Another day, another original Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) series. This week, the digital-video veteran teamed up with comedy guru Judd Apatow to deliver at least two seasons of a relationship sitcom named Love.
So there's another sitcom on the way, in the well-tread romantic comedy genre. The airwaves are already awash in similar fare and have been for decades. What's different about this show, and how does it fit into Netflix's broader content portfolio?
Letting Judd Apatow loose in a china shop
Let's start with Love. If nothing else, that's some pretty solid advice for real life.
Presenting the new show, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos dropped a big clue to what's different this time.
"Judd Apatow has a unique comedic voice that manages to be delightful, insightful, and shockingly frank -- often at the same time," Sarandos said in a prepared statement.
That combination is indeed important to Apatow's secret sauce. In hits like This Is 40, Knocked Up, and The 40 Year Old Virgin, Apatow treads the fine line between lowbrow schlock and thoughtful cultural analysis. He often strays deep into the cheaper and trashier side of that equation, and audiences eat it up because there's some substance buried under the funky dirt.
Keep that in mind as you consider what Apatow has to say about his Netflix collaboration:
"Netflix has been supportive in ways I couldn't create in my wildest fever dreams," Apatow stated.
And we already know that Judd Apatow's dreams can get pretty wild.
I would be shocked to see anything as tame as a TV-PG rating on Love, and surprised even at an R rating.
The three Hollywood hits I mentioned limited Apatow to what an R-rated movie can get away with. You just know he wants to take the next step into the great beyond.
As it happens, Netflix has a proven history of making eyeball magnets out of adults-only MA ratings such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Moreover, the company has no qualms about ordering up MA-rated material under its own production banner. House of Cards falls in this category, as does Orange Is the New Black. Netflix even kept the reins on BoJack Horseman's loose enough to stamp MA ratings on a cartoon about a talking horse.
Giving Apatow that kind of freedom is like letting Imelda Marcos loose in a Christian Louboutin store with a limit-free credit card. Let's just say you should keep the kids away from Love. Apatow will have too much fun with this one -- and Netflix already guaranteed him two full seasons.
What if I hate that show?
OK, so Apatow will be happy and Netflix gets a comedy series with a very particular target audience. In this case, the company is reaching for adults with a certain taste for puerile entertainment, with a glimmer of social commentary on the side.
Many Netflix viewers will simply never try this show. Others may switch it off in disgust at the first over-the-top, under-the-belt joke. The ones who stick around, not to mention pine for the second season, will almost certainly be a fairly small fraction of Netflix's 50 million subscribers ...
... and they will also be the perfect audience for exactly this type of show. Not only do they stick around, but they'll also tell their friends about this outrageous new Judd Apatow thing, too.
Netflix is going deep into a plethora of very narrow content niches. All at once, too. The more, the better.
House of Cards aims at fans of political drama and household-name actors. Orange goes for dramedy enthusiasts with a feminist bent, and a very different set of B-list stars. BoJack puts a South Park spin on the empty celebrity life.
And that's just the beginning. Netflix also produces a mafia comedy set in Norway, some blood-and-guts horror, and that G-rated cartoon about racing snails. Looking ahead, we'll see a set of gritty New York-based superheroes, an even rougher look at the Colombian drug business, and a Wachowski-siblings science fiction vision. Some shows will be filmed in Spanish, others in French. And so on ...
These shows cover the gamut of genres and target demographics. They have very little in common, except for one crucial thing. See if you can spot the pattern:
"[The Wachowskis'] Sense8 is a dream come true creatively, and we look forward to working closely with our new partners at Netflix, with whom we could not be more excited to bring the Wachowskis' first TV series ever to life," said producer Marc Rosen.
Orange belongs to Netflix because the company was "genuinely hands-off" creatively. "They're not afraid. They're just like, 'Let's try it.' They're generous and they're lovely," says show creator Jenji Kohan.
Chelsea Handler says she wouldn't have gone anywhere else with her upcoming talk-show format. "They want me to do whatever I feel like doing," she said.
Throw in Apatow's "support beyond his wildest dreams," and I think you'll get it.
Spoiler alert: Netflix has a plan
Broadcast networks and many cable channels insist that they know what's best for their highly targeted audiences -- even if the creative talent disagrees.
Netflix takes a shotgun approach, throwing a ton of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. And it's up to the actors, directors, and producers to make their stuff sticky enough.
Netflix trusts the talent in a way you only do while taking insiders-only approaches to dozens of hyper-separated markets. Nobody will like everything Netflix does, but the idea is to find one or two things that are perfect for each individual subscriber.
That's how Netflix plans to keep its customers loyal -- and keep bringing their friends with similar tastes.