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Why Arrested Development on Netflix could change everything

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Whoever might be employing me in the spring of 2013, know this: The moment Netflix (s NFLX) debuts the return of Arrested Development, I’m calling in sick. Because on that glorious day, me and the hundreds and thousands of other devotees will be in our pajamas, in front of our laptops and iPads (s AAPL) and Xboxes (s MSFT) and Rokus, once again enjoying the antics of the Bluth family.

Arrested‘s rebirth, over four years in the works, has the potential to completely change the game in terms of the way we regard web content in the future. I mean, cult network sitcom gets a literal second life through the largess of a company that began life as a mail-order DVD service? If you time-traveled to 2006 (the year Fox (s NWS) originally canceled the show), and told this story, no one would believe you.

And yet, it’s happening: scripts have been written, producer/narrator Ron Howard’s Tweeting from the set, and David Cross, on a recent press blitz, said no shortage of interesting things about the series’ return, including this to Rolling Stone:

I think it’s going to be 13 episodes, not 10. There’s too much story. Some characters will have two-parters. Everybody sort of participates, sometimes in a bigger way and sometimes in a tiny little thread that goes through everybody else’s stories.

This is the sort of statement that would make a network executive’s head explode, due to the way traditional TV is budgeted and structured on a per-episode basis. But we’re on Netflix’s turf now. Unexplored territory.

Beyond Lilyhammer, which has been renewed for a second season, the industry hasn’t gotten much sense yet of how Netflix’s many high-profile in-the-works projects, such as Arrested, the Eli Roth series Hemlock Grove or the Kevin Spacey-starring House of Cards, will really work out — especially because the question of how to promote a VOD project is still a bit up in the air.

With theatrical releases, you get premiere dates, big galas. But Netflix is so stealthy about announcing what’s available and what isn’t that websites and email services have been created to update people.

Without doubt, I’ll know what day I’m calling in with the Arrested flu next spring — it’s impossible to imagine that not being heavily promoted by both the production and Netflix — but the Netflix experience in general has always boiled down to “Wait, THAT’S available now? Okay, cool.” Seeing how Netflix adapts to accommodate the original programming they’re launching, while still enabling the casual browsing of the user experience, is a fascinating challenge.

The other element is the fact that like Lilyhammer, all 10-13 episodes of the series will be released at once, setting fans up for epic marathon sessions. The term “binge viewing” has been coined to describe how many TV fans now consume shows, gulping up entire seasons on DVD or streaming services. It’s a wonderful way to fall in love with a show — just sinking into it the way you might sink into an epic novel. And Arrested‘s new season, according to Cross, sounds designed with just that experience in mind:

I’m not gonna divulge anything, but I know what the stories are and what Mitch [Hurwitz] is doing, and it’s so layered. It’s really audacious and amazing. I think a lot of people will miss the work that is involved, the story, the Venn diagrams that are being created, the domino effect that characters have with each other in their various episodes. I know what he’s doing, and this has never been done on a TV show like this. This makes Lost look like a Spalding Grey monologue. You’ll have to watch each episode more than once.

Given the show’s pre-established track record for hidden jokes and gags, this sounds more than promising.

The AMC series Breaking Bad is a key example of a show that’s grown its audience thanks to binge viewing, indicated by how its ratings have increased with each season, as new viewers discover the show through Netflix. But Vince Gilligan, in a recent interview with KCRW’s The Business, had this to say about the phenomenon:

It’s wonderful, but I do see the worry — this is a business, it’s show business and if there’s no money to be made, then this wonderful job I have and other jobs like it are going to dry up. So we should all be interested in how they monetize this stuff. It’s wonderful when people binge-watch the show — I say have at it — but I do see the companies, not just ours, the various companies concerned that if you’re binge-watching on a DVR, you’re skipping all the commercials. And if the guys who buy the commercials realize that all their commercials are being skipped, they’re going to stop buying commercials.

It’s an attitude you’ll hear elsewhere in the industry — which may be why Netflix is doubling down on its subscription model. I couldn’t track down the budget for Arrested Development‘s new season, but House of Cards‘s price tag was reported by some as $100 million, and Hemlock Grove, it’s said, is budgeted at $40 million for 13 episodes — otherwise known as about $3 million an episode. That’s real TV money — in fact, it’s the same budget as Breaking Bad.

It’s a long time until the spring of 2013, but looking forward it’s hard to imagine a more important signpost for the convergence of television and the web than Arrested Development. If it succeeds, it’ll legitimize a whole new distribution platform and business model. And if it fails, well, we’ll at least get to see Tobias in his cutoffs again.

