the industry

Does Netflix’s Ashton Kutcher Sitcom Mean It’s Running Out of Ideas?

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Netflix

On Wednesday, Netflix reportedly picked up a new multi-camera comedy from Two and a Half Men’s showrunners that’ll reunite That ‘70s Show co-stars Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson. That show is said to be the launching pad for Netflix’s new streaming model: 20 episodes, released ten at a time, twice in one year. The Ranch is just one of many new shows and films — including projects from Brad Pitt and Baz Luhrmann — that Netflix has in the pipeline for the next couple of years. As the streaming wars heat up, where does Netflix’s future stand? Vulture’s Joe Adalian and Dee Lockett have lots of feelings.

Dee: Hi, Joe! So yesterday, Netflix reportedly made yet another addition to its growing lineup of original shows. That list seems to expand, with even bigger names attached than the ones before, every day. Is Netflix getting overcrowded?

Joe: It’s certainly trying to maximize the value of a subscription. Instead of being that place where you catch up on things that began elsewhere — movies from a couple of years ago, or reruns of shows you missed when they aired on TV — it’s very quickly become a place where there’s almost always something brand-new to check out. We knew this was coming: It’s the same strategy HBO, and then Showtime, used back in the ‘00s. They went from being networks where you caught movies you didn’t want to watch in theaters or rent at Blockbuster to destinations for original programming.

This is a good thing, right? I’m paying the same fee I always paid for Netflix, but now I’m getting so many more goodies. As my Jewish grandma might have said, had she been a cliché, “What’s not to love?”

Dee: My concern is that Netflix is toeing that line of offering too much of a good thing. Netflix doesn’t promote all its shows equally (perhaps, that’s why it’s looking into preshow trailers), and because it doesn’t release ratings, it’s impossible to know how well all of the shows are actually doing. Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Daredevil have been proven pop-culture successes so far. But have users been as receptive to series like Sense8, Grace and Frankie, and Bloodline?

I think what made Netflix’s original programming so attractive was that it offered a combination of exclusivity and careful curation. Has that hype worn off now that Netflix has become less selective, even getting into the rebooting business and rescuing canceled shows like Degrassi? (I’m still thanking them for that last one, by the way.)

Joe: I definitely agree that Netflix doesn’t really seem to care about sticking to a certain brand. Ted Sarandos, who heads programming there, basically said as much at a conference earlier this month. “I think in the pay-television world … the channel brand equity means a lot, and in our world, it really doesn’t,” he said. And it’s sort of true: Netflix isn’t playing the ratings game. They don’t need to be seen as the place you get one kind of show or the other, the way ABC Family or History do. They just need to make enough shows that are somebody’s favorite and hope that convinces them to keep subscribing.

And it’s not like they’ve been cutting back on one kind of show to make another kind; it’s just a bigger tent. If Netflix were only doing six to eight shows a year, like many cable networks, and half of them were Full House reboots, I’d be worried. But as long as they keep doing enough shows I like, why should I care what else is on the service? They have a lot of crap movies, too, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the good ones.

Dee: One of the main arguments about the music-streaming wars is that no platform has done enough to set itself apart from or, more important, ahead of the rest of the pack. Hulu, Amazon, and Yahoo have all stepped up their game since Netflix made a statement with House of Cards and OITNB. Even HBO and Showtime have hopped on the stand-alone streaming bandwagon. Is Netflix’s current model, a varied rotation of binge-watchable shows, sustainable?

For example, are we going to see Netflix have to cancel one of its shows, like networks do all the time? Even its longest-running original program, HOC, couldn’t escape the dreaded third-season decline (if we’re to believe a lot of critics, anyway).

Joe: I definitely agree that Netflix’s current “throw it all against the wall and see what sticks” programming philosophy is worth questioning. Just because you have, literally, billions to spend on content doesn’t mean you should make everything. As it is, Netflix doesn’t have the resources to promote everything it’s already launched. There was virtually no promotional campaign for Sense8, which is odd given the auspices (it’s from the Wachowskis). Now, I’m sure Netflix will respond that it doesn’t need to promote everything equally, because it doesn’t need people to watch all of its shows right away. Sarandos has noted that someone who watches one of his shows 18 months after it premieres is just as valuable to him as someone who binges the same show the weekend it’s released. They’re playing a long game, and right now, Netflix is still scaling up. It’s building its own library of assets, just as a movie studio does.

