Continuing to build up an arsenal of original content to separate themselves from the competition could be the key to winning the war.
Netflix has made a bold choice to double down on stand-up. While the company was founded in 1997, it didn’t start producing original content until 2012. Meanwhile, the legacy video giants that it has challenged in the stand-up space have been producing specials for decades.
It may be a big bet for Netflix, but it’s a proven strategy.
“If you look at the history of relatively new channels, they often go early into stand-up,” says Jason Zinoman, comedy critic for The New York Times. “HBO invested in stand-up early in the ’70s. Stand-up is cheap, and you can get a huge amount of attention for something that only requires a microphone stand and one employee.”
Another reason to focus on stand-up, says Jonas Larsen, executive vice president and co-head of talent and development for Comedy Central, is star power.
“On one hand, to be able to put Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock on a billboard and a bus and have the Netflix logo next to it, it drives subscribers so it makes sense,” says Larsen. “It’s almost like marketing dollars that they’re paying for content because it’s marketing their brand. So maybe it makes sense for them to spend that kind of money to get the press.”
More important than adding subscribers is retaining them.
Over the years, Netflix has gathered countless hours of data about audience viewer habits. With all that valuable user data to pore over, Netflix can use that information to make key decisions about the kind of content it wants to invest in.
That might explain why Netflix continues to back the Brinks truck into Adam Sandler’s driveway despite the fact that his movies have been widely panned by critics (his highest-rated Netflix original movie has a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes): They’re simply giving their users what they want.
Yes, you read that right: More than 500 million hours of Sandler’s films were streamed on Netflix in roughly 16 months.
“I’ll give you a number: On Comedy Central last year, people consumed 10 billion minutes of stand-up — that’s 166 million hours of stand-up content throughout all of our platforms,” Larsen says.
If those numbers are any indication of the appetite for stand-up, continuing to add a glut of new specials every year may help incentivize viewers to stick around.
The power to elevate
As an emerging king of comedy, Netflix has inherited the mantle of being the “American Idol” of the stand-up world with the power to elevate unknown talent into bona fide stars, and to broaden the audience of already established comedians.
The platform’s massive subscriber base (nearly 130 million subscribers worldwide) can instantly offer a global audience that dwarves most of its competitors, and it can turn the fortunes of an unknown comic around overnight.
“The great thing about Netflix is that people who don’t have cable anymore, people who don’t listen to podcasts, there are people who have never heard of me at all but are finding me on Netflix,” Bell says. “As crazy as it is, somebody’s watching Kevin Hart on Netflix right now and going, ‘This guy is hilarious, is there anything else he can do? Anything else I can watch with him?’ That’s how I think the streaming era works, and for some people the only media that they pay for is Netflix. It’s a great way to find new people.”
Before Netflix, getting a one-hour special on HBO was the pinnacle for most comedians. While comedians such as Eddie Murphy and Rock had already achieved some level of fame, their HBO specials rocketed them to new heights as two of the most recognizable names in comedy.
“We put up a date in Portland that’s in September, and it sold out in a week,” says Bell. “For me, that was superfast for a date to sell out. I think the special had something to do with that. Sometimes with the HBO special, even if people didn’t have HBO, that sometimes legitimized you in and of itself. Netflix has now taken that spot.”
It’s hard to know how much of a starmaker Netflix really is. “Yes, they’ve done all these specials,” Zinoman says, “but how many artists has Netflix catapulted from anonymity or minor fame to become a star?”
Wong is the most obvious answer. Hannah Gadsby seems to be next in line, but Zinoman believes Gadsby was already on her way there. The rest of Netflix’s most prominent stars have been “people who were already famous” being given “enough money to put their special on their platform,” says Zinoman.
At Comedy Central, says Larsen, “We’re all about the curation of talent.”
He points to Amy Schumer as an example.
“I’m not aware of Netflix having some sort of farm system or talent pipeline,” says Larsen. “For us, stand-up is our DNA. It’s the cornerstone of what we do in development every day. But we’re careful to make sure we’re building careers, not just trying to get a great rating for a special.”
New York Times critic Zinoman says it’s still early for Netflix. He’ll be convinced that it’s really committed when “they can consistently start to market and set up platforms that introduce new comedians into stardom.”
One of Netflix’s biggest coups was luring Dave Chappelle over to its platform.
While Chappelle was touring and popping up at stand-up venues around the United States, he had not filmed a special since 2004. Now, he has four specials on Netflix, and his first two specials were the platform’s most viewed ever.
Netflix also beat out HBO in a bidding war to sign Rock.
HBO had been Rock’s home since 1994, and he has done five solo specials with the network. After an eight-year hiatus, Rock, too, made his triumphant return with Netflix.
“Once Netflix started throwing silly money at them, it didn’t make economic sense,” Larsen says.
At first glance, the costs look outrageous, but it’s only a small portion of what Netflix spent on content. Netflix spent $6 billion on content in 2017, and according to The Economist, it could more than double its budget this year, with costs potentially reaching upward of $13 billion.
How much of that is allocated toward stand-up specials is unknown, but it doesn’t seem like it will be scaling back anytime soon. Netflix declined to make an executive available to speak with CNN for this story.
Netflix’s first foray into producing original stand-up specials started in 2012 when it gave comedian Bill Burr the first Netflix original special. Since then, its library has ballooned into the triple digits, as it now releases new specials almost every week.
At that rate, Netflix’s library could very well dwarf its competitors in only a few years.
“It just seems like they’re just doing a lot, and if we throw enough against the wall something will stick,” Larsen says. “In a way, that has sort of taken the specialness of the stand-up special away by doing volume — it’s not about quality and curation, it’s about filling shelves. To me, being a lover of great comedy, it just doesn’t excite me. It doesn’t make me think that they’re onto something.”
TV outlets such as Comedy Central and HBO have limited time slots to allocate to programming, while Netflix has no such limits. Millions of people can be streaming different things at the same time and at their leisure. TV appointment viewing is a rarity these days, and streaming has become the new normal for how people prefer to consume media.
While HBO has its own streaming services in HBO Go and HBO Now, HBO President of Programming Casey Bloys revealed that stand-up accounts for less than 1% of viewers on HBO’s streaming platforms.
Zinoman says this situation won’t last. “First of all, you’re already seeing HBO isn’t totally absent. You’re starting to see a few signs that the other big streaming players are starting to compete,” says Zinoman. “You’re starting to see a few comedians not really sign on with Netflix because there are some grumblings with them. Jim Gaffigan is a good recent example of someone who released a special on everywhere but Netflix.”
Flooding the market
Of course, the flood of Netflix stand-up specials can also make it tough to stand out. With so many comedians to choose from and only so many hours available in a day, many specials will inevitably get buried.
“They’re trying to do something other places have tried to do and failed, which is to make comedy go global,” Zinoman says.
“And the common wisdom for a long time, which I don’t necessarily believe is true, is that comedy, unlike action, doesn’t travel particularly well. I think that is incredibly ambitious and it has high risk, and I think any way you cut it, it’s going to change people’s relationship to Netflix comedy.”
If Netflix’s strategy fails, it could prompt it to pivot away from stand-up and toward movies or TV shows.
Netflix has shown in the past that it’s not afraid to pull the plug on an underperforming series, and if interest in stand-up starts to slow down, the piles of cash being thrown at comedians could grow much smaller.
But as the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, and comedians will be happy to ride the wave for as long as Netflix is able to carry them.