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Catalogues have been a part of the American consumer experience since the 19th century.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents lived for the arrival of large tomes from the likes of Midwest department store behemoths like Sears and Montgomery Ward.  You couldn’t be a baby boomer game show freak like me without memorializing for life the intonations that “prizes have been selected from the famous Spiegel catalog, containing more than 50,000 quality items, providing value, selection and savings.  Spiegel, Chicago 60609, Illinois!”  It was essentially a way for producers to throw their hands up and say “look, we don’t know what particular gift YOU’d want, so here’s a gift certificate, you figure it out”.  But, heck, it SOUNDED big.

I’m These days, catalogues effectively have migrated online, as has most of the world.  No truer is this than in the world of streaming media, where menus seem to offer an endless array of titles and options.  I’ve been working on a project to analyze a couple such offerings for nearly a month now, and I’m ashamed to admit I highly underestimated exactly how labor-intensive it is to parse through them.  Even with some sites’ nororious eliminations of certain offerings to take advantage of one-time write-downs and their short-term economic benefits to their struggling corporate bottom lines, there’s an awful lot of choice out there.  Were these in print, it would be like phone books used to be.

But as the always provocative Josef Adalian penned in a piece for VULTURE.COM entitled THE GREAT CATALOG CRISIS which dropped earlier this week, prompted by the unqualified and eye-opening success SUITS has experienced since Netflix non-exclusively acquired rights in July, catalog(ue)s aren’t what they used to be.

(T)he warm-weather winner this year might just be new-to-Netflix reruns of Suits, a basic-cable drama that lasted nine seasons and produced well over 100 episodes during its USA Network run — in other words, exactly the kind of decade-spanning hit the streaming giant has helped make all but obsolete. While Netflix loves acquiring older shows with hefty episode libraries (think Grey’s Anatomy or Seinfeld), when it comes to original content, it can be a little more, shall we say, promiscuous: lots of relationships, little long-term commitment. And because so many other platforms have followed its lead, even successful series on streaming now regularly disappear in as little as three years and typically leave behind no more than a few dozen episodes. They’re literally not making shows like they used to — and that’s a big problem.

As Adalian, a frequent confidente and general supporter of my old boss John Landgraf, who takes credit for identifying the term PEAK TV and the always-pending bubble bursting, continued, short-sighted and ego-driven commitment to “quality”, particularly in light of a binge-centric philosophy that all but demanded an endless supply chain of series has placed our industry in an existential crisis, one that has tentacles not only to profitability and engagement but also is at the center of the dual strikes that have ground it to a halt.

Research has demonstrated that while established series help prevent people from canceling their subscriptions, flashy new titles are a much more effective way to get them to sign up in the first place. So if you’re a streamer whose only goal is to get as big as possible, as quickly as possible, “All that matters is the new and shiny,” says one exec who’s worked for both streamers and linear platforms. “There’s no weight put behind making shows that keep people invested and coming back because all they wanted to say was, We’ve got x amount of subscribers this quarter.” Throw in the fact that many streaming shows have production budgets on par with modest feature films, and you end up with a TV ecosystem in which genuinely big hits such as Prime Video’s Jack Ryan and Netflix’s Never Have I Ever signed off for good this summer having produced just 30 and 40 episodes, respectively.

When the pandemic was raging, most people had the time and many were being fueled by high-calorie delivery meals and caffeine to binge through several of these shiny objects one after one.  And as our intrepid Midwestern observer Rick Ellis noted in his ever-insightul TOO MUCH TV TALKING POINTS newsletter yesterday, streaming services have been designed to essentially entrap you into staying in their walled garden, some doing a better job of it than others:

I don’t have any streaming subscriber user data to support the idea, but I suspect that when the average person logs into a streaming service, one of the primary reasons is to resume watching something they didn’t finish the last time they accessed the service. So given that, you would expect that most services would put that “continue watching” section pretty high up on the main page.

But for the same reasons that grocery stores make customers walk through the entire building to grab some much-needed toilet paper, some streaming services adopt the attitude of “I know what you’d LIKE to watch. But please check out these somewhat random things we’d prefer you watch instead.”

As always, I encourage you to visit these true pundits’ sites for the details, but I’ll summarily point out that Netflix, at least per Ellis’ scientfic study, does a darn good job of finding ways to entice viewers.  Indeed, much of the reason that SUITS even got on people’s radars was the fact that, unlike Peacock, which had access to the Universal-produced title since it launched three years ago, Netflix had recently aired a provocative and successful documentary on HARRY AND MEGHAN.  The scandalized ex-princess, of course, was a star of SUITS’ first several seasons.  Metadata naturally pushed that out to a “RECENTLY ADDED” tab that appears in first position on top of “continue watching”.  Plus, you gotta admit Markle’s clickbait catnip.

