Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Details Matter

I'm fascinated by business but between buzz words and reporters who are willing to publish press releases almost verbatim, I'm definitely out of sync with most business journalism. I like to think about how to solve the problems (or at least what the problems are) and about the strategies and sometimes I just like to go picking through the details and see if they tell a story.

With some companies, the story is the percentage. For a company like Weigel Broadcasting, it's about getting all the details right. For NBC's COZI it's about getting almost everything wrong. Most of the time though, it's about what the company gets right and what it gets wrong.

Netflix is, on the whole, a reasonably competent company, but, as I've mentioned before, they don't really seem to be that interested in movies and TV. This might not have been that much of a problem when they were primarily in the DVD market and they could just keep every major title in stock, but once they got into streaming and commissioning shows (both of which require being selective), indications that they didn't understand their viewers' taste became more troubling.

Here's the sort of thing I'm talking about. (after a quick and nerdy digression)

Back in 1980, Donald Bellisario (NCIS) hit on his highly successful formula for action-adventure shows: quirk-heavy characters; military culture; and an established thespian with a knack for chewing scenery. One of the earliest examples of the formula was Airwolf which featured a Stradivarius-playing fighter pilot named Stringfellow supported by a cheerfully overacting Ernest Borgnine. Though never a hit, it had a respectable three season run on CBS followed by a considerably less respectable run on cable.

These days, basic cable produces some of the best shows on television and USA is one of the industry leaders but back in the Eighties only a handful of invariably low-budget shows were being produced for cable by anyone other than HBO (unlike first run syndication which had something of a renaissance in the late Eighties). Given all this, the following wasn't surprising:
The USA Network funded a new fourth season in 1987, to be produced in Canada ... This was intended to increase the number of episodes to make the show eligible for broadcast syndication. The original cast was written out of the fourth season: Jan-Michael Vincent appears in a first transitional episode; a body double for Ernest Borgnine seen only from the back represented Santini, who was killed off in an explosion; Archangel was said to have suddenly been assigned overseas...  Production moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, with a reduced budget, less than one-third of the original CBS budget. The production crew no longer had access to the original Airwolf helicopter, and all in-flight shots were recycled from earlier seasons; the original full-size studio mockup was re-dressed and used for all interior shots
While you can still find people with fond memories of the CBS run of Airwolf, you'd be hard-pressed to do the same with the USA run, which is why (and I apologize for taking so long to get to this point) this suggests that Netflix didn't understand the fan base for this show.

In case you're wondering, that's the cast of the fourth season.

It is, of course, a small point, but it's something that will tend to confuse or annoy fans (many if not most of the comments say something brutal about season four) and, more importantly, it's the kind of sloppiness that shouldn't happen given the extremely small selection Netflix offers for streaming.

Using the cast of the final season seems to be a standard practice with the company even though most people will start watching an unfamiliar show from the first season and, more importantly, early seasons are often preferred by fans.

For example, if you ask fans what their favorite Mission Impossible cast was, I bet you'd get Peter Graves, Martin Landau, etc. first, then either Steven Hill, Landau... or Graves, Leonard Nimoy second and the final cast last.

Martin Landau and Leonard Nimoy are both still well-remembered, as was the original M:I even before the Tom Cruise franchise came out. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, effective marketing highlights features that appeal to customers.

What worries me about all this (beyond the fact that I want to see Netflix do well) is that the question how well a business is run doesn't seem to worry anyone else. If Netflix fixed these problems I doubt Forbes or BusinessWeek would notice, but if Reed Hastings makes some big, questionable move like possibly overpaying for a show or talking about  going into a field the company's infrastructure can't handle, he gets called bold and visionary, his face is on the cover and Motley Fool starts pumping his stock. This is not how we like the incentives to line up.

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