Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Understanding Netflix – – children's programming isn't child's play

Whenever an extraordinarily high.value for a company appears to be based primarily on a good narrative, you should always examine the bullish story for red flags, both in terms of questionable claims and notable omissions. In the case of Netflix, there is no omission more notable than the lack of discussion of children's programming.

There was perhaps no more important market in the adoption of every major advance in television history, from the initial postwar boom to cable television to home video. If someone is discussing the next step in the evolution of the medium and isn't spending a reasonable amount of time on children's programming, you should, at best, take what's being said with a grain of salt and at worst, dismiss it entirely.

This is particularly true with Netflix. If you have been following the standard narrative at all, you've heard ad nausea about the extraordinary amounts of money that the company is paying for original content. You've heard how all this money is building up a tremendous content library that will allow Netflix to compete with, even dominate the big media companies.

But these numbers, regardless of how immense and awe-inspiring they may be, are largely meaningless without proper context. If we want to evaluate the claim that Netflix is pursuing (and has a reasonable shot at achieving) media dominance, we need to dig into the details of intellectual property and how the strategies are playing out in different market segments. There is no more useful place to start than with children's programming.

The conventional narrative that Netflix is using its massive content spending to eventually achieve monopoly status implicitly assumes that the company is building a content library of such size and quality that it will no longer be dependent on any of the major studios for programming. As previously mentioned, even before the Disney acquisition of Fox, this was almost impossible, so unlikely that one has to question whether or not the company itself was sincere about these claims.

Netflix has always been relentlessly focused on two objectives: subscriber growth and hype. When it comes to intellectual property, however, the record is far more mixed. Proponents have a number of explanations for this, but most of them seem to come down to either

1. It took a while for the present strategy to evolve and be put into place.

2. There will always be a few outliers.

In these discussions, the subject of children's programming is generally avoided. Perhaps because it does not at all the standard narrative nor is it covered by either of the standard excuses.

To belabor the obvious, the greatest value of a Batman or a Scooby Doo lies less in what you've done in the past and more in what you have the option of doing in the future. Rights to characters and derivative works is the gift that keeps on giving. Even if you license another company to make use of your character, the result (in addition to getting a nice fat check) is usually to enhance the value of your intellectual property.

If Netflix were truly serious about its goal of world domination, it would need to be building a catalog not just of shows, but of valuable characters and franchises. The quickest way to do this is to simply buy some well-established property. Unfortunately, almost all of the really well-known options are held by the handful of major studios and they have no intention of letting them go. Nonetheless, there are some smaller players who would be worth acquiring if you genuinely wanted to build a catalog. As far as I can tell, Netflix is not pursuing these.

The slower and far more difficult path is to start from scratch, introduce a large number of characters and potential franchises that you own outright then promote the hell out of them. There does appear to be a little bit of activity in this area but not nearly enough to qualify as a serious effort.

Instead, Netflix continues to base its children's programming largely on licensed properties. Unless something surprising is going on beneath the surface (and I do have some questions about the company's future relationship with NBC/Universal), it would appear that much, possibly most, of their content spend in this area not only does nothing to build up their intellectual property; it actually serves to enhance the IP of the very companies it is supposed to annihilate.

Here's a list of current or pending Netfilx original kids shows that don't appear to meaningfully contribute to the content library:

Kong: King of the Apes, Voltron: Legendary Defender, Home: Adventures with Tip & Oh, Skylanders Academy, Legend Quest, Spirit Riding Free, Lego Elves: Secrets of Elvendale, The Magic School Bus Rides Again, Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters, Trolls: The Beat Goes On!, The Boss Baby: Back in Business, Spy Kids: Mission Critical, Harvey Street Kids, The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants, and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

Obviously, we don't know the details of these agreements it's possible Netflix is getting some kind of rights to derivative works or is cutting a better deal than we might expect (though it should be noted that historically the company was known for over, not underpaying). With that said, it certainly appears that they are not at all focused on building the kind of content library they would need if serious about their stated goals.

At least not in the areas that count the most.

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