But that catnip lead to 139 episodes’ worth of escapist, digestible, essentially episodic TV that was largely new to many in Netflix’s ecosystem.  Not necessarily something you consume all at once.  But over time.  With a lot of “continue watching” opportunities.  And that. in the long run, is good business strategy.

As Adalian continued, that veteran executive continued to make some compelling points for why, with all of the issues at hand at the moment, revisiting the model that allowed SUITS to exist and to be enduring is probably worth a lot more considertation than the shots in the dark those not old enough to remember it might be throwing out to their even more detached and Wall Street-enslaved CEOs:

The same suit who says we’re not going back to the pre-Netflix world also says he’s been sensing an openness among his fellow execs to an evolution in how they think about the lengths of both seasons and series. “Some people are starting to push back against these accepted truths,” he says. “Consumers really liked having 12 or more episodes of a show every season. And we all enabled Netflix to change that.” TV critic and Burn It Down author Maureen Ryan echoed those thoughts earlier this week on the social network formerly known as Twitter: “U.S. TV was a money-printing machine for decades because people like 12- to 22-episode seasons that allow for meaty character development,” Ryan wrote.

Indeed, television was a lot more profitable when there were fewer series with longer episode counts because, in general, they were simply a lot less expensive to produce than today’s ten-episode shows-that-think-they’re-movies. Networks and studios kept budgets reasonable, production values modest, and relied more on making new stars rather than breaking the bank to lure established ones. But longer-run series were also a lot more efficient and still are today: Per-episode budgets go way down when a show’s season stretches 16 episodes instead of 8 and the costs of production (sets, actors, wardrobe) can be amortized over a much longer period. Plus, because there’s ultimately more of the end product — finished TV episodes — it was easier to monetize a show after it wrapped its run. If you made 200 episodes of a show, that meant bigger syndication paydays, more DVDs to sell, and more time to sell to advertisers — all of which turned hits into ATMs for all involved.

Besides that, recent news and revelations about FAST channels–essentially pre-curated catalogues of individual shows and/or “-verse” collectives that are a de facto vending machine for bingers, are increasing, even by companies who have been committed to streaming platforms.  Witness this pronouncement from BARRON’s Connor Smith yesterday:

Roku and Comcast’s NBCUniversal said Tuesday they reached a deal to launch new ad-supported channels for reruns of shows like Murder, She Wrote, Little House on the Prairie, and Saved By The Bell.

The deal will expand Roku‘s free ad-supported streaming TV, or FAST, offerings and give Comcast‘s NBCUniversal another way to wring money from its catalog.

FAST channels are a growing trend because they offer viewers free content in exchange for sitting through ads. The FAST channels play reruns on a schedule. It’s pretty much traditional TV but with the ability to see more specialized content.

Roku (ticker: ROKU) stock was up 0.2% to $82.48 in Tuesday trading. Comcast (CMCSA) stock was up 0.8% to $46.95. Both were beating the S&P 500‘s 0.7% slide.

See?  Not everything’s doom and gloom.

So perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned that something might be lost in an endless diet of appetizers.  And just possibly a few content providers are finally starting to realize that making more of a good thing that’s not 30, 40 or 50 years old could indeed be a wise long-term investment.

As Adalian concluded:

Shows having second and third lives in different places allows for a healthier overall TV ecosystem and, at least in theory, means that writers and actors can make more money from successful shows. It’s not hard to imagine this change in philosophy leading to longer episode counts as studios begin reverting to old monetization models.

Indeed, we’ve already seen more extermination from platforms on this front. It hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but when Peacock ordered a second season of Poker Face, it quietly green-lit 13 episodes rather than the 10 that made up season one. Meanwhile, season two of Hulu’s How I Met Your Father lasted for a whopping 20 episodes spread out over seven months (including a two-month hiatus). There’s been no announcement of a season three, but it’s not hard to imagine this show passing Casual to become Hulu’s longest-running comedy ever (in terms of total episodes). Even Netflix is changing things up a bit: It upped the second season of That ’90s Show to 16 episodes from season one’s ten-episode count.

You make more episodes, you might need more writers.  You might need larger writers’ rooms after all.  You might keep people employed longer.  You might keep audiences engaged longer.  You might give them compelling reasons not only to continue watching, but also to continue subscribing.

You might just have a business left for all of us to work in.  Young AND old.

Positive, hopeful, sound, rational arguments.  Thanks, Joe.  I think I’ll dig deeper into YOUR catalog now.

Until next time…

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