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The Originals Game

25 May, 2015 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Netflix appears to have an insatiable appetite for original content.

Speaking earlier this month at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in New York, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos attributed much of Netflix’s 20% year-over-year subscriber engagement hike to the success of original shows such as “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.”

The percentage of its total acquisition budget that Netflix spends on original programming keeps shooting upward; on an earnings call last month, chief financial officer David Wells said “it’s drifting up to 30% [and] could drift up to 40% … we are building out our … original content investment and that is cash intensive.” Accordingly, in his quarterly letter to shareholders last January, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings promised 320 hours of original programming this year, three times as much as in 2014.

Original content is not just the growth engine for Netflix here in the United States, but also abroad, where Netflix is aggressively expanding its reach. Sarandos noted that “House of Cards,” according to one report, is the most popular U.S. TV show in China.

And Netflix is more than happy to pay whatever it takes for exclusive rights — which is why some of the same studios that for years have griped about Netflix cannibalizing their sellthrough business are now creating original programming for the No. 1 streaming service.

Content, it appears, truly is king.

The more dependent Netflix gets on original content, the more it seeks global exclusivity of that content. Netflix no longer seeks blanket license agreements with studios for bulk programming. It picks and chooses specific programming.

To get control of that programming, Netflix is now dealing directly with creators and producers of TV shows and independent movies. When it licenses a show or movie, the rights are exclusive. That’s because binge-viewing, commercial-free, and on-demand access are key drivers of Netflix’s brand proposition.

“We’re either interested in the global rights or we’re not interested at all,” Sarandos said.

Netflix recently secured rights to African warlord drama “Beasts of No Nation,” starring Idris Elba. The streaming kingpin beat out independent distributors (such as Fox Searchlight) within the major studios — a win Sarandos attributed more to dealing directly with producers and granting immediate access than money.

It also secured exclusive rights to Fox TV’s “Gotham” and A&E Networks’ “The Returned” by dealing directly with the shows' producers, Warner Bros. Television (“Gotham”) and A&E Studios, respectively.

“For a dollar spent [on original programming] and an hour viewed, you get more hours of viewing per dollars spent on originals versus the licensed content,” Sarandos said.

At the same time, Netflix is still interested in bidding on sitcoms with major stars, such as “The Big Bang Theory,” “Mike and Molly,” and “2 Broke Girls,” provided the market for the shows isn’t overheated, according to Sarandos.

“We’re not seeking a lot of [random viewing],” he said.

But for the most part, original programming is the way to go for Netflix — regardless of what it costs, where it comes from, and who they have to beat out at the negotiating table.

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