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Swimming Upstream: The Rise of Netflix and the Fall of Scheduled Television

It wouldn’t be totally surprising to eventually find a Netflix that no longer targets the streaming of older content, and instead focuses purely on its own programming.

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Just over a month ago, the list of Emmy nominations for 2013 were announced. There was the usual lot – your Game of Thrones and your Homeland – but nestled in amongst them were three rather important titles. But not because they were necessarily better, or that they tackled some particular issue.

They were important simply by virtue of being created by on-demand internet streaming giant Netflix. House of Cards, Arrested Development and Hemlock Grove; three shows that received a total of fourteen nominations between them. A rather paltry number when compared with HBO’s 108, and yet perhaps far more meaningful in the grander scheme of things.

Netflix isn’t the first company to offer an on-demand service. BBC iPlayer and HBOGo are two examples of catch-up services offered by competitors. Netflix also isn’t the first company to offer on-demand programmes from a range of different studios. Amazon Instant Video, Lovefilm and Hulu all offer a streaming service with a variety of content from across the spectrum of television channels, just as Spotify does for music. What Netflix has been the first to do, however, is to become a TV studio in its own right, and create a number of original (and in the case of Arrested Development, self-proclaimed ‘semi-original’) programming. Whilst Amazon has swiftly followed suit with Vikings, as well as their ambitious multi-pilot scheme, where viewers vote for their favourite pilot-episode and the winner gets the green light on a full season, they are in no way operating at the same level. 

From their first original show, Lilyhammer in February 2012, to their most recent offering, Orange is the New Black, Netflix has created a number of varied programmes covering a range of genres. The importance of this cannot be ignored: it is the equivalent of Spotify starting up its own music studio, signing its own artists and releasing its own albums. Quite the step up from Netflix’s original mantra of online-only DVD rentals. 

Beyond simply appreciating the magnitude of the task, however, is realising that not only have Netflix created their own television shows, but they’ve created good television shows – some of them even excellent. Whilst Hemlock Grove is a bit on the dodgy side, House of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black are all critically acclaimed, and quite rightly, too. 

And that is why only a trifling fourteen nominations is such an important number. This is early days for Netflix as a television studio, and already they are creating original content deemed worthy of being award winning. It shows they can stand up with the heavy hitters like HBO and AMC. Indeed, it shows that internet-only content in general can be fairly judged alongside the best that television can offer.  

Further, the awards their shows have been nominated for include a number of the biggies. Jason Batemen has been put forward for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy for Arrested Development. House of Cards is up for Outstanding Drama Series, with Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and David Fincher all hoping to win Outstanding Actor, Actress and Director in a Drama Series, respectively. 

Crafting original programming isn’t the end of the story, however. Clearly not happy with simply providing a streaming service to other people’s content, and with their subscribers numbering into the tens of millions, Netflix realised that they could compete directly with other networks – and undercut them, too. Why pay Showtime to be allowed to stream past seasons of Dexter, thereby helping boost viewers’ interest in the current season on a different channel, when you could have your own show and reap all the rewards yourself? But that’s only one way to compete with other networks. The other is to show their content not as a catch-up service, but rather as a region-specific current broadcast where no other channel is airing the content. 

In the UK, for instance, no channel has picked up the phenomenal Breaking Bad (a crime punishable by death). As a result, the only way to watch it is by waiting for box sets to be released (a fair while after their original broadcast) or to download it illegally. By the time the currently airing Season 5.5 came around, Netflix had already helped introduce a large number of viewers to the show. It made perfect sense, therefore, to simply be the ones to continue to air it in the UK, less than a day after it was on in the US. As the sole source of the show, Netflix suddenly made it far easier to just watch the show legally rather than torrent it – no mean feat, to be sure, but an extremely lucrative one. It was the same tactic iTunes used when they first launched, too. Similarly, when Netflix helped bring cancelled US drama The Killing back for a third season, their deal with AMC meant they would be the sole distributors of the show in the UK. 

And that’s the most exciting aspect of Netflix right now. Sure, they have an enormous library of classic films and televisions shows to watch, and it’s great having all that content at the tap of a button on a variety of devices. But helping viewers catch up with their favourite programmes is simply helping out your competitors in the long run, and it’s always going to play second fiddle to new content. By streaming a combination of brand new, original shows and being the sole source of up-to-date episodes of hit TV programmes, Netflix is covering all their bases. Rather than driving viewers away once they’ve caught up with a show, they’re ensuring they stick around to carry on watching it – as well as other programmes that they can’t find anywhere else.

