Streaming My Way Into The Television Industry
Storyteller. That’s the word I have written on my newly printed business card right under my name and right above my contact information. It’s the word that describes my passion and my chosen profession. But it’s kind of vague because storytelling comes in a variety of forms, and the word is just a conversation starter into the different outlets of creative expression. My industry of choice is film and television, two separate entities that have blurred lines between them. These blurred lines and many recent industry shifts have impacted both my professional aspirations and the different opportunities that lie ahead.
I have found as the entire industry shifts toward streaming, there is both a correlation and a sense of causation to the change of my own media consumption habits and their relation to my professional aspirations.
KEEPING UP WITH THE LONG TAIL OF CONTENT IS EXCITING, BUT TOUGH.
You may or may not be familiar with the term Long Tail, coined by Chris Anderson in 2004, but you definitely have experienced it. He says to think about it like a back catalog of content. The Long Tail has come about in recent years where the shift to digital has allowed more content to be found and created. The Long Tail of endless content comes with the digital atmosphere and makes it more accessible for audiences to find an endless amount of content suitable for them. It makes the less mainstream shows/films more relevant and brings it into the competition with the big studios.
I’ve seen it myself as I have transitioned over the last three years from a primarily time-shifted cable watcher to strictly watching my content through streaming and hybrid streaming services. Of course, the exception is my weekly Monday 8 PM network appointment for the Bachelor (ette) (in paradise). But a majority of the content I watch is from some sort of streaming access.
When I was growing up, we relied on cable television and DVR. Eventually, my family subscribed to Netflix to gain a whole new library of shows and movies that has only since grown. Once I moved away to college, watching my favorite shows and movies was a whole new game. My housing agreement at Quinnipiac allowed me a subscription to Xfinity which is a hybrid streaming service. I could watch live television, record and watch later, or watch content on demand. And the fourth service that I have had is Hulu, which comes with my Spotify student subscription and has a different library of shows.
My own watching habit timeline shows the progression and changes occurring in the industry affecting consumers and the amount of content at my fingertips is always growing. Between those four services, I have had access to countless programs and have been able to explore the Long Tail programming. This has had an immense impact on the pressure causing the industry shifts.
As a consumer, the Long Tail allows me to find more series that are suitable for my taste and grow my library of niche programming. This means more shows like Next in Fashion or Documentary Now! Have surfaced to appeal to very specific audiences. But honestly, how much of it am I even able to watch? With a busy schedule consumed with school, work, and family, I’m so limited to the amount of content I really have the time for.
But the Long Tail is a big deal whether or not I have the time for it. 2019 had record-breaking numbers in means of content production and without this Long Tail and the services allowing us to access it, these numbers wouldn’t be able to reach so high. The mere fact that more content is reaching audiences feeds into these growing production numbers.
AS AN EARLY PROFESSIONAL, THESE SHIFTS IN PRODUCTION VALUES AND GROWTH OF THE LONG TAIL ARE SHOWING SO MUCH OPPORTUNITY.
As mentioned before, I’ve lumped both film and television together because in this content-saturated world, with better technology, accessibility and higher production values, they’ve become one in the same. The biggest force impacting this era of television and film is the rise of streaming services.
The research department at FX calculates the number of scripted comedies, dramas and limited series both broadcasted and streamed every year. In 2018, the LA Times recounted that there were 495 original scripted television shows produced, which is a huge surge from previous years and is pushed higher by competition from streaming services. We thought that this was big. But in 2019, it went over the 500 mark. And it’s important to consider that this number doesn’t include daytime dramas, talk/reality, or children’s shows. The LA Times suggests that with those numbers included in the count, it would quickly surpass 1,000.
Although FX did not distinguish between cable and streaming for the 2019 numbers, in 2018 streaming services released more series than the networks. Even HBO itself had a 50 percent increase in programming from 2018 to 2019, according to the LA Times.
And it seems that more writers of different backgrounds are having their work produced and more studios are investing in an abundance of stories. There is a huge push for diversity and we’re seeing this both in the content of shows but also in the writers room and on crews. If the dream is to write for film and television, the time to do it seems like it’s now.
BUT THIS COMES WITH CONSEQUENCES FOR LONGEVITY FOR SHOWS AND CONSISTENCY FOR JOBS.
