How Netflix has changed comedy forever

There’s much to be said for Netflix’s data-led commissioning system. Being able to draw circles around shows its users watch, and then commissioning new shows based on where those circles overlap, was an innovative approach to creating content a few years ago. 

Barring one or two shows that seemed like home runs but failed to find audiences – namely BoJack Horseman stablemate Tuca & Bertie – Netflix’s television output is as prodigious as it is popular. Recent figures demonstrate that while its film catalogue has shrunk by 40% since 2014, the amount of TV content has increased by 37%.

Mic at a comedy gig
Telling funny stories.

The reality is that television, by nature of the amount of time it takes to consume a series compared to a film, provides Netflix and its competitors with content that is ‘stickier’ and keeps people coming back for longer. While this isn’t always to the benefit of the show (recall that Netflix’s collaborations with Marvel were criticised for feeling bloated and each being a few episodes too long), it keeps people on the platforms for longer. 

As evidence of quite how valuable television content is for streaming services, remember that Netflix paid Warner $100 million to keep Friends on the platform throughout 2019, and it was seen as a bargain. The reason? When it comes to streaming services, exclusive shows and films are the jewels in the crown, and when a service doesn’t have those proven, guaranteed hits, it has to try other things. 

As The Verge reports, “Even CEO Reed Hastings acknowledged that Netflix is different from its competitors in a recent investors call. Hastings argued that if streaming is a whole new world, the company’s uniqueness is ‘really about our movie slate more than anything else.’”

Writing for Hollywood Reporter, Natalie Jarvey explains the lengths to which rival streaming services are going to attract users away from competitors, potentially to the point of devaluing their entire business for years: “Though the offers are expected to help Disney reach aggressive goals for both services over the next five years (60 million to 90 million for Disney+ and 40 million to 60 million for Hulu), some analysts are questioning the long-term value of deep discounts.

‘It is never a good idea to offer content for free or nearly free as it devalues your content in the eye of the consumer,’ says Pivotal entertainment analyst Jeffrey Wlodarczak, adding that it ‘sets the bar very low’ on what customers believe they should pay.”

So content is vitally important for streaming services, and Netflix’s data-driven approach would appear to be one of the most viable means of commissioning content that will attract audiences. But what’s interesting is how the dynamics of the way that Netflix commissions its shows is changing the form of television content, particularly comedy.

From episodic to serialised

Along with sports content, comedy is one of the biggest draws for television audiences (just look at how much of the BBC’s Christmas Day schedule this year is comedic). However, where once the goal for any comedy show was to achieve the necessary amount of shows to be eligible for syndication – thus recouping much of the expense the commissioning network had eaten in producing the show – now the world of syndication has changed significantly. 

As Nellie Andreeva explains for Deadline, Netflix accepts the cost of production and then some initially, so that the studios make money effectively from the off. However, Netflix ultimately has the casting vote when it comes to whether or not to re-up an order for another season, and reportedly will hardly ever countenance a show that didn’t succeed in its first two seasons, as they don’t attract audiences and add little value to existing subscribers: 

“As an asset, having 30 episodes of a series (three seasons) is considered enough to satisfy viewers discovering the show. Tacking on more episodes does not add significant value, I hear. ‘A show doesn’t serve a purpose [anymore],’ an observer said. ‘There is no reason for the network to continue to invest in it.’”

So shows on Netflix are no longer aiming for the huge 88 or 100 episode runs that would once have qualified them for syndication. Instead, they aim to launch with a huge splash, and keep adding viewers every new season. 

Comedy shows like The Simpsons or Friends largely employed an episodic structure, rigidly enforcing the status quo, save for one or two big changes used as cliffhangers or to attract attention during a particularly lucrative advertising week. The core casts never change, and effectively there is a reliable structure to every episode, that ends with the status quo returning at the end. They did so to prevent continuity lockout, where audiences could not afford to miss a single episode for fear of losing track of the plot – you can tune in to every episode of Family Guy, for instance, and enjoy it on its own merits without having to consult a recap. In fact, some shows that deliberately eschew this structure in favour of dense narratives and constant callbacks like Arrested Development and Archer have struggled to find audiences for exactly that reason.

But because Netflix comedy shows have to deal with shorter than average seasons and aren’t constrained by the schedules of linear television, they are incentivised to craft a longer-term narrative where the status quo is constantly upended. Look at shows like BoJack Horseman or the Paul Rudd star vehicle Living With Yourself, which are comedy shows that are closer in form to a miniseries or drama, in that the story moves along every episode.

So Netflix’s commissioning system, combined with the very different priorities of a VOD system compared to a linear network, have changed how we think about televisual comedy. We’re no longer tuning in the odd week to catch up with a family in Springfield, but avidly following a drama-like narrative (that happens to be extremely funny).

Chris Sutcliffe

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.