It’s an intriguing business plan, and one that is being aggressively expanded. A further four original shows are planned for the near future, not including an deal with Dreamworks Animation to create new and exclusive animated programming. In three years time, where will Netflix be come award time? What new, exclusive shows will it have? And how will other networks react to their growth in this area? Perhaps they will start to pull their shows from the service. It wouldn’t be totally surprising to eventually find a Netflix that no longer targets the streaming of older content, and instead focuses purely on its own programming. 

But why stop there? Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz has spoken for a while now about wanting to take his hit show to the big screen – with Netflix as a partner. Could we be on the cusp of Netflix Pictures? Being able to reap the proceeds of a successful film as well as fully control its television airing is surely a lucrative model. 

The television revolution has been slowly getting underway for a few years now, and we are finally seeing it being kicked into high gear. The day of waiting a week for the next episode of your favourite show is dying; this is the era of the binge, where people devour seasons in half a week rather than half a year. Where you can start watching on the bus, then finish off when you get home. The rigidity of scheduled programming simply cannot last – people want the flexibility that on-demand brings, coupled with the latest that television has on offer. It’s surely only a matter of time before other channels follow suit. And who would have thought, all those years ago, that an online-only DVD rental company would be the ones out in front, leading the change. 

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Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed but sincere ode

Netflix’s Street Food is a disjointed, but sincere ode

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One of my fondest memories of growing up in Jakarta are the times I spent parked on the side of the road, perched on the front seat of my car, door ajar, with a bowl of hot, freshly cooked chicken noodles (mie ayam) on my lap. It wasn’t just the incredibly immersive palette of flavors a good bowl of mie ayam had, but it was that I could easily pull up on the side of the road next to a street food vendor and have one of the best, most memorable meals one can have.

Street food, of course, is not unique to any one country. It is an idea that Netflix’s Street Food series aims to bring to light. Produced by David Gelb and Brian McGinn (the same producers as Netflix’s Chef’s Table), Street Food shares the idea that across the globe the myriad of wonderful foods, personalities, and historical culture can be found around the corner, in the unlikeliest of places, made by the unlikeliest of people. This is the series’ strength. Street Food Vol 1. spends its nine episodes across Asia, from Singapore to Yogyakarta, from Osaka to Delhi, exploring the rich foods you find on their streets. But the strongest connection you’ll find is with that of the people profiled in the episodes. Sure, the food is irresistible, but it is the very human stories this series profile that make it worthwhile.

We meet Grace in Chiayi, Taiwan, who had dreams of escaping small city life, only to find herself back home running her family’s street food restaurant that specializes in fish head soup. There’s is an inescapable sadness as Grace tells of her lost opportunity in the big city of Taipei, but we are overcome when she’s found happiness at home, expanding, modernizing, and running the business she’s known since she was a child. We meet Truoc in Ho Chi Minh City, who after a family tragedy, found it overwhelmingly difficult to find passion in her work. But a passion re-found when her hard work and perseverance enabled her son to attend university. In Seoul, there is Yoonsun Cho, whose incredible 11-year work as a street food seller at the market got her family out of bad debt, seeing her son attend culinary school, and seeing him take up a job at an upscale hotel. This is alongside stories like the purported-last ‘3 day 3 night goat stew’ chef on the planet (seeing how toxic and life-threatening this process is, it’s not hard to understand why). These are the stories that make this series interesting, and it takes cues from what we loved about Anthony Bourdain’s take on global food. He was not there just for the food, but he was there to understand, listen to, and discover the people, their histories and their cultures.

The cinematic Netflix production helps with the series’ presentation, but where it struggles is to find cohesion within the episodes. You get narrators for each episode, individuals who are locals or familiar with the food and culture, but as you hear the stories of the vendors, the production employs cheesy voice-overs that sound robotic. I would rather have let the vendors speak, in their natural tongues with subtitles instead (which strangely, they do at times). Another gripe is their instagramesque presentation of their signature dishes that give the show a less than genuine feel. It’s a shame because it takes away from the narrative of the vendors and takes viewers away from the on-the-street feel of the rest of the episodes.

It is, however, the vendors that ultimately make this series worth the venture. We often forget that behind the foods of the worlds, there are the people who make them, whose stories are just as rich and important as the foods they make.

I miss mie ayam, I miss sitting on the side of the road next to the gerobak (street food cart) while I stuff my face with the best tasting noodles you’ll find on the planet. Some days it is all I long for. But the next time I do find myself eating mie ayam on the side of the road, I’ll take a moment to appreciate the food, and the vendor whose life is as story-filled as the food they are making.

Street Food is streaming now on Netflix.

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Roswell: New Mexico was better than it had any business being

Roswell: New Mexico has done what most reboots haven’t.

