Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) finds itself in a pickle these days. The stock took a beating last week as subscriber additions failed to measure up to management's guidance. Moreover, Netflix is getting company in the online TV market as Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL) crown jewel HBO and CBS (NYSE:CBS) announced their own digital video services.
These online video launches make many Netflix investors uncomfortable, and for good reason. We're not talking about just any two random TV networks here, but two of the highest-quality content producers. In the 2014 Emmy Awards, HBO led all networks with 99 nominations, winning 19. CBS followed in second place with 47 Emmy nominations, tying PBS for the second-most winning nods at 11 statuettes.
Netflix is establishing itself as a top-quality content publisher too, with exclusive original series such as Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards -- but trailed far behind HBO and CBS with just 7 wins on 31 nominations. Neither score is good enough to rank among the top 5 networks.
However, Netflix isn't resting on its paltry laurels. The company is whipping up more than a dozen brand new original shows before the end of 2015, including 4 originals set to debut in what's left of 2014.
Can these two Netflix original series make a difference, particularly in the all-important American market?
First up is Marco Polo, a semi-historical drama set in the 13th century court of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan.
Produced by the Weinstein Company, Marco Polo was first sold to Starz (NASDAQ:STRZA) in 2012. Starz backed out after running into production issues in China. With Netflix handling distribution, the production was moved to Malaysia and Kazakhstan. The total budget has been estimated at about $90 million.
The 10-episode mini series will bow to Netflix subscribers everywhere on December 12. Netflix calls it "an epic, cinematic tale of power, adventure and betrayal."
Marco Polo features an all-star cast of chiefly Chinese acting talent. Netflix also has plenty of data on the production team's viewer appeal: Marco Polo 's producers and writers also worked on Netflix staples such as Coupling, Ugly Betty, The Tudors, and the American version of The Office. Showrunner John Fusco may come from Italian stock, but he holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung Fu and is also working on the upcoming sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So, we should expect plenty of martial arts swashbuckling as well.
Since Marco Polo was conceived as a single-season mini series rather than a long-haul series, the show won't compete directly with Game of Thrones in next year's Emmy Awards -- they will compete in different categories. But if the series delivers on its promises -- and on its rich budget -- then Netflix should have another award-winning eyeball magnet here.
At first glance, this one seems like a tougher sell to American audiences.
Slated for an early 2015 debut and based on the real-life story of Colombian cocaine king Pablo Escobar, Narcos brings a gritty, ultraviolent flavor to the Netflix catalog.
"Our idea is to tell the true story of how cocaine became such a huge problem in the U.S. and Europe," said series director Jose Padilha.
"Their version of the Escobar saga will be like nothing ever seen before," said Netflix content guru Ted Sarandos.
And if these words won't convince you that Escobar 's audience will be in for a wild ride, consider this: The series is produced by French studio Gaumont, which also created Netflix's twisted vampire-and-werewolf saga Hemlock Grove.
Sure, Netflix has seen success with drug-themed dramas before. Breaking Bad found a comfortable binge-watching home on Netflix's streaming service, and Weeds pulled in enough viewing hours to get showrunner Jenji Kohan's Orange Is the New Black made for Netflix. And yes, Breaking Bad 's darkest moments can match Escobar's dirtiest deeds blow for blow.
But the Escobar story will be absolutely packed with those dark details. It'll take a very particular kind of viewer to face this onslaught of true-story terror without flinching. It's the kind of dark drama that tends to win awards but not massive audiences. Think The Departed, which won the 2006 Oscar for best movie, but didn't reward Warner with huge box office profits.
So Netflix isn't going for mass-market appeal with Narcos. Instead, the company wants to build up a small core of very loyal viewers here, much like it did with Hemlock Grove.
The key here is simple. Netflix isn't trying to dominate any particular kind of content. The company doesn't want to be the end-all destination for crime dramas, or the best place for epic sagas. Instead, Netflix will settle for owning a small corner of many niches.
The theme carries over into the broader portfolio of Netflix originals. The digital video maven is producing elementary-school cartoons, high-stakes political theater, blood-soaked horror, women's prison dramedy, and telepathy science-fiction -- just to name a few. Sure, Netflix would love to come up with the very best example of each genre, but "good enough" is actually good enough this time.
It's a scattershot approach to snaring the largest possible potential audience. Nobody will love all of the new Netflix original series, but there's something here for almost anybody.
So Narcos has one job to do, which is to attract its own demographic in the hope that these new viewers stick around to explore the full Netflix catalog. Marco Polo has the same job to do, but for a very different audience. Together, and in conjunction with more than a dozen other original shows, Netflix hopes to keep growing in 2015 and beyond.