The TV singularity approaching us consumers of media is at times a scary one: We’re used to shows that cost millions an episode, but we’re also now used to consuming whatever we want, wherever and whenever we want. Some people think that going forward, these two mindsets won’t be able to co-exist. But Netflix seems to disagree, and the Bluths may be the ones to prove it.

28 Responses to “Why Arrested Development on Netflix could change everything”

  1. The big three networks are dying and there are very few shows that interest me on these networks. Hbo, showcase, amc etc are the stations to watch! What some of your commenters fail to realize is that free or nearly free access to these network shows and past shows, through file sharing, is the new wave of television. Why subscribe to all these stations on cable or sattelite when all you really need is a modem and laptop. The industry is changing(as did photography and music) and if these dinosaurs of tv and the general public don’t wake up they will be fogotten and left behind like the music and movie rental stores of the past.

  2. Jennifer

    “Because on that glorious day, me and the hundreds and thousands of other devotees will be in our pajamas”…. Sigh. Basic grammar rule here: you are the subject, ergo it should be “hundreds…and I will be.” Easy way to tell whether you have your subject verb agreement correct, if you are unsure. Just remove the other parties. You’d never say “me will be be on the couch.” Or would you? You’re ostensibly a writer, ergo this is unacceptable.


    Netflix is an awesome deal and we watch it more than the Networks that I get for free ota . For 7.99 a month here in Canada it is a cord cutters dream. I am looking forward to LillyHammer season 2 ,House of Cards , and Arrested Development a swell.

  4. Watching Arrested Development on Netflix is like eating turnips coated in chocolate.
    Face the facts; people want to see what they want when they want it and the corporation that figures out how to make the most money doing that with the highest quality products will pave the way for cable and satellite, and broadcast TV to follow.
    Netflix and AD may only be plodding a trail in a forest that is too dense right now to clearly see the way through to the other side. It takes pioneers to blaze the trail. All too often, the pioneers die from nasty diseases and the settlers that follow are the ones that enjoy their hard work.

  5. lakawak

    IT won’t change anything unless producers are willing to make shows for a LOT less and actors are willing to take less. The funny part is, Arrested DEvelopment could have had a saeason 4 six YEARS ago (when it wouldn’t have been a disaster waiting to happen like it is not.) and they would have gotten MORE money than they are getting from Netflix. At least 2 different networks/Showtime offered more money per episode to have the show on their channel than they are getting now with Netflix.

  6. Joe Powers

    If shows like Arrested Development who were ahead of their time can come back, WHY NOT TWIN PEAKS?!! The world was not ready for it the first time around just like Arrested Development. Both shows suffered from time slot changes and network meddling which resulted in a ratings drop and cancellation! We have started a movement on Twitter and Facebook to get Twin Peaks back on TV ! Please join us and show your support!


    WHY NOT?!

  7. I’m always surprised no one mentions international growth. This is where Netflix can continue to grow and could have different consumption models that improve the revenue concerns. Other countries eat-up American content, and there is a lot of opportunity worldwide.

  8. 1. Why would you want to call in sick? I thought watching it might be part of your job. ;-)

    2. Binge consumption is fast becoming a norm for cord cutters. That is the future.

    3. Netflix streaming subscription is so cheap, I would never stream or download Arrested Development from illegal sources. I would gladly pay Netflix.

    4. Content producers who worry about viewers not watching commercials should look at other forms of monetization. Two top things – a) Merchandise (plenty of people would plunk down money for Arrested Development merchandise). b) Exclusive online content that keeps fans coming back for more (production notes, behind scenes and deleted scenes footage, bloopers, alternate scenes, interviews, etc., etc.).

    • Kristen Miller

      RE: #4 – Excellent suggestions!! Love it. Keep the $$ in the picture somehow so we can still have the budget to make quality programing, but take the ‘whoring’ out by keeping the commercials far away.

      Brings up the thought – if you accept a widespread broadcast model of commercial free, self sustaining, programing – how will people hear about the brand of toilet paper that feels like a cloud, or the peanut butter that means you love your kids? Those ‘voices’ will have to change their tone, and they’ve got WAY too much money to take anything NEAR a passive position in relation to media content. How will they continue to yell and manipulate audiences? Broadcasting to our dreams? LOL

      • I feel that waaay too many people get paid waaay too much to yell and manipulate audiences and ensure their particular brand (of a toilet paper, no less) is the best….
        The sooner this ridiculous level of marketing begins to lose money the better.
        maybe then we can start investing the talent of these people in products/services/causes that really advance the human condition.
        They may get paid a little less, but the shift in transformation for the greater good has got to be worth it in the long run.
        Akin to the shift of power from the physical product distrubutor to the digital distributor really.
        Are you telling me my favourite TV shows are funded by loo-paper?!?!? That’s just s****y!?!?

