The Golden Age of Post-Television

Netflix’s content chief Ted Sarandos says the company isn’t trying to outdo TV, it’s trying to do something completely different.

Uzo Adube and the cast of 'Orange Is the New Black' accept the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy.  (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

When Netflix released the first season of House of Cards to the world, every episode at once, it was treated as a milestone in a revolution. It was a front-page story in The New York Times—“New Way to Deliver a Drama: All 13 Episodes in One Sitting.”

But inside Netflix, said its chief content officer Ted Sarandos, it was merely “a super-practical decision.” The company had been paying attention to its users’ viewing behavior, Sarandos said. Some people watched four episodes of a show. Some people watched seven. “Nobody watched one.”

Sarandos was speaking in a session at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, billed in the program schedule as “The New Golden Age of Television.” But from the way he talks about what Netflix is doing, he doesn’t think of the company as making “television” at all, but something quite different.

That all-at-once drop of House of Cards, for example, illustrates part of what Netflix has that television doesn’t. “It was not meant to be the template” for how Netflix would release shows, Sarandos said. “It was just, Let’s see how people watch it.” They had the flexibility to try something that would never work on TV, and the data to see immediately how users responded.

Not that anyone else knows exactly how users responded, a fact that Sarandos’s on-stage interviewer, Katie Couric, was sure to point out. “Netflix is notoriously secretive,” she said. “Why don’t you release ratings of particular shows?”

Netflix measures the success of its shows very differently from television, Sarandos said. The company wants to make series custom-tailored to different audience segments, and sticky enough that users keep subscribing. It sees no upside in playing the ratings game merely for bragging rights, he said. “What I didn’t want to do is get into a ratings race with television, because really, for them it matters,” he said. “For me, it doesn’t.”

For that reason, he said, the company’s programming choices might seem off-kilter to a television programmer or studio exec, few of whom are snapping up vehicles for the likes of, say, the once-ubiquitous ‘90s funny-guy Adam Sandler, whose 2014 movie Blended made only $46 million in domestic box office, according to Variety. But Netflix just signed a four-picture deal with the actor, which surely raised many an eyebrow in Hollywood.

To Sarandos, though, betting on Sandler makes all sorts of sense. “Adam Sandler is a remarkable movie brand,” he told Couric. “We license a 20-year old Adam Sandler movie in the Nordics, it’s a huge hit.” Everyone who makes #content for the Internet knows nostalgia’s almost a surefire winner. Netflix, clearly, is no exception.

The company’s programming experiments go well beyond distribution techniques and back-catalogue revivals, though. It’s working on a multicam sitcom (another throwback!) to experiment with sped-up production schedules. There’s a Chelsea Handler talk show in the works. A new Pee-Wee Herman movie directed by Judd Apatow. A hip-hop musical period drama by Baz Luhrmann, featuring Jaden Smith.

It’s not all fun and games, of course. The company still has competitors. “How concerned are you about HBO Go?” Couric asked Sarandos.

Sarandos began to muster a breezy response: “It’s validating in a way.”

“But after you feel validated,” Couric broke in, “how concerned are you about HBO Go?"

“We need to get great at programming before they get great at technology,” Sarandos answered.

Right on cue at the mention of technology, Couric asked about Carl Icahn’s announcement last week that he’d sold his last shares in Netflix and recommended investors buy up Apple instead, suggesting the on-demand service’s stock had peaked. “He said that the last time he got out too,” Sarandos replied.

Sarandos did take some time out from Netflix boosterism to nod to what television’s still better at—namely, live programming. “I’m trying not to emphasize liveness,” he said. “I don’t think on-demand brings anything extra to sports.” The company can still find ways to make waves on social media, he said, such as when it released the latest season of Orange Is the New Black.

But what about the communal TV-watching experience, Couric asked, the kind that Scandal, for example, is all about?

“I hear people ask, ‘What about the water-cooler moment?’” he said. And of course, he’s got a snappy answer.

“There are no water coolers at work anymore either.”