The Television Critics Association press tour (TCA for short) — a multi-week march of press conferences and working parties assembling a few hundred reviewers, reporters and the people who make the shows they cover — takes place twice a year, and some of its participants like to compare it to summer camp. You spend a short period of time catching up with friends you haven’t seen in a while, but the experience is so concentrated that you come out of it feeling like you understand the people there better than the ones in your everyday life.
If you go to the same camp enough years in a row, you get to see relationships and statuses wildly fluctuate. Last year’s wallflower is this year’s hellraiser, and no one gets to stay unofficial king of camp for very long.
There are some constants at TCA (Les Moonves has been the head of CBS for the 22 years I’ve been attending, though we’ll see if he still is by the end of this tour on August 8th) but also constant shifts in power and identity. The cable and streaming portion of this summer’s tour was notable for seeing how three of the biggest players in that field — HBO, appearing as always, Netflix and Amazon, both returning after a multi-tour absence — are adjusting to new positions, or consolidating the ones they’ve had for a while.
HBO used to be the operation that everyone else in the business was chasing. Not anymore. They still have the biggest hit on the planet in Game of Thrones, but it only has six episodes to go, which won’t air til next year, and the pay cable giant could be facing another fallow period like the one where The Sopranos series finale was followed immediately by the John From Cincinnati premiere. (I don’t know Butchie, instead.) For the first time in forever, HBO didn’t lead the Emmy nominations field, trailing Netflix 108-112, and even HBO’s new AT&T corporate overseer John Stankey recently addressed his charges in terms suggesting a high degree of Netflix envy.
Amazon by all rights should be on par with Netflix, if not ahead of it. It’s conquered nearly every other corner of American commerce, it has some terrific original series like Transparent, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Bosch, and its library of older shows has a lot of classics (great HBO series like The Wire and Six Feet Under; Justified; The Americans) that Netflix doesn’t. But ask the average Amazon Prime subscriber if they’re even aware their membership gives them access to so much streaming content, and you’ll probably get a lot of blank stares.
Netflix, meanwhile, largely continues to be the 800-pound gorilla checking into the hotel: Whatever it wants, it gets. But it also finally started canceling shows in the last year, and there remains the question of whether this abundant spending on programming is sustainable, or just a Cold War-style arms race designed to bankrupt any competitors (like, say, HBO) who might try to chase them.
TCA is a chance for each network that appears to reshape the public narrative about who they are and what they’re doing. For HBO, that meant president Casey Bloys got to stand up and issue a request for calm amidst the recent headlines. Stankey’s comments, he insisted, were misconstrued, and all anyone wants is for HBO to remain the beautiful and shiny and relatively small HBO we’ve come to know and love — just with more money and perhaps a bit more in the way of programming.
“There are no plans to dilute the HBO brand in favor of volume of programming,” Bloys insisted. “No one has come to us and asked us to not do what we do, which is, you know, curate excellence.”
A frequent complaint from HBO employees and would-be showrunners over the last few years is that the staggering expense of Thrones and Westworld, coupled with the focus on Sunday night for scripted (with quirky Friday exceptions like the Duplass brothers’ anthology Room 104), had created a bottleneck of shows in development for which there was neither money nor a place to schedule them. At TCA, Bloys seemed to address this criticism, if obliquely, talking eagerly about, for instance, getting Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen adaptation into production not long after he sees the completed pilot within the next few weeks.
“We’re careful in our development and careful in shows we select, and I don’t want to change that,” he said, convincingly. “But, obviously, if we’re doing more, we may need more staff. But I don’t want to change our culture in any way. I don’t want it to feel like a factory.”
An HBO desperate to both expand and milk the Thrones phenomenon for all it’s worth would also probably be racing to get onto the air the five different spin-offs they developed over the past year. Instead, Bloys is being judicious, ordering one — a prequel written by Jane Goldman — to pilot, and was non-committal at TCA about whether any of the others might follow if Goldman’s pilot comes out OK.
“The reason we did multiple scripts was,” he said, “in the development process, out of five, we’d be lucky to get one that we’re very, very excited about, and we did get that.”
Along the way, Bloys deftly avoided pile-ons about other potential hot-button issues (the Game of Thrones showrunners’ divisive parallel-world show Confederate, for instance, which imagines the South seceded after the Civil War, is still in limbo while the creators work on other things) and waved a set of very shiny keys at the critics in the form of a green light for the long-awaited Deadwood movie. The initial interpretation of Stankey’s comments may prove correct, and HBO could embark on a futile attempt to out-Netflix Neflix, but this particular public storm was plausibly weathered.
