I started looking at Netflix as an alternative to linear television, which is structured for commercial interruptions. Perhaps viewers, desperate for ad-free programming, would prefer Netflix over services like Hulu. Of course, there are hitches. Netflix only offers “old” programming, past seasons, the “long tail” of content, not current, recent, or even “hit” programming.
But the more I have been looking at Neflix, the more I notice how much they are modeling themselves on cable networks of yore, that is, the early cable era which was mostly niche or narrow programming with no commercials. Netflix, rather than narrowing content categories, offers a long wide shelf of content instead. But those ad-free cable networks soon began carrying commercial interruptions, once they were sure subscribers needed cable too much to cancel the service. Netflix has no plans to carry advertising, and I don’t expect it to. However, Netflix sees its main competition as HBO: a premium cable network, a first mover in the “space,” successful at convincing viewers to subscribe to get an ad-free experience.
Netflix depends on ad-dependent networks to sell or syndicate their content to them. In other words, they need the pipeline of ad-supported programming in order to feed their pipeline of ad-free viewing. If so, then where will the new programming come from? Clearly, they are investing in new programs, they are funding a new version of Arrested Development, for example. But the risks of program production are so high, I wonder how much they will truly want to invest in *new* programming. HBO didn’t start making its own programming until it was very very rich and well established.
Netflix won’t displace existing ad-supported distributors because it would hurt its own business model. I wonder, then, if digital platforms will ever offer a true alternative to commercial-interrupted programming.