Last week, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos was talking up the success of "Orange Is the New Black," noting that it and fellow binge-viewing favorite "House of Cards" have thrived because viewers no longer are willing to sit around and wait for the episodes of same show to be delivered at the same time every week. So how does he justify hiring Chelsea Handler to host what will become Netflix's first talk show?
To be sure, Thursday's announcement of the deal was fuzzy on details; neither Sarandos nor Handler has explained what form the new chat series will take, nor how often it will air. But a talk show, which thrives on topicality, seems to require a new installment daily (or nightly). Weekly hardly seems adequate (see John Oliver's new HBO series, which cheekily acknowledges this problem by calling itself "Last Week Tonight"). And yet, Netflix has trained its users to stream shows at their own convenience, not at the same hour every night or once a week.
Still, you have to give credit to both Netflix and Handler for being willing to experiment. If the smart money says that streaming is the future of TV, then Handler is smart to go there."If I was going to continue working in this industry, I knew I had to do something outside the box to keep myself interested," Handler said in the announcement. "The team at Netflix is the most forward thinking, alert group I've sat down with in ages." Even if the experiment fails, her brand won't suffer. She'll still get credit for being a trailblazer.
And if it works, she's automatically vaulted ahead of the boys' club (the Jimmys, Seth, Conan, Stewart and Colbert) to which the network powers that be have entrusted the late-night talk show, as an institution, for the next generation. The last round of musical desks left the talk show in the hands of men who looked like the same middle-aged white guys who've been hosting them since the 1950s. Some fans may have thought Handler was robbed when CBS failed to give her any serious consideration as a replacement for David Letterman when he retires next year, but her Netflix deal hardly seems like a consolation prize. Indeed, not only does she look smart, but so does Netflix, for going with a fresher, female face.
If the show does turn out to be a daily event, it will give Netflix a toehold on a turf it's so far consciously avoided: the networks' realm of daily programming. It'll be a coup for Netflix if it can successfully challenge the networks on their own territory -- though what will define "success" remains up in the air. Handler may not need to draw as many viewers as the network hosts do, especially since she'll be less beholden to advertisers, but how many new Netflix subscriptions will she have to generate to justify her salary? No doubt Netflix will guard those figures as zealously as it guards viewership numbers and production budget costs for "Orange" and "House of Cards," but at some point, the paychecks do have to clear.
The deal includes a handful of stand-alone comedy specials to be released over the next year or so until the talk show itself debuts in 2016. The specials sound more suited to the Netflix member's typical usage pattern, since each show is a one-shot that's not especially timely, so you can stream and watch it any time. The specials should also serve as a useful introduction to Handler for those not familiar with her E! talk show "Chelsea Lately" (which is ending in August), as well as providing a metric to Netflix on how big an audience of streaming-video users she can actually draw. That advance knowledge would be useful to advertisers -- if, in fact, the show will even be selling commercial time or product placement.
"The Internet has disrupted many of the conventions of traditional television," Sarandos said in the announcement, "and together with Chelsea Handler, Netflix is looking forward to reimagining the late night talk show for the on-demand generation, starting with the late night part...." What will fill that ellipsis? Sarandos and Handler may not even know yet. But shifting the late-night talk show out of late-night could be a risky move. There's certainly no rule that says the late-night talk show has to be viewed late at night, but there may be some good reasons why it airs then and not earlier. For one thing, each episode gets less topical with every passing minute; you may enjoy sharing viral videos of Jimmy Fallon's music parodies the next day or the next week, but I'll bet you aren't passing around his monologue. For another, Handler's material is often risqué, maybe too risqué to watch at work the next day. And you're certainly not going to have time to watch a whole episode at your office.
One change will have less to do with time than with three-dimensional space. The announcement of the deal included the suggestion that the show will stream worldwide "simultaneously." Said Sarandos, "We can't wait to introduce her breathtakingly honest and irreverent voice to our global membership." Given that few talk shows transcend national borders, and that rights issues often keep movies from being released on Netflix at the same time in different countries, a talk show with a simultaneous global reach would certainly be an innovation.
About all that's certain is that the Handler deal is one more sign that the way we watch TV is in flux, evolving into something most of us can't yet imagine. But the snarky E! alumna will be one of those with an early seat aboard the rocket when it launches.