9 Ways Networks and Streaming Rivals Are Fighting Back Against Netflix This Year

The company dominated TCA winter press tour without ever setting foot there

Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

The Television Critics Association’s winter press tour comes to a close today, capping 14 days in which approximately 40 broadcast, cable and streaming outlets presented their early-2018 shows to hundreds of TV journalists. But a company that never set foot inside Pasadena, Calif.’s Langham Huntington dominated most of those two weeks. Netflix once again skipped the semi-annual gathering, as the networks laid out their strategy for going toe-to-toe with the streaming giant this year.

That’s because in just five short years, Netflix has upended the industry, pouring unprecedented amounts of money into original content—it will spend as much as $8 billion this year—and driving the number of scripted series across the industry to record levels. Last year, 487 shows aired, with streaming services accounting for one-quarter of that total.

Networks have been scrambling to regain their footing, but many of them have plans to carve out a space as a viable option to Netflix, which now has roughly 52 million U.S. subscribers. Here are the nine weapons that the networks deployed during winter press tour (you can find Adweek’s full TCA coverage here) to battle the behemoth:

Joining forces with Disney

Most of the networks affected by Disney’s $52.4 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox stuck to a press tour mantra of saying things will be “business as usual” until the deal closes in 12 to 18 months. But FX Networks CEO John Landgraf noted that FX will supply content to Disney as it prepares to compete directly against Netflix in 2019 with its own direct-to-consumer streaming service.

“When you think about the amount of money that subscription services like HBO and Netflix and Amazon have made in adult scripted programming, the very content in which we have expertise, you can see with clarity that at least they believe that’s a really good thing to invest in, that that’s an important component of what drives consumers’ interest in a streaming service,” said Landgraf.

Disney, Landgraf continued, has “the distribution and content resources to compete on a global field with the likes of Netflix, Amazon and HBO, will undoubtedly help our brand to remain competitive and relevant into the future and through the Peak TV era.” After all, he added, “there’s no question that the streaming services are putting a huge amount of pressure on the business model.”

Turning current hits into franchises

Before Shonda Rhimes signed a deal to move her future projects to Netflix, ABC managed to get her to produce a second Grey’s Anatomy spinoff (after Private Practice), still-untitled just two months before it debuts. (She is also producing a new ABC legal drama, For the People). “We have her services on Grey’s and the spinoff and the rest of these shows until they finish their runs,” said ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey.

Meanwhile, AMC is going all-in on maximizing the opportunities of its Walking Dead franchise, announcing that it has promoted showrunner Scott Gimple to become chief content officer of the Walking Dead TV universe, “which currently spans two series, a gaming business and a number of other story-driven brand extensions—and more to come,” said AMC president Charlie Collier. The Walking Dead was the No. 1 series in the 18-49 demo last year, and if AMC can keep those fans entertained with a variety of Walking Dead-related projects, they’ll be less likely to gravitate towards the network’s streaming competitors.

‘Making linear TV urgent again’

Viacom is rebranding Spike TV as Paramount Network on Jan. 18, and network president Kevin Kay didn’t hesitate to compare its new shows to the best of what Netflix, Hulu, FX and HBO have to offer. “We want to make linear TV urgent again. We want people to watch it. We want people to have conversation about it,” he said. “One of the benefits that we have that’s different than Amazon or Netflix is we’re weekly. And part of the pitch that we have is if you come work for us, we will create a conversation about your show.”

At places like Netflix, “you’re just a cog in a queue, and maybe people can talk about it, or maybe they can’t,” Kay continued. “Nobody’s watching it at the same time. I think that’s something that’s actually a benefit of the pay cable model and the way we are scheduling these shows.”

