites that would further revolutionize TV: Hulu and Netflix, until then a hugely successful online DVD rental service. Internet behemoth Amazon would also start its own platform, today called Amazon Instant Video. All three charge monthly fees that are nominal compared to standard cable packages.

Like their pay-TV forerunners, the ‘streamers’ first offered only third-party content, but unlike them, were much quicker to transition into original programming and production. None more ambitiously than Netflix.

The company is still an underdog compared to, say, HBO in terms of profits, which last summer stood at €46.4m and €60m, respectively. Yet the former has surpassed its cable counterpart in subscriber revenue: respectively, €97m to €96.6m as of August 2014. And that margin is growing thanks to content quality.

In 2013, Netflix earned 31 Primetime Emmy nods, mostly for two series: runaway hit Orange is the New Black (OINB) and the Kevin Spacey vehicle House of Cards.

OITNB creator Jenji Kohan, says she took OITNB to HBO, Showtime and Netflix: “The greatest thing about Netflix was that…they ordered 13 episodes without a pilot. That’s miraculous. They were new, they were streamlined. And I love being on the new frontier. It’s really fun, because I think it is the future in a lot of ways, of how people consume media”.

Another way people consume media now is globally, and although streaming services still struggle to enter foreign markets, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos admits it’s “no secret that we want Netflix to be a global product. That is our mission”.

As part of that mission, the company – which boasts over 50 million subscribers worldwide and counting – invested €75 million in the second-largest TV production ever, Marco Polo, to which Netflix also holds all international rights. Netflix has also been the first to accommodate binge watching: the consumption of lots of content in little time. They released the entire first season of Marco Polo and second season of House of Cards at once, simultaneously satisfying viewers’ appetites and reducing piracy.

And with Amazon hot off their US Golden Globe win for Best Comedy Series, for their transgender triumph Transparent, the streamlined and stream-savvy online platforms are proving that the new frontier is just good old-fashioned storytelling in high-tech packaging. 

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