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In an era where audiences are over-saturated by television remakes, it is a hard task to find one that is worth more than a dose of fleeting nostalgia. Some shows found solid ground to stand out (Hawaii Five-0 is entering its 9th(!) season?), some have rightfully disappeared into the dustbin of canceled TV shows (24: Legacy, Charlie’s AngelsHeroes: Reborn), while others have somehow continued to plod along as caricatures of their once glorious selves (how is that terrible MacGyver remake still on?).

Roswell: New Mexico, The CW remake of the 1999 series Roswell (which originally aired on The CW’s precursor channel The WB) was, like any and all remakes, met with an initial level of skepticism. Any show that manages to build an almost cult-like following will be shadowed by its cult, and anything that threatens its place will inevitably be met with derision (see the kind words left on our Nikita remake piece from a few years ago). I was one of those skeptics, as a fan of the original Roswell; a remake of a show that was good, but not great, was just plain unnecessary (although to be honest, that can be said about all these remakes).

The new show’s first season has just concluded and through the 13-episode run, surprisingly there was plenty to be impressed with. But let’s get some of the fundamentals out of the way- Roswell: New Mexico doesn’t stray too far away from the original text, both the Roswell High book series and the 1999 series. The characters involved are essentially the same- Max, Liz, Michael, Isabel- but the settings and relationships have in a way, been given a decade-long time jump. Where the book and the original series played out in the hallways of high school drama and politics, Roswell: New Mexico shows us the characters ten years later, navigating the drama and politics of dusty roads and small towns.

With that comes the added weight of current day politics, and Roswell: New Mexico does a good job balancing the political discourse of building walls, illegal aliens (the easiest of double meanings), and cultural backlash in the shadow of nationalist politics. The Liz in New Mexico is also more accurate of the original text: no longer is she Liz Parker but, as in the books, Liz Ortecho. The Ortecho family are crucial to the story of the new series, not only driving the story but setting the tone of the conflicts between the characters as well. Thankfully the Ortecho family are no caricatures of a Mexican-American family but come across as genuine and believable- which is a hard thing to do at times on the small (or big) screen. It’s small things too- language, and the use of it, being prominent. It goes a long way. With television representation becoming more diverse, Roswell: New Mexico finds itself in the funny place where their original text is finally finding its rightful place in an adaptation instead of being whitewashed for audiences.

Much like the 1999 adaptation there are enough twist and turns to keep the story progressing. It’s gripping enough for network television, but avoids being overly convoluted, with much of the drama mostly resolved by season’s end. The absurdity of aliens amongst us is done a little less kitschy, but can still come across as… aliens living in a small town. A lot happens in 13-episodes, seemingly compacting multiple story arcs presented in 1999, but the season closes out on a surprising note and one that should draw viewers into a second.

But what makes Roswell: New Mexico better than it had any business being?

The series is airing in a television climate where appeasing the current social agenda for diversity often becomes an exhausting exercise (see Charmed reboot). Often it doesn’t feel genuine, or for the reasons we should push diversity in entertainment. This comes across in the content, whether intentionally or not. A lot of this stems from the idea that diversity should be pushed through originality and fresh stories (Fresh Off the Boat, Blackish) instead of rewriting what was already written. Roswell is lucky then, that the original text was subverted to fit television, and now the series has the opportunity to be a little more faithful. It isn’t perfect- small town Caucasian characters portrayed as over-the-top bigots and racists is no better than minorities portrayed in all the ways they have been before. But I suppose the scales will have to find a balance somewhere down the road. What you have with Roswell: New Mexico is a good series that will not get the kind of press one of those glossy but flimsy shows receives (why do we care so much about Riverdale? How come no one else sees how bad Shonda Rhimes shows are?), but goes by its agenda quietly.

On a slightly more superficial note, the show’s nostalgia-tinted use of music- both in diegetic and non-diegetic terms- is a warm and fuzzy welcome to those who spent their formative music years hooked on 90s radio. Roswell: New Mexico does a great job of being fans of 90s music while using it as MacGuffins to progress its plot. Someone on that writing staff was a starry-eyed teen who lived it, and now they get to soundtrack a show to a mixtape someone made them in 1998. Third Eye Blind’s “God of Wine” as a significant plot point? Sure, why not? Plus, it’s a nice to hear Counting Crows instead of Post Malone. The show’s tribute to the 1999 show’s theme song is a small but fitting ode. It’s the small things that New Mexico get right.

For now, Roswell: New Mexico has done what most reboots haven’t, and that’s generate interest past its initial run.

Maybe they got some of the big things right too.

Roswell: New Mexico airs on The CW in the United States and on Fox 8 in Australia.

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