It’s Not TV. It’s No Longer HBO. It’s…Netflix?!?!?!

And just like that….Yosemite Zas is back in the forefront of the background behind two concurrent stories that seem to frustrating and agitating the Hollywood elite and the most passionate supporters of them.  All because our poor little half-a-billion-dollar-a year sheriff is simply being asked to do his job.

When the theatrical movies you bank on to make a dent at the box office don’t connect, when the ratings on your entertainment networks continue to plummet, when the Stanley Cup playoff finals don’t go seven games, and when your news network can’t even book a Kennedy for its town halls (ok, maybe they dodged a bullet there), when the folks you really answer to, the ones that stuck you with an albatross of a business that was mortally wounded by its previous ownership regimes, any responsible CEO would have to do what David Zaslav is doing these days,  which is the same thing that any struggling head of a household would do,  You literally rummage through your closets to see what old clothes you might be able to list on Poshmark and you continue to find ways to so more with less, such as use vinegar in a spray bottle for a cleaning product.

So for a change I’m not going to pile on Yosemite the way so many others are.  When the intrepid Josef Adalian of VULTURE, along with his equally astute colleague Eric Vilas-Boas broke this story yesterday, the tone of their narrative, let alone some of the assumptions behind it, was noticeably judgemental:

These are strange times for HBO: You can’t watch its shows on a streaming service called “HBO” anymore, and now the execs at its parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, are going so far as to send some of those shows out to the competition. Industry insiders confirmed reports that HBO and Netflix are closing in on a deal for the streamer to take Insecure — and very likely several other fan-favorite library titles — in a new licensing agreement that was first reported by Deadline. In addition, Vulture has learned that the additional titles currently being discussed for the possible deal are Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s comedy Ballers, the iconic early aughts drama Six Feet Under (which aired its last episode in 2005), and a pair of Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks produced miniseries, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. But because the negotiations between Netflix and HBO are still so fluid, it’s quite possible that all of the titles being talked about won’t end up being licensed by Netflix. Whatever the final shape of a deal, it is expected the agreement would be non-exclusive, allowing titles to appear on both Netflix and WBD’s Max.

As we’ve noted in previous musings, Warner Brothers has a storied history of finding ways to find buyers for its content, often confounding its competitors by somehow making deals with people who they were able to coerce into making a deal in a manner that would have had P.T. Barnum or Monty Hall turning over in their graves with envy.  But those past deals were foisted on television station groups and linear cable networks where both data and, often, executive brain power was often not as prolific as that which WB was able to wield.  This is NETFLIX that is potentially lining up to make these deals.  And my one question is–WHY?!?!

Netflix has its own set of challenges, to be sure, and the same bottom line demand from the investment community that Zaslav and the WBD corporate honchos are being faced with.  Make more money.  But to think that individual shows that have passion niches–that may still continue to be available in the vast and varied Walmart that Max under Zaslav has become–will be significant enough to move any needles of consequence?  Honestly, who on Netflix’s side actually believes that, and what data are THEY looking at that would justify said belief?

As Adalian and Vilas-Boas remind, it’s not as if Warner Brothers hasn’t found ways to find outlets for HBO shows before:

True Blood was made available on Hulu in late 2022, becoming accessible to Hulu users without an HBO Max subscription. The Netflix deal also follows the decision earlier this year to send edited versions of Insecure to the WBD-owned basic cable channel OWN, True Blood to TNT, Silicon Valley to TBS, and other recent licensing plays, like axing and kicking pricey titles like Westworld to ad-supported channels named “WBTV” on Roku and Tubi.  Of course, HBO shows had traveled around before; in the 2000s, you could catch edited versions of Band of Brothers on the History Channel, Sex and the City on TBS and E!, and The Sopranos on A&E.

And that’s where I’m particularly baffled.  Those deals DIDN’T WORK for their buyers.  SEX AND THE CITY was a ratings disaster for TBS and has been little more than a marathon filler for NBCU , its current strategy being a write-down against the aggressive price the long-departed genius that bought it previously stuck them with, utilities designed around events which cross-promote new iterations of it, such as today’s drop of season 2 of its sequel series AND JUST LIKE THAT, that air outside its own ecosystem.  BAND OF BROTHERS was little more than a nice little sellable miniseries that would be a quick fix for Memorial Day and Fourth of July advertisers for History.  The Vulture duo also forgot that CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, at a time when it was a higher profile show, didn’t make a dent for the struggling TV GUIDE channel (and what happened to that)?  None of the more recent left pocket/right pocket internal sharing has produced any ratings result worthy of any press release for the WBD linear networks.  INSECURE didn’t do a damn thing for OWN, whose audience profile is at least on paper in sync with the show’s.  Edited or not, how does Netflix figure having a non-exclusive run of it will produce any sort of consequential impact to bring in new subscribers or viewers?  There are only 44 episodes of it, hardly enough to make an appreciable increase in views or hours or whatever data point Netflix decides is their metric of the moment.