Even the longevity of the shows and staff writing jobs in television are being impacted by the way the viewers interact. When time-shifted viewership and streaming dominate the entertainment scene, ratings do not matter in the same ways they used to in the longevity or selection of programs. They may be relevant in a sense of understanding what programs are being watched at all, but they do not matter in the advertising scene remotely as much as they used to.
In an article from Vox it is noted that overall ratings are down from where they used to be because Nielsen counts the 18-49 range, but younger people are watching time-shifted or are streaming. Among this, it is discussed how “the Nielsen ratings that matter are the ones [where] Nielsen measures who watches advertisements”.
For streaming services, ratings do not matter because they do not rely on advertisements (Netflix’s model) and do not always report their viewership numbers and statistics. When they do, their numbers are huge and that only allows audiences to predict viewership ranges for other shows. Netflix is always gaining subscribers and because of the lack of advertising, they are gaining an advantage.
This is something to consider in an industry shifting away from traditional watching habits. When advertisements are obsolete with time-shifted watching and platforms without these ads, the ratings do not matter in the success or longevity of a show any longer. Shows have the split opportunity to stay on air for much longer than they usually would, or have their story cut way too short. It’s a gamble with what your network or service is looking for and how long your show will last. Staff writing for a show might not be such a static profession like it used to be. And that’s already something that has been affected due to complications between the WGA and agencies in recent years, and has proved to be a problem in the past too.
But on the other hand, it is giving more creatives the opportunity to produce content they’re passionate about rather than just sticking to what is going to be “successful” on a network. Not having to rely on advertisers’ opinions and guidelines, but rather focusing on what audiences would be interested in is opening many doors for filmmakers and producers. And this excites an aspiring media professional like myself.
KNOWING WHERE YOUR AUDIENCE IS CAN HELP MAKE SHOWS STICK AROUND LONGER, ESPECIALLY FOR NICHE PROGRAMMING.
Something interesting to consider when looking at the industry as a whole is the transition of shows from cable networks to streaming services and the success rates that differ. An article from the Hollywood Reporter stated that the show You, most popularly watched on Netflix at 40 million viewers, was previously on Lifetime with only 650,000 viewers. The show got another season, another shot. And for the people behind it, this is an opportunity that would not have come without streaming.
And that’s what is amazing about the nature of Netflix and other streaming services. They’re providing an endless list of content and recommend it to the audiences it would fit. If your show doesn’t do well somewhere, it might be better fit for somewhere else. The problem with this is faced by broadcast and cable networks that cannot sustain audiences for a Long Tail approach. But since streaming services are putting millions of dollars into episodes of their programs, their content offerings are no longer just syndicated and their originals are also becoming more cinematic. It’s a tough game, but having a tight scope on the specific audience you’re catering to can make that simpler and more successful.
Even media companies who provide cable tv are preparing for the switch toward streaming. The Discovery CEO David Zaslav is looking to expand to OTT platforms. He recognizes that with the company’s acquisition of Scripps, they have a larger span of demographics. With this, he stated in an article from Variety that “We have a very compelling offering, with more breadth and scale and flexibility than we had before.” The niche networks like the ones that fall under their umbrella have competitors that are putting out shows on Netflix that align with their audiences, but they want to stay afloat in this time.
And Netflix specifically is making a lot of niche shows, like mentioned earlier. Next In Fashion, Bonding, Love Is Blind, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo…the list is endless and the variety is strong. Whether it be “sketch comedy to BDSM, Netflix burrows into every niche it can find,” as Wired states. And they’re planning on spending an estimated $17 billion to do it in 2020, according to Variety.
There is something for everyone. Audiences just have to be able to find it in the right places.
THE STUDIO SYSTEM IS NO LONGER THE DRIVING FORCE FOR INDUSTRY OPPORTUNITIES.
Early professionals are faced with a lot of competition and pressure, but there is not a shortage of jobs because everyone is generally still producing at a high rate.
