Features & Columns

TV MY WAY: Streaming services are taking chances the major networks won't. Amazon's 'Transparent' is drawing viewers to that company's streaming service.

A friend who works at a
local movie theater attended a New York Times sponsored seminar titled, Look West. He noted, "East Coast pundits and ideologues harrumphingly admitted that California is winning every culture war because of our stranglehold on tech. This particular iteration of the series featured the Hulu CEO, the SlingTV CEO and Vimeo CEO, all explaining why no one wants to watch TV anymore. They have these great phrases like 'cord cutters' and 'cord nevers,' meaning people who don't even know what it means to have cable TV in their home."

Netflix was the gateway drug to streaming; a system that proved it works, by combining a rising studio for original programming and pairing it with a reliable distribution network. The best evidence of the company's aspirations to become a full-fledged studio arrived last week at a red-carpet event held at the Metreon in San Francisco, where a preview was shown of Sense8, a new Netflix series created by Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix, et al). Sense8 is about a group of eight individuals in eight of Earth's most thrilling cities, locked together as a hive-mind by some mysterious technical/mystical/biological means.

Much of the cast came in for a grip-and grin-session in front of a picture window overlooking Yerba Buena Gardens. Activist and actress Daryl Hannah was there, as was Lost's Naveen Andrews. Tearing up the place in a low-cut orange gown was the vivacious transgendered star of Sense8's San Francisco sequences, Jamie Clayton. Working for Netflix meant a chance to see people like herself on television: "We're not on the other channels," she says.

Among the dozen-odd starlets, dressed to kill, was a mild-mannered and quietly dressed figure: Grant Hill, the Australian producer of Terence Malick's masterpiece The Tree of Life, and much of the Wachowski siblings' films. Hill said that while every studio is different, it was a new experience working with Netflix.

"What's different is that Netflix is its own distributor. And they don't have a big development group." It's generally agreed among filmmakers that the most terrible part of filmmaking is "development hell"—the Dantean levels of rewriting and note-reviewing during pre-production.

"If you have a story and Netflix likes it, they will take it," Hill said. "They'll open lines of communication, and make suggestions—very astute, very helpful comments. I hadn't worked in this medium before, so I appreciated the support."

Netflix has 40 million subscribers in the US, and 20 million more elsewhere. By 2016, the company plans to be "pretty much everywhere in the world." This year, Netflix says, it is spending $3 billion on content—original and otherwise. Despite this vastness, Netflix sees itself as a "passion brand." Their communique—which they prefer handing out to reporters instead of speaking with them—states: "We don't and can't compete on breadth of entertainment with Comcast, Sky, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Sony, or Google. For us to be hugely successful we have to be… Starbucks, not 7-Eleven. Southwest, not United. HBO, not Dish."

Gina Keating, whose book Netflixed studied the rise of the company, told me: "I am not at all surprised that Netflix has made streaming ubiquitous, although it did not look like a sure bet when the app was launched in 2007. The content catalog was small—mainly older titles. What sealed the deal was the disregard content owners had at the time for streaming. They just about gave away rights, not realizing the Netflix user interface had 'trained' consumers to look online for content. Plus, Netflix had seven years of data on its consumers and could tailor its catalog to what they liked. That data trove is the basis for decisions about Netflix original content as well."

In addition to the original programming created in Los Angeles, under the direction of Ted Sarantos, Netflix seeks to cull the hundreds of thousands of movie choices into a smaller but better programming. They "seek the best of the 20 documentaries about bicycling." Then they measure the clickthroughs. The counting of clickthroughs—a mystery I'll touch on in a minute—explains the vanishing of a film that you'd intended to watch. That, after the technical blackouts, is the single most frustrating aspect of a la carte TV.

The anonymous author of the Netflix Manifesto seeks the mot juste: Netflix is launched, its rival Hulu is (merely) turned on. Hulu went from beta-testing to a billion dollars in revenue within six years, after being financed by a consortium led by News Corporation and NBC Universal, and later Disney/ABC and CW. One critic—Mark Rogowski, writing in Forbes, suggests that Hulu should be even bigger than it is given how much industry money it had behind it.

But Los Angeles-based Hulu and its "hulugans" program tons of television, current and vintage. When I pay Hulu their monthly fee, I'm proudest about them carrying much of The Criterion Collection, the crown jewels of cinema. In this pride, I'm probably like my parents, who used to display that set of the Great Books of the Western World in their foyer, despite never reading them.

Hulu carries ads. Repeated ads. And that's been the difference between Netflix and Hulu…until possibly the near future, since according to Fortune magazine's Tom Huddleston, Netflix is considering before and after film advertisements in some markets.

You could contrast this Criterion coolness with the hotness of Netflix's brilliant superhero series, Marvel's Daredevil. Looking like a fan-made labor of love, the violent film noir exposes all the problems in its closest artistic rival, Gotham on Fox. Imagine what Daredevil would look like if it ran the gauntlet of the broadcasting industry's standards and practices. Hulu, with the huge amount of industry money behind it, has scads of quality television in their trove. This doesn't mean just obscure foreign classics, but the entirety of Seinfeld. All the episodes are indexed and ready for the picking, any time one needs a particular episode to illustrate the supineness of human nature. While the entertainment industry drowns in a swamp of male hormones, Hulu also carries Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer from Comedy Central.

Netflix takes justifiable pride in the creation of House of Cards. The American version soaked up the Tory union-busting quality of the original, British version, without noticing or caring about the difference between America and England. To echo the common complaint, the more you know or care about politics, the less House of Cards makes a lick of sense. (And Laurence Olivier's 1955 film of Richard III, to which House of Cards owes an unpayable debt, is right there on Hulu.)

Remember when Steve Jobs said in 2010: "nobody's willing to buy a set top box"? The AppleTV, which Jobs also once publically referred to as "a hobby" has now gotten a bit more important. Next week's World Wide Developer's Conference in San Francisco will see the unveiling of the newest model Apple TV. It's rumored to have an improved touch control, providing the first updating of the device in years. It'll have to be very improved to rival the Roku. Named after the Japanese number 6, because it was the DVR inventor Anthony Wood's sixth startup, the Saratoga-based underdog TV system offers an assortment of programming that won CNET's survey of over-the-top video-players.

Lloyd Clarke, a long time inventor and Roku's director of product management, explained how a smaller company could compete against the larger streaming hardware developers. "We're smaller, yes, and that means we can focus on what we can do better," Clarke says. "Since 2008, when we started, we're completely focused on streaming. We get up in the morning and that's what we think about. There are currently 2,000 channels available through Roku—Netflix is just one of them—and we're adding 5-7 a week."

The simplicity of the Roku is what sells it. Clarke describes coming back from watching Avengers: The Age of Ultron with his son and then deciding to go back to track down all available Samuel L. Jackson films across all available channels. Roku can also notify a consumer of the date a certain film will be available, compare prices from various channels and then notify when the prices come down.

A Roku is just about to replace my still functional Apple TV of a few years back, as that little black widget slowly evolves into an intelligent drink coaster. Roku is more expensive than Google's low-priced Chromestick, but the voice-activated software ought to be an industry standard. No more of that miserable pecking away during a search, one letter at a time, like the bell-ringing Tio Salamanca on Breaking Bad.

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