  9. Mr. Bee

    Personally, the thing that really turned me off of “Lillyhammer” was the fact that they released it al at once. It was not that great a show to begin with and releasing it all at once just made it more awful somehow.

    I would much rather they do Arrested Development in stages. If not one episode a week, at least one a day or something so that the audience has a feeling they are participating in the show.

    Often shows are produced in batches of three or four and then released to TV. I don’t see why they don’t just do the same thing with this. Three or four shows, then three or four more a couple of weeks later.

  10. Great piece and I couldn’t agree more. Arrested could change everything you’ve mentioned and so much more:

    For one: It could change how the Emmys perceive programming not released on linear television, breaking through the “Interactive” category. Arrested is a previous Emmy-winner. If Netflix is smart, they’ll fund a ‘FYC’ campaign like Hulu did for Battleground this year. This could change the perception of TV-like web original content and perhaps introduce a broader audience to the ‘web series’ concept in a way it understands. 

    I do think for a show like Arrested, releasing the full season at once is risky. Releasing once per-week could make a lot of sense; it extends your marketing window to  13+ weeks which could build awareness throughout the season. It takes time to turn people onto the idea of a TV show that’s not really on TV (trust me I know). Lillyhammer had decent but brief campaign. TV news sites like TVGuide, TVLine and HuffPoTV cover new episodes, recaps, the kind of editorial that builds anticipation. Even if most people end up binge-viewing, treat it like a real TV show. 13 weeks is also a nice chunk of time to implore people to sign up for Netflix. There are no advertisers to appease, no ratings to be concerned with, why not prolong the experience because it’s a pretty big deal.

    • I’m also of two minds when it comes to binge-viewing vs. once-per-week. OpW allows you to savor each episode and process what happened. On the other hand, imagine watching 24 in real-time! That would blow my mind!

  11. Chuckish

    I’m sorry but Arrested Development’s success or lack of success on Netflix proves absolutely nothing about the viability of online-only content. It’s a popular show that’s popular because it was originally aired on television. Sure, it’s become a cult success because of DVDs and streaming, however, it never would have gotten to that point without television. N-E-V-E-R.

    Also, the only way we can measure the success of a show like this for Netflix is new subscriptions. They won’t make a dime more from current subscribers watching Arrested Development. It will actually cost them money because they’ll have to pay streaming costs. I think something like AD could potentially add new subscribers because it already has fans that want to continue watching the series. But, new shows, that don’t come prepackaged with a fan base? They’re going to have to consistently be HBO-good to make a ripple.

    • Kristen Miller

      Agreed. I’m a HUGE Arrested Development fan, and I practically wet myself whenever I hear of someone shaking up the traditional broadcasting model – the ‘fat cats’ that take all the $$ from the creatives and tring to manipulate everyone into ‘buying things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like’. But before you can label something as a ‘success’, you need to define it. Since in the media industry almost every definition of ‘success’ involves a dollar amount, I would assume more Netflix subscribers would be the ‘goal’, as Chuckish suggests. I agree, popular and awesome as AD is, it’s not going to add enough subscribers to really set the industry on it’s ear. It reminds me of when Radiohead offered their album for free – did that REALLY change anything in the music industry? Believe me – I pray to the media gods that this will be the game changer we’ve all been waiting for, but I just don’t see that happening. Not until the media industry stops measuring success by money.

      • MorganHoward

        I agree with Kristen. Unfortunately, I don’t think the show’s success will be a “game changer”. When Apple release their new television – that will be a game changer.

      • Marshall

        Kristen – how else should the media industry measure success? They’ll stop measuring it in money just as soon as the show creators/writers/actors/etc… stop asking to get paid in money. Unless you’re advocating turning over the entire industry to the government and instituting a “media” tax on everyone?

    • I’m not sure that the show would ‘never have gotten to that point without television.’ The show was not popular when it first ran on TV. Of course, it got it’s start there, but the cult following came long after the show ended on Fox and did not get picked up by HBO, SHO, or anyone else. It’s wild success came from DVD sales and sharing and ultimately Netflix. I suspect a reason that Ron Howard and crew went with Netflix for this latest season is that they had a point to prove to broadcasters that rejected them / didn’t see a winner the first time around. And the point you make about new shows/ prepackaged fan bases needing to be HBO-quality is true for anything that goes on broadcast/ basic cable now too.

      • That’s not entirely accurate. Arrested Development didn’t do *that* badly on television. It was popular, averaging a little over 6 million viewers per week, which is a lot. Not Big Bang numbers, but definitely sustainable. I’m not convinced that the DVD sales or Netflix views are necessarily disproportionate to that. Some commentators talk about “terrible” ratings, but that’s an exaggeration.