Goodbye, Jersey Shore, and good riddance: TV faces SVOD's original content play head-on

Samantha Bookman, FierceOnlineVideo

Finally, our long national nightmare may be over: Scripted, original TV series are a hot property in Hollywood again, displacing the decade-long popularity of reality shows like Jersey Shore and the seemingly bottomless pool of Real Housewives. It's largely thanks to the challenge laid at their feet by Netflix and Amazon with original content drives that stole away millions of viewers in the past couple years. But can traditional TV handle the cost of original series?

Last week, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht touted the network's increased commitment to original content at a presentation during the Citi 2015 Global Internet, Media & Telecommunications conference in Las Vegas. Starz plans to have 52 original series, or at least one hour of original programming per week, air this year--and intends to increase the number of original series airing on the premium channel beyond that.

"I think the measure of success for me is clearly, can we grow our subscriber base and can we grow our financial results? That's why we shifted from an all movie based service to originals … originals being the lead dog," said Albrecht.

The value of high-quality originals is in huge demand, Albrecht told investors.

But that value comes at a cost. Albrecht backed away from a question about whether Starz would be increasing the number of its originals from 52 to 75. Instead, he said, "We've gone from hours to episodes because ... we've shifted our strategy into pursuing more specific demographic groups in the first year of our shows, to really securing a core audience."

Starz is downshifting slightly, adding blocks of half-hour shows rather than full-hour content. The network premiered its first half-hour series, Survivor's Remorse, in fall 2014.

Amid all the demand for original content is the reality that scripted shows cost a lot of money to produce. While linear television holds the lion's share of existing programming, meeting viewer appetites for new content isn't cheap.

That's why NBCUniversal is working with low-budget horror movie producer Jason Blum, who says he can slash (pun intended) the cost of TV episodes, according to a Wall Street Journal story. For less than the cost of a typical series' first episode, Blum says he can show the company how to produce 10 episodes of a TV series, at around $500,000 per episode. And he's doing so with two upcoming series, one for the Syfy Channel and one for USA Network.

Blum's cost-cutting formula, says WSJ, is one of sacrifice: He's forgoing his producer's fees on the first season of both series. And he may ask actors and writers interested in working on the show to give up some of their perks--that was one way he kept his well-received horror films low-budget.

But it's not just dollars that have traditional TV worried. SVOD providers are increasingly luring away top talent with the promise of greater creative freedom and a better chance of their work being seen. Networks perhaps started noticing it with Yahoo's hiring of morning-show stalwart Katie Couric to helm its online video news efforts.

Of course, Netflix and Amazon have increasingly drawn in Hollywood producers and actors for its jump into original content. From House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright to Marco Polo creator John Fusco and directors Daniel Minahan and David Petrarcus (who have numerous HBO original series episodes under their belts), Netflix has attracted talent with its willingness to experiment with new content. Amazon is doing the same with its pilot program. This week the provider announced it had signed a deal with Woody Allen that will see him produce and direct his first TV series for Prime Instant Video.

nScreenMedia analyst Colin Dixon calls it TV's "brain drain," highlighting the Golden Globes and its top-heavy awards to streaming-only series like Amazon's Transparent and Netflix's House of Cards. Even Globes co-host Tina Fey has been attracted to the Netflix fold. Her latest project, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, shifted from development with NBC to its current home at Netflix after the network grew nervous about launching new sitcoms in general. It will premiere on Netflix on March 6.

"We can make a show work on its own merits," Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer, told NPR in a story highlighting Fey's leap to the SVOD service. He said that programming can suffer in the traditional TV model where a show is locked into specific air times, can be preempted by other programming, or otherwise get shunted into slots that impact viewership.

"SVOD is viewed by an increasing number of TV producers as providing a place where their show stands a better chance of success," Dixon wrote in his breakdown of the situation. "As talent turns its attention online, the quality of linear TV will suffer relegating it to something increasingly not worthy of our full attention."

So even as studios, broadcasters, and distributors scramble to feed audiences the original content they crave, they may not be able to hang on to the talent they need to create quality television. At this rate, Netflix will still be calling the tune in the content world for some time to come.--Sam