Spending wisely

Netflix’s robust content budget dwarfs that of even premium cable networks, which have learned to get more bang for their buck as they compete against what Showtime Networks CEO David Nevins called “our deep pocketed friends invading from the North.” Bigger isn’t always better, said Nevins, who explained, “spending has its limits. What we offer our suppliers is our most valuable resource: an environment that is compelling to the top creators in the business and enables them to do their best work.” Showtime’s plan: “Attract top talent, produce more shows, expand our subs from cord holders and cord [cutters] alike. Lather. Reinvest. Repeat.”

Showtime’s pay-cable rival Starz is also refusing to overpay for shows when bidding against outlets like Netflix. “If someone is going to pay $10 million an episode for a show that costs $2 [million], we are not going to play that game,” said Starz CEO Chris Albrecht, who is working with Starz’s new owner Lionsgate to get the most money out of their shows, especially the ones that are produced in-house. “As part of Lionsgate, we have a much greater capability of monetizing the rights that we retain, and we are going to retain more and more rights all the time. And the net cost of the shows is becoming even more attractive.”

Creating ad-free, Netflix-like versions of their networks

The two basic cable channels that most regularly compete with Netflix for content, AMC and FX, have both launched ad-free versions of their offerings (for an additional monthly free to cable subscribers) to present a Netflix-like experience for their audience.

Landgraf said he now creates two versions of certain shows: one for broadcast, and one for the ad-free FX+. “It’s nice for us, for creative people now who work, that they understand they can and should make a version of the television show that’s exactly the same version they would make at HBO, and then, for our on demand and premium customers or FX+ customers, that will be available for them,” he said. “Effectively, that’s a streaming show … in a premium context.”

This spring, AMC will replicate Netflix’s binge experience with its own ad-free platform, AMC Premiere. After the Feb. 26 premiere of drama McMafia, AMC will offer the entire first season for AMC Premiere subscribers to watch, with no ads. “This is just one example of how we are offering opportunities with AMC Premiere as a new way to serve and engage fans of our content,” said AMC president Charlie Collier.

Beefing up their libraries

As Netflix prioritizes original series over acquired shows to fill out its streaming library, its streaming competitor Hulu (whose U.S. subscriber based surged 40 percent to 17 million, but is still just one-third of Netflix’s domestic total) is pursuing more of a dual strategy, continuing to rely heavily on acquired shows to draw in audiences, alongside original shows like The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu just snapped up streaming rights to ER, one of the biggest TV hits of the past two decades (as well as ER star George Clooney’s next series, an adaptation of the novel Catch-22).

“We remain dedicated to being home to the largest collection of television series on any streaming service,” said Hulu chief content officer Joel Stillerman. With 75,000 TV episodes now available to subscribers, Hulu’s library is double that of competitors Netflix and Amazon.

Positioning themselves as ‘egalitarian’

While some are attracted to the prestige—and the paychecks—that Netflix can offer, others would prefer to reach the largest number of eyeballs possible with their project. As Rose McGowan looked for a network partner for her upcoming docuseries Citizen Rose, she went with E!, which will air her show in 160 countries, over an outlet with a monthly standalone subscription fee. “I didn’t want to do something on Netflix or HBO. It felt not egalitarian. My main goal really is to smash the 99 and the 1 percent,” she said.

Becoming a regular part of a viewer’s morning routine

Linear TV watching is becoming a less essential part of a consumer’s everyday habits, but ESPN saw an opportunity to take its “first real stab” at a morning show with Get Up, launching April 2. Bill Wolff, vp of studio production for ESPN, said mornings are still one of the only times of day when people’s routines “still include TV,” adding, “there’s a great opportunity to aggregate audiences at this time of day.”

Combating ‘sticker shock’ by being free

With Netflix raising its fee in the fall, ad-supporting streaming service Crackle—which will rebrand as Sony Crackle this spring—is touting itself as a no-cost alternative. Choice can be overwhelming and when all is said and done, what viewers are often left with is sticker shock, which is why I’m glad to say that Crackle remains free,” said Eric Berger, gm for Crackle and evp and chief digital officer for Sony Pictures Television Networks.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.