Ryan Murphy, welcome to the Upside Down.
On Tuesday, the streaming giant Netflix announced that Mr. Murphy — the producer of “Glee” and “American Crime Story” and much, much more — had left 21st Century Fox to join its ranks, in a deal said to be valued at up to $300 million.
That’s a lot of money, but it’s not mine, and ordinarily, I don’t much care how an entertainment Croesus moves around its ducats. TV outlets make big deals all the time.
The reason that this one — like Netflix’s poaching of Shonda Rhimes from ABC last year — has the feeling of a turning point is that, as with all things Netflix, there is a definitional question involved. Netflix, both artistically and as a business, is something different. But what?
Is it most similar to an online-video platform, like YouTube? A network, like NBC? A channel, like HBO? (These questions apply as well to other streamers, like Hulu and Amazon Prime, but to Netflix above all.)
The Murphy and Rhimes deals suggest something else: It’s an entire parallel TV universe, and it’s still expanding.
Think of Netflix as the Upside Down in its sci-fi series “Stranger Things.” By this I don’t mean that it’s a nefarious or dangerous force. But it is a kind of alternative TV dimension, overlaying and replicating the known world of traditional television, that tries to acquire one of everything that exists in the universe of TV.
Initially, the company did this through literal acquisition: buying streaming rights to hit TV series. Then it did it through imitation: reviving Fox’s “Arrested Development” and creating originals, like “House of Cards,” in the mold of premium cable. Now it’s imitating through acquisition, spiriting away the likes of Mr. Murphy and Ms. Rhimes to its well-remunerated plane.
The history of TV is one of upstarts and competitors, and my first instinct was to liken Netflix to something like cable, which rose as a serious competitor to broadcast TV in the 1980s.
But there’s an important difference between cable channels and Netflix (besides whom you write your check to). Cable channels have brands. That was what made them different from broadcast networks, which tried to be, and had to be, everything. Cable channels had specialties and sensibilities: CNN was news; ESPN was sports; HBO was adult sophistication (give or take an “Entourage”).
A cable brand might evolve — Bravo went from an arts channel to the “Real Housewives” channel — but the idea was to offer a specific aesthetic to a specific audience.
Netflix doesn’t have that; in fact, it is specifically anti-that. Its brand is “stuff that you like to watch on TV.” It developed a vast library of reruns, and with that, a proprietary trove of data on who likes to watch what and how much. Then it made more of that, or bought it. If you liked “30 Rock,” here’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” If you liked “Damages,” here’s “Bloodline.”
Look at just the past few months of Netflix programming. There’s “The Crown,” a BBC-style historical drama. “Wormwood,” an Errol Morris docudrama. “One Day at a Time,” a 21st-century reboot of a 1970s network TV multicamera sitcom. “Dirty Money,” a “Frontline”-esque documentary anthology. “She’s Gotta Have It,” a risqué romantic comedy. “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” a David Letterman interview series. Oh, and why not — let’s throw in a “Cloverfield” sequel and a Will Smith movie.
Something for everyone — that was the ethos of broadcast TV in the old three-network era. The obvious analogy, then, is that Netflix isn’t cable at all; it’s a broadcaster, pitching a big tent.
But, as I’ve written before, there’s one very important difference. Broadcasters, whose advertising model required millions of eyeballs on every individual show, had to make sure that everything they aired appealed to a broad range of people.
That business imperative had aesthetic results: It gave us family sitcoms and comfort-food cop dramas. It’s less true today, in the era of smaller audiences — but it’s still much more true of NBC than, say, of IFC.
Netflix, on the other hand, is breathtakingly broad and microscopically niche at the same time. It’s selling a platform to everyone, but by providing products for very specific tastes.
Netflix assumes a future in which we’re watching our faves on our own screens, rather than gathering around an electronic fireplace — and as long as the monthly payment clears, it’s all the same to the company. It’s less a big tent than a Dothraki tent city, to borrow a metaphor from “Game of Thrones.”
What does this mean for Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes? Maybe not much at all. They were both powerful producers with a lot of freedom who will now have a lot of freedom and more money.
Mr. Murphy was, in a way, the Netflix-iest of producers to begin with: He’d made everything from a broadcast network sitcom (“The New Normal”) to an action show (“9-1-1”) to a marquee cable drama (“Feud”) to an HBO film (“The Normal Heart”). He may be able to branch out even more, but he was hardly fettered.
What Ms. Rhimes does at Netflix will be interesting. She’s the consummate network TV producer, having essentially defined the current voice of ABC with “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”
She might do something very different with the license of streaming — but if she doesn’t, that will fit in all the same at Netflix, which resurrected the broadcast favorite “Gilmore Girls” with much the same tone, give or take a few curse words. One curious thing about Netflix is that every sensibility — niche and mass, G-rated and NSFW — exists on the same platform and the same plane.
Is all the deal-making worth it? Whether Netflix is emptying its deep pockets wisely by making itself into a Hall of Fame for established stars (see also Dave Chappelle) isn’t my concern as a TV critic.
What I do care about is whether Netflix can nurture original, distinctive art, especially if it continues growing into a huge, all-encompassing alterna-TV.
And I worry whether it can do that when derivation is the business strategy itself: selling people new versions of things they already like. It’s fine that Netflix can toss around enough money to reactivate David Letterman. But does it have the kind of culture that could discover a new David Letterman?
In its short life as an original programmer. Netflix has made a few series I’d consider legitimately great. But most of them have involved making deals with creators with limited track records (“BoJack Horseman,” “American Vandal”) or talented artists relatively new to creating series (“Master of None,” “Lady Dynamite”). (As I’ve also written before, these shows tend to be comedies, which may translate more directly and easily to the streaming format.)
A more familiar experience on Netflix is the good-enough version of a drama you’ve seen elsewhere. “Godless,” say, was a perfectly decent dark western, but no “Deadwood.” “Stranger Things” is a joy, but it’s a pastiche by design: It’s the Netflix ethos in story form, reproducing and remixing memories in ways that tickle just the right nostalgia pleasure centers.
It may be that Netflix’s approach means more competence and fewer out-and-out stinkers. And I have no reason to believe that Mr. Murphy and Ms. Rhimes will become any less creative because Netflix backed up a money truck.
But if Netflix is truly becoming a parallel TV universe, I hope its algorithm finds room for the experimental and untried. It’s hard to be groundbreaking when your whole purpose is to take people where they’ve already been.
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