Whether it be a music video, a short film, television program, a film for streaming, or anything else, there’s always people creating projects. I’m a member of a handful of Facebook groups always posting open positions at a day rate. There might be less of a traditional studio system now, with crews rolling in and out, but network television isn’t dead yet and there are opportunities in other places as well. I do not have to stay put in one city to find work, and I can travel for jobs. With so much content being produced, the production hub for the industry cannot just be in one city. And for that, I am grateful.
Being born and bred in New York, it has been convenient to have one of the nation’s largest production hubs only a train ride away. Two years ago, I casually found a job posting online for an independent feature film and the timing was right. I was available and ready to work. This allowed me to not only get working experience on a feature film but also grow my network of freelance filmmakers to secure jobs within the future. The film ended up making its rounds from Greenwich International Film Festival and Tribeca, all the way to a limited theatrical release across the country. I saw first-hand how a small independent film could still make it pretty big.
If your soulmate could be a place, mine would be Burbank. When I went out to California two years ago for a semester, I was in the center of the industry working at a content marketing studio and couldn’t have been happier to be there. I have often thought about moving to the west coast, but I know that it’s not my only option and would prefer to do my work here in New York if I had that luxury. But the film and television industries have expanded further than just Los Angeles and New York.
The states of Georgia and Illinois both are in the top 5 for film and television production in the United States. According to the Chicago public media WTTW, “film and television productions in Illinois generated $423 million for the local economy and close to 14,000 jobs,” with 53 percent being held by women and minorities. This is a huge step for driving the economy in these areas. In Atlanta alone, film and television production “generated an economic impact of $7.2 billion,” according to an article in Ad Week. In both Illinois and Georgia, there is a provided tax credit by the government to drive business to these areas for the industry. Illinois specifically has this credit to boost employment and the economy for Illinois residents only, according to WTTW.
THE GEOGRAPHICAL AND TECHNOLOGICAL GROWTH IMPLIES A NEW AGE FOR THE INDUSTRY.
With so much to choose from and many opportunities in different locations for production teams, could we say this is another golden age of television? Could we even imply the same title to an industry that is so different from what it used to be?
I would say that this is not the golden age of television anymore, but rather the platinum.
Things are changing and right now these factors are elevated to a higher degree. Episodes are longer and production quality has increased, therefore there is a lot more competition. Programs are being made more and more cinematic, there’s an abundant amount of providers and studios, and you can choose what content you want to invest yourself into. But with a little bit of content fit for everybody, there’s almost too much content out there and it’s affecting cable networks.
It may be a peak for network television, and maybe cable too, but for streaming it most definitely is not. The chances that there will be a decline in production in the near future are very low. But in the long term, it is not sustainable for millions of dollars to be spent on an episode for broadcast or network television. But the streaming services are still building their libraries.
John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, agreed in an article from Hollywood Reporter by saying that “even if there is a decrease in the number of shows produced for commercial television, there’s going to be an increase in the number produced for noncommercial television”. Non-commercial TV tends to rely on Freelance workers rather than crews that move from show to show. And this is allowing more people to find work and do what they love. The streamers are giving people a lot of work.
STREAMING IN THE PLATINUM AGE IS DIFFERENT THAN EVER BEFORE.
Every network is trying to create a streaming equivalent but the networks know their worth. NBC’s ad-supported Peacock is almost here and CBS All Access isn’t pretending to be something it’s not either. They’re not disrupting the industry, but instead are allowing more access on different platforms and adding only a little bit of content.
As Netflix, who is consistently spending the most money out of all the streamers to create content, works to create a competition that is impossible for them to lose. Peter Rubin from Wired says that, “Netflix's profligacy isn't meant to win the race to streaming supremacy; it's meant to cancel the race, to open up a gap insurmountable enough to invoke the mercy rule.” He might be right when it comes to the “traditional” streamers like Disney+ and Hulu.
But newcomers like Quibi with bite-sized content exclusively for mobile devices are here to disrupt. It is not meant to replace Netflix or any other but is meant for on-the-go streaming. They are trying to monetize the way we watch, and they’ve got a lot of people backing them. I’m interested to see how this changes the way we watch. But that’s a lot of content even if it’s bite-sized. How are we supposed to keep up with something like Quibi?
According to Digital Spy, Landgraf is concerned “not just that the creative talent might not exist to justify the amount of money being ploughed into scripted shows, but simply that the audience wasn't there for it.” Anything goes, but is the audience there for it all? It’s not even possible to watch everything. This is where the good content sets itself apart from the rest. Think Twin Peaks revival, or don’t.
