If you spent the past few weeks having nightmares about the Yellow King, then the notion of history repeating itself no longer sounds awkward to you: you’re a fan of True Detective (photo), the HBO sensation that has put the US premium cable network back in the centre of conversation.
Why such a buzz? The 8-episode drama, shot in Louisiana and focusing on the cop duo portrayed by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, has been praised by critics for its rich, profound script by Nic Pizzolatto – who wrote the entire series on his own – but also for its beautiful direction by Cary Fukunaga, who enjoyed a rare level of creative freedom on set.
A new sign of a current shift in TV, according to The Guardian: “Writer-producer shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and The Wire may slowly give way to the director-led format.” For some media, these sorts of arrangements prove once more that we’re living in a golden age of TV.
Another lesson from True Detective’s critical and commercial success is our ongoing passion for shows we can’t binge-watch: in spite of all the praise received by Netflix for allowing viewers to see all episodes of a series at once – on Digital Dorr, for instance – it’s not a stretchto say that the HBO show wouldn’t have inspired such enthusiasm if it had been released all at once. This may also contradict theories forecasting the imminent end of linear TV: after all, isn’t TV watching a fundamentally passive experience? The Onion (via Mashable) may make fun of our”cultural indecisiveness” by announcing a fake $5-a-month Netflix option to “browse endlessly” through its infinite catalogue of videos (see video below), the question is definitely raised.
It is very tempting to see in these current debates one more battle in the ever-raging war between the two giants Netflix and HBO. But are the two companies even at war? Quartz affirms that “the greatest trick Netflix ever pulled was convincing the world HBO is its rival”:
“In many ways, it symbolizes the classic 21st-century business story: an upstart challenger from Silicon Valley disrupting an incumbent with a compelling and well-priced product, underpinned by impressive technology.”
The thing is, HBO added 2 million more subscribers in 2013 — its best performance in 17 years — while Netflix added 6 million paying users. So perhaps it’s more fitting to see the two as “frenemies” here, pushing each other to do great work on what really matters: original content.
The financial comparison between the two us even less relevant, with HBO on the market for so many years: “Netflix certainly bests the premium cable network when it comes to media attention, consumer obsessiveness and average viewing time per subscriber, but HBO absolutely dominates the upstart when it comes to profit“, the Ivey Business Review notes.
This doesn’t prevent HBO from making itself available where only Netflix was before: the premium channel’s internet video service HBO Go is now available on PlayStation 3 consoles, Variety reports. Bad luck: the service crashed during the finale of… True Detective, pushing Time Warner chairman Jeff Bewkes to acknowledge that technology was one area where Time Warner, HBO’s corporate parent, is working to improve, The Wrap writes.
As for Netflix, the streaming company made the headlines again these past few weeks, but not always for business victories. On the one hand, it agreed to pay Comcast for faster and more reliable access the cable and broadband provider’s subscribers – “a milestone in the history of the internet” that may put net neutrality at risk, according to The New York Times.
On the other hand, and in spite of recent, impressive deals — including the exclusivity of Disney’s four upcoming Marvel series, as reported by Variety; and a new TV user interface (UI), studied by Gigaom — Netflix could suffer from the Comcast-Sony deal on political show House of Cards. The cable and broadband provider will indeed sell its subscribers access to the first season of the political drama through its Xfinity Store, which means that patient customers won’t need Netflix anymore. This reminder of studios’ pivotal role in the TV industry is pointed out by Wired, which writes that “even the $100 million it reportedly spent didn’t buy Netflix all the rights to Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian rise.”
There is actually little surprise in seeing a disrupter like Netflix facing increasing challenges in an ever-changing digital landscape, where even distributors are at war for content: Multichannel reports that Verizon Communications has begun to sell complete TV seasons through its multiplatform electronic sell-through (EST) service, directly confronting iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, the Sony PlayStation Store and other key players.
Amazon is on the verge of a big launch as well, since its Internet-streaming device – which came to light last year, Variety observes – will include access to… Netflix and Hulu Plus! Another case of frenemies? Precisely: “While Prime Instant Video ostensibly competes with both of those services, providing them increases the addressable market for the device — and better compete with other connected-TV products, such as Roku, Apple TV and Google Chromecast.” However, this bold move didn’t prevent observers like The Wrap from stressing Amazon Prime’s first price hike since its launch, nine years ago.
Far from widening, the gap between the old world of incumbent industry protagonists and the new world of digital innovators keeps narrowing: when they’re not busy expanding into the unknown territories of online consumptions by their own means, key players join their forces or acquire new entrants.
Pay-TV service Epix — a joint venture of Viacom, its Paramount unit, MGM and Lionsgate — launched on March 18 on Time Warner Cable, Variety reports; Comcast is acquiring video ad company FreeWheel for $320 million, to better serve ads alongside content online, says TechCrunch; and speculation was rife that Disney wants to buy Maker Studios, one the most important YouTube multichannel networks (MCN), which would be a major step towards the upcoming online video era, according to Videonuze.
That sort of acquisition is becoming commonplace in Europe too: France’s pay-TV giant Canal+ just acquired a majority stake in Studio Bagel, YouTube’s leading network of French comedy channels, Variety reports. Blogging platform Tumblr is also making a big push in Hollywood, by naming its first director of media, The Hollywood Reporter writes.
The past few weeks also showed that strengthening one’s international presence remains a strong factor of expansion: from Netflix extending its UK deals with Fox (TBI Vision) to HBO bringing video streaming service to the Philippines (Tech in Asia) to Hulu selling its Japanese service to Nippon TV (Gigaom), the digital revolution will have to be global. Some territories may prove a little more complex than expected though: three-fifths of Britain’s video, video games and music sales are now derived from the internet, The Guardian points out, with even comedy and youth-focused BBC3 moved online (read this article from The Telegraph), but Videonet notes that TV set viewing still dominates for traditional broadcast content by far in the UK…
European expansion: this is precisely where major Hollywood players – spotted by Variety and Gigaom – wish time wasn’t a flat circle, to not find themselves in the position of Napoleon two centuries ago – chased from invaded countries after years of victories. Watch out, Netflix and Google Chromecast!
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