But as you noted, Netflix now has serious competition in the streaming space. Let’s face it: Nothing new Netflix has developed in the past 18 months has gotten as much acclaim and buzz as Amazon’s Transparent. (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is most definitely a buzz-o-meter smash, was acquired from NBC.) And I’m super-excited for the shows Amazon Prime and Hulu have in the pipeline for later this year and 2016. An Ashton Kutcher sitcom? Meh. It could be that Netflix simply wants to flood the zone, offering so much to so many different kinds of audiences, it becomes undeniable for the hundreds of millions of Americans who currently don’t subscribe to a streaming service. I just wonder if by doing so, it risks ending up with a whole bunch of generic shows nobody really cares about that much. Netflix can rationalize it has enough money to do both the next Orange Is the New Black and a new version of Full House. But no company’s resources are truly unlimited. The money it’s investing in reboots could have gone to support the vision of three or four new voices in the TV-production community who are just waiting for someone to give them the financial support to develop their passion project. Netflix likes to tout that it knows what we want to watch based on what we’ve watched before — its vaunted “algorithm.” But nothing in my past viewing history would’ve suggested I’d love Game of Thrones. There’s something to be said for just developing shows because they’re really great ideas and not because you think that’s what people want to see.

Dee: There absolutely needs to be a balance between developing fresh ideas and throwing cash at famous names who need a place for their passion projects to live and be seen. And right now, I think Netflix is starting to let the scale tip more toward the latter. Going forward, how does Netflix continue to take risks that pay off in the way that a show about a transgender woman did for Amazon, but not seem derivative of what’s already on the market? And what’s something Netflix isn’t currently doing that it should be? My feeling is that Netflix’s perception of having a bottomless wallet might move it in the direction of Apple — using big names (like, say, Brad Pitt) when it runs out of original ideas.

Joe: The Apple comparison makes sense, though it’s probably no shocker that I remain a total Apple devotee. I mean, they can be frustratingly in love with themselves at times and don’t always respond to consumer demand as quickly as they should. But I still think of them as the real-life equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, even post-Jobs.

You know, this conversation reminds me of an essay former Vulture writer Josh Wolk wrote back in 2013, just as Breaking Bad was coming to an end. Over the course of a few weeks, AMC announced it was doing spinoffs of both Bad and The Walking Dead, while also revealing the last two seasons of Mad Men would be drawn out over two years. Josh was, to put it mildly, not at all happy with where it seemed AMC was headed: “AMC, allow me to quote Super Troopers: Desperation is a stinky cologne.” He also warned that if the network didn’t get it together, it risked ceding its status as the home for Great TV to an outlet just starting to get into original programming: Netflix.

I understood then, and now, where Josh was coming from. And he was right to sneer at Low Winter Sun and The Killing, shows that ended up being massive disappointments. But it turned out that another show from the minds behind Bad was a pretty darn good idea: Better Call Saul is being praised in many quarters as one of 2015’s best new dramas. Plenty of folks did complain about the long break between Mad Men seasons, but we all survived, and the hiatus didn’t make this spring’s final episodes any less great. Even Halt and Catch Fire, in the early stages of development back in 2013, has started winning over critics in a big way following a soft start last year.

I’m not trying to apologize for bad decisions made by AMC or Netflix. They’ve made plenty of blunders (as has just about every network, including HBO and FX). And with Netflix, there’s also a whole Apple-like layer of internal dogma that seems to govern everything they do. They’re so convinced they’ve reinvented the wheel that they don’t seem open to the idea that maybe they’re not infallible. Hubris brought down many a No. 1 network during the linear age of TV, and it will be the downfall of digital players as well. But for now? I think this flurry of development from Netflix is just a symptom of it entering its adolescence. Like all teenagers, it’s trying to figure out its place in the world, and that’s a process that comes with lots of experimentation (and mistakes). As long as Netflix doesn’t hike its subscription fee, as long as it still invests in shows such as Kimmy Schmidt and BoJack Horseman, and as long as it stays in business with the likes of Baz Luhrmann and Jenji Kohan, I’m happy to let it waste its money any way it sees fit.

Why Is Netflix Doing an Ashton Kutcher Sitcom?