There is so much opportunity out there for more production, but there are also limitations to the amount of content we can watch as an audience. There is uncertainty of how long this era can really last. The studios are not the ones in control of the future. It may not be sustainable for the future due to rising costs in relation to increased production values and competition. The bubble has to pop.
AN UNFORSEEN FUTURE FULL OF BOTH OPTIMISM AND UNCERTAINTY LIES AHEAD FOR MANY LIKE MYSELF, AND THE INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE.
Seeing all the big changes happening in distribution and production rates, I feel confident that there’s always going to be work for me. There’s more content being produced than ever before and a need for both technical and creative skills. I’m currently working at Buchwald, a mid-sized talent agency, where I am involved with script coverage and administrative work to help the agents’ vetting processed and day-to-day tasks. Here, I have learned so much about the scope of what goes behind development for shows, filling a writers room, and the casting process.
When there’s opportunity out there in an industry that’s changing and growing, you need to position yourself in the best possible way to succeed. Understanding the interworking’s of the industry, and comparing it with your own habits will allow you to further see what kind of content is needed. And from there you work as hard as you can. There’s always going to be room for good content.
But it’s not about having room for good content if there are no writers to make it. The writers world has become very complicated in recent years with the WGA agreements for agencies. There has been a lot of commotion surrounding the power of agencies and their cut of earnings from projects. But this has mainly been resolved as some agencies have signed agreements to allow them to continue rep-ing writers with new rules following that strike.
But earlier this year, compensation battles in the streaming era became increasingly serious. There’s no question around if people should be compensated correctly for their work, but it’s a matter of negotiating to make it happen properly. Hollywood has been expecting a shutdown this summer due to the 3 year WGA contract to terminate in May, but there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this. According to Hollywood Reporter, this means a lot of networks and studios focused earlier this year on unscripted content for this year, or even ordering a fast-track for more episodes of current shows to prepare themselves to take less of a hit if this were to happen. And if that’s not concerning enough for a young professional like me who is looking for a job to start this summer, what I say next definitely is.
ALL OF THE EXISTING OPTIMISM AND BOOMING PRODUCTION THAT I HAVE DISCUSSED HAS RECENTLY COME TO A STANDSTILL.
I must ask myself, "What will happen in an age of other kinds of uncertainty?"
Right now with the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19, it is an odd time for people like me who are graduating soon looking for a job. It’s even more so an odd time for people already working in the industry both as staff and freelancers. The complications that have arisen worldwide are immense, and I am lucky to be healthy, but it is interesting for me to try to gauge my future for when this pandemic ends, which will hopefully be soon.
Because of the restrictions in place, all production has come to a halt. Some shows have not finished filming their seasons, and those shows’ seasons will most likely be cut short. Broadcast shows will have to stop mid-season and start back up in the fall if they don’t have enough episodes already taped, while streaming services can just delay the release of shows they have in the works. But it’s not that simple. Sound stages, crew members, actors, and equipment are often all booked months and years in advance. By the time production for a current project can pick back up, necessary people, locations, and equipment can all be unavailable due to previously being booked for something else.
The networks have recently only began filming their pilots and series for the fall, and had to stop promptly after with no plan set in stone for the future. With the upfronts happening in May, there is a lot of uncertainty of what these networks will even be able to announce. According to Hollywood Reporter, some are saying "January may become the new September if we lose three months of production.” But during this time when production is at a full stand still, companies can still continue with development remotely.
Hopefully this will all get sorted out soon, but there are a lot of complications that are going to come from this, making the shape of the industry that was moving so quickly have to reconsider some things. Maybe this is a wakeup call for not only the studios and networks, but for the industry as a whole. We’ll have to see how this shutdown impacts how the rest of the year’s production, the way the unions will negotiate with studios and streamer, and other things beyond our control.
People usually say that in this industry you can feel like a small fish in a big sea. This might be true, and things are definitely changing, but I don’t feel discouraged in the slightest.
I know this is a period of change for many reasons, some out of our control, but I think that some good will come out of it & I am excited to get to work when it does.