The television landscape is changing by the day, and the networks are doing everything they can to hold on to their piece of the pie. As the Television Critics Association's winter press tour kicked off Wednesday, a trio of outlets—Netflix, ESPN and National Geographic Channel—shared their plans to make waves in 2015. Among the day's highlights:
Netflix became NBC's—and Tina Fey's—sitcom savior.
Last May, NBC picked up the sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—co-created by Tina Fey and produced in-house by NBCUniversal—for midseason. But in November, Netflix announced it had acquired the comedy, about a woman (Ellie Kemper) who escapes from a doomsday cult and starts her life over in New York City. Taking the show over from NBC, Netflix gave it a two-season order (Season 1 will debut March 6).
Given the grim fate of this season's new broadcast sitcoms (such as the dearly departed Manhattan Love Story, Selfie, A to Z and Bad Judge), Fey couldn't be happier about her show's unlikely new home.
"All of the networks have had a little trouble launching their comedies this season," Fey said. "I think more people will find us like this." For ambitious comedies like Community (which migrated to Yahoo Screen after NBC canceled it last May) or Kimmy Schmidt, she says, "it just makes more sense than broadcast."
The sad truth: Even NBCUniversal realized that its own network wasn't the ideal place to nurture Fey's new sitcom. "The show is made by NBC; it's in NBC's best interests for the show to have its best home," said Fey. "And rather than trying to stick it on NBC between a multicam and a drama, they agreed that this would be the right place for it."
Best of all for Fey, migrating to Netflix means losing the most irritating component of any broadcast program: "No more snipes!" Fey said, referring to the incessant, distracting graphics on the bottom third of the screen that promote other shows, like The Mysteries of Laura. "I love Debra Messing, but you don't want her face going across [your screen]."
Despite the bleak broadcast landscape for sitcoms, Fey—whose other sitcom in development at Fox went bust last summer—said she hasn't written off broadcast TV for good. "I would be thrilled to do another show for broadcast in the future," she said.
Forget niche programming: Netflix now has something for everyone.
When not busy saving comedies from NBC, Netflix has lined up a huge slate of new original series for 2015, including the drama Bloodline (March 20); comic-book adaptation Daredevil, the first of four Marvel series set to debut about a year apart (April 10); and comedy Grace & Frankie (May 9). It also renewed its latest original series, Marco Polo, for a second season.
While the service's early original shows like Orange Is the New Black were targeted at "underserved audiences," Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer, said the company has broadened its target to include, well, every audience imaginable.
"We are trying to program something for everyone, more than 53 million subscribers," said Sarandos. "So you really are trying to appeal to a lot of taste and age demographics." Netflix's original streaming demo was younger and more male, but now the service is "trying to find programming that people love and attach to in a way that leads to retention and creates brand halo for Netflix as well."
Along the way, Netflix is also resurrecting discarded shows like AMC's The Killing and the older-skewing Longmire, which A&E canceled last summer even though it was the network's second-highest rated series. "There are times that we can uniquely and efficiently aggregate an audience for a show sometimes even more effectively than its originating network, or it may represent a certain area of programming that we don't have enough of on Netflix," said Sarandos. "Longmire is a good example of that, where the show had a very loyal, strong base, but at the time that it was airing or the audience they were trying to reach or for the products they were trying to sell against it, it just didn't work well for the network, but it will work great on Netflix."
As for how great, we still won't know. Sarandos reiterated Netflix's refusal to releasing ratings metrics, explaining that because the company doesn't sell advertising or need to justify carriage fees to cable operators, "there's no real business reason for us to internally or externally report those numbers."
Netflix's ultimate goal for its original series: "I think we can successfully support about 20 original series a year and still maintain a very high level of quality and still meet a diversity of taste," said Sarandos. "If you look at that in terms of our current space, we'll be about halfway there going into '16."
Despite adding more original series, Netflix won't be moving away from betting big on acquired content. "We're growing our subscriber base, which means we're growing our content budget as well," he said, referencing the Jan. 1 debut of Friends on the streaming service and its recent deal for Gotham's rights. "We really want the service to represent the best of television, both original and licensed programming."
ESPN hires stars to direct short films for SportsCenter.
ESPN's session was more subdued than planned due to the death of SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott. But the network did announce a few programming splashes: to give its short films a weekly SportsCenter spotlight—Friday Night Movie Night, beginning Feb. 6—and to hire several stars to direct them. "We are now looking at short films as a sustainable and important part of our business," said Dan Silver, senior director of development, ESPN Films. All of the films will air on SportsCenter and also will be available digitally via the SportsCenter app, ESPN.com and the Watch ESPN app.
Among the celeb collaborators: Spike Lee, who is curating a series called Spike Lee's Lil' Joints, revolving around lesser-known African-American stories. Eva Longoria is executive producing a series of inspirational short films for the network, Versus, launching in May. She directed the first one, Go, Sebastian, Go! (about the 11-year-old mariachi singer who was subjected to a slew of racist comments after singing the National Anthem at an NBA Finals game in 2013), and enlisted pals like Entourage's Kevin Connolly and her Desperate Housewives husband Ricardo Chavira to direct the others.
ESPN is also teaming up with another Disney company, Marvel, on yet another short film series, 1 of 1—Origins, in which various athletes will get the origin story treatment, a la comic book heroes. "We would go and try to identify the moment where the radioactive spider bit LeBron," said Silver of the series, which will launch this summer.