Believing that a Dwayne Johnson-backed comedy has value in 2023?  Did ANYONE in Netflix’ research–er, data analysis–department bother to look at the ratings trajectory of YOUNG ROCK?  One that couldn’t even keep pace with LOPEZ VS. LOPEZ?

If Netflix’s indeed thinks making a deal with WB is going to be consequential enough to matter, perhaps like any good negotiator they should look at who is on the other side of the table and see if there’s a way they can be a better business partner.  And yesterday it became apparent that Zaslav has a big PR problem on his plate.

Because it’s not every day that he has to take time out of his normal schedule of firings and layoffs to mollify legends who a mere two months ago he was cozying up to, as THE WRAP’s Lucas Manfredi reported:

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav held a meeting on Wednesday with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson to discuss the future of Turner Classic Movies following news of multiple executive layoffs at the network, TheWrap has learned.

“Turner Classic Movies has always been more than just a channel. It is truly a precious resource of cinema, open 24 hours a day seven days a week. And while it has never been a financial juggernaut, it has always been a profitable endeavor since its inception,” Spielberg, Scorsese and Anderson said in a joint statement Wednesday evening. “We understand the pressures and realities of a corporation as large as WBD, of which TCM is one moving part. We have each spent time talking to David, separately and together, and it’s clear that TCM and classic cinema are very important to him.”

The meeting followed an intense online backlash from classic movie fans upset over the departure of longtime executives at the channel.

Spielberg, Scorsese and Anderson confirmed that Zaslav called the meeting to talk about the restructuring of TCM — disputing some reports that the directors had asked for the conversation with the CEO.

A Warner insider told TheWrap that the group discussed giving filmmakers “a bigger hand in programming curating” TCM. The idea was “how do we make this better for the future,” said the insider.

The individual also said that the layoffs were part of a strategy to bring TCM more fully into the U.S. Networks Group so that it can be stronger and benefit from cross-promotion. “The idea is that TCM has been an island,” said the insider.

Zaslav and WBD’s way to integrate TCM more into the the U.S. Networks group was to place it under common management of executives responsible for Adult Swim, Cartoon Network and Discovery Family.

Again, call me a cynic, but aside from potentially some household-level usage data, what data could possibly support any argument that cross-promoting a Scorsese film festival on Rick and Morty be beneficial to them?

Plenty of comments attached to the news of the meeting that Yosemite called (for the sake of argument, let’s allow that he at least cared enough to want to try and explain) suggested that these guys should just take TCM off of WBD’s hands entirely, much as they would invest in art house theatre chains at a time when the likes of AMC and Regal are struggling.  The economic conditions contributing to both situations are similar.

But I’d offer that if Netflix joined forces with these gentlemen and bought TCM, along with the WB-owned titles it has and offer to take over any licensing arrangements with outside studios that they otherwise seek to do business with, that kind of movement could be far more likely to bring incremental subscribers and sponsors than anything else they are currently being offered could give them.  TCM has never reported their audience delivery publicly, but I’ve seen enough through back channelsover the years to conclude that at worst it’s in line with the actual deliveriesnof many relatively successful shows via Netflix’s AVOD subscribers.  I’m sure these titles, and the presence of faces like the ones that Zaslav seems to half-heartedly want to mollify, would be able to offset some of the liabilities  attached to hoping a nearly 20-year-old show about a funeral home might suddenly be able to find new life.

And if no one among Netflix’s brilliant braintrust is astute or passionate enough about this world to properly caretake it, there are several now former TCM executives that I’m sure would be more than happy to accept a modest consulting fee to help.  As would I.  I also will contend we all may be able to leverage data targeting and long-standing relationships to help bring in the kind of incremental subscribers and viewership Netflix really needs.

If the deals being reported go down as they are now, from my view no one other than Zaslav is likely to benefit, and only nominally at that.  And I dare say the potential of not being invited to the Indiana Jones premiere as a plus one might offset even that smidgen of upside.

So come on, boys.  Play nice, but play smarter.  For a change.

Until next time…


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