Of the three, Amazon had the lowest bar to clear in their return to press tour. Their previous appearances under smug, ousted president Roy Price had been such utter, disorganized catastrophes (not to be confused with the service’s outstanding romantic comedy Catastrophe), the basic ability to answer questions in a coherent manner would seem like a huge win. That’s essentially what new Amazon Studios boss Jennifer Salke and her team were able to do: They showed up, seemed prepared and competent, and that in and of itself suggested a corner might have been turned.
More specifically, Salke copped to areas where Amazon very badly needs to improve, like Prime Video content being buried on the homepage or the terrible user interface for the TV app (a better one is coming, she says), and announced they were abandoning old gimmicks that never accomplished much, such as the alleged crowd-sourcing of the pilot process (which Salke’s predecessors tended to ignore if they felt differently from the crowd about a pilot, or if the creator was so famous that the pilot process was skipped altogether). Not everything seemed inspiring — Amazon’s $250 million purchase of the rights to adapt Lord of the Rings, made before Salke’s arrival and without a concept or creators attached, has been placed in the hands of virtually unknown screenwriters JD Payne and Patrick McKay, whose biggest prior job was an uncredited pass on the Star Trek Beyond script — but at minimum, their TCA stint provided the hope that the people running Prime Video understand that they’re a company that makes TV, even if that company has to compete for space on the homepage with Alexa and the Kindle Daily Deal.
Netflix hadn’t been to TCA for a couple of years, perhaps because they were annoyed with how often we complained about the lack of ratings data, or simply because they felt traditional press coverage was irrelevant to their business model. (Their execs like to say that the best possible promotion for a new show is prominent placement on their own app or homepage.) And there were moments during the executive session for vice-president of original programming Cindy Holland that brimmed with an air of “you need us to be here more than we need to be here,” thanks to the number of questions that went unanswered.
The critically-acclaimed wrestling dramedy GLOW had been paneled earlier that day, and its future remains technically up in the air, even though its creators alluded to plans for a Season Three they hope to make. All Holland would say on the matter was: “I love the show. We’d be really thrilled to make more, but I don’t have anything to share with you just yet.” She also didn’t have anything to share with us on the long-rumored development deal with black-ish creator Kenya Barris (who announced his departure from ABC Studios on July 27th), details on what kind of shows the Obamas will be making for Netflix under their own deal, or potential future Marvel spin-offs. This evasiveness wasn’t necessarily unique to Netflix — deals can only be announced when they’re done, and Bloys, Salke and other execs did plenty of non-answering of their own — but considering how much of their business is shrouded in secrecy, the general attitude seemed to be, Netflix Gonna Netflix.
Still, Holland did offer more insight into the ways Netflix functions differently from its competitors, as well as ways that they’re more alike than either side would admit. Where traditional network and cable programmers focus on shows that will appeal to particular demographics, for instance, Netflix uses “taste communities,” wherein groups of people (regardless of age, income, gender, nationality, etc.) enjoy the same shows and films on the service. (As an example, she cited a a customer in Mumbai and another in Iowa who belong to the same taste community that enjoys Dave Chappelle stand-up specials, the Ashton Kutcher sitcom The Ranch and The Theory of Everything.) This is how things work when your process is so heavily dependent on algorithms, and leads to the “if you liked this, you’ll like that” approach to both recommendations and decisions on what new shows to order.
When asked to explain the thinking behind Netflix’s recent wave of cancellations, Holland held up the Nineties-set high school comedy Everything Sucks! as an example. “It had a passionate and good audience coming in,” she noted, “but what we were finding is that there were far fewer people than average who were completing the season. And so when we looked at what it would take, how many viewers we would need, to be successful with a Season Two, we found that the audience size really just wasn’t there.”
Blaming a show’s demise on viewer completion rate may sound futuristic, but it’s really just a fancier way to say, “The ratings weren’t there,” the way the old and creaky broadcast networks have since Eisenhower was president. Even with a seemingly unlimited budget, Netflix isn’t going to be able to keep every low-viewership critical darling. (The only difference is that only Netflix’s executives know what the numbers are.)
It was something of a relief to hear Holland admit this, even if she used new jargon. The TV business is going through enormous upheaval right now, and there are days when Netflix feels as responsible for that as all the other factors (corporate mergers, cord-cutting, further splintering of the audience) combined. In many ways, they are a technology company that happens to make movies and TV shows, and they act accordingly. But on a fundamental level, Netflix still has to play by many of the rules their traditional brethren do, and their return to TCA was a reminder of that.
Summer camp hosts athletes, actors, crafters and kids who just want to bob in the lake all day. But everyone in every clique still has to eat the same soggy mess hall food. HBO, Amazon, Netflix and even the broadcast networks appearing in the second half of summer TCA do many things differently from one another and have different benchmarks of success. But when you get down deep, they all just want as many eyeballs on their shows as they can get.