July 29, 2014

An App About Nothing: Seinfeld, Netflix, and the Future of TV

Rumors this week surfaced about Jerry Seinfeld cutting a deal with Netflix to bring his classic “show about nothing” to the popular OTT SVOD service. At first glance, this deal seems like simple generational arbitrage. After all, Seinfeld ran for nine (very successful) seasons in the 1990s, with the final episode airing on May 14, 1998.

Today’s 30-year olds were in kindergarten when this show started in 1989, and younger Millennials were still in grade school at its conclusion. Most of these folks are now Netflix users, and for many of them discovering all 180 episodes of Seinfeld will be a major pop culture revelation. Sort of reminds me of when my older sister introduced me to the Beatles. “You mean they actually made stuff that was this good way back then?” “Yes, indeed, Junior.”

So what can the rest of us learn from a potential partnership between a primetime icon and today’s OTT behemoth? Two lessons come to mind.

1. OTT is the New Syndication
For decades, yesterday’s primetime TV shows have lived on through syndication (or “reruns” to use the vernacular). I for one grew up on a steady diet of 60’s reruns like Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies. Syndicated shows like these filled hours and hours of the daytime programming schedule for local broadcast affiliates – “superstations” like TBS and WGN – as well as then-nascent cable channels like USA Network. Seinfeld itself has been in syndication almost continuously for the past 15 years.

Newer television shows, however, are operating in a new world with a new set of rules. Instead of syndication to “superstations” and other cable channels, online is becoming the destination for older programs that are put out to pasture, either on the broadcaster’s own site or via aggregators like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Seinfeld’s move to Netflix is a major endorsement of this trend, akin (again) to the Beatles finally coming to iTunes in 2010. Expect more classic TV shows to follow. (I’m still holding out for Hogan’s Heroes.)

2. OTT Providers are Diluting Channel Brands
Seinfeld, along with Friends, was once the crown jewel of NBC’s primetime TV lineup. Other than the Olympics, I’m not sure I can even name another NBC show from that era. (Frasier was a Cheers brand extension worthy of Procter and Gamble and does not count.) For me and millions of other Gen Xers, Seinfeld was NBC. But, alas, all things must pass.

Today Seinfeld isn’t even mentioned on the NBC website, which strikes me as a bit sad, and something broadcasters need to think long and hard about going forward. Large numbers of Millennials are now going to tweet and re-tweet the fact that Seinfeld is a Netflix show with little or no recognition of the NBC brand. And given the quality of the show, this is a very good thing for the Netflix brand. For NBC, on the other hand, I see little, if any, benefit here. I seriously doubt that the typical Millennial could even tell you that Seinfeld originally aired on NBC – that is, unless they end up on Wikipedia searching for the episode list.

By contrast, consider HBO’s deal with Amazon. Amazon provides massive branding credits to HBO for these shows, referring to them constantly as the “HBO Collection.” If people enjoy the shows, there is a decent chance they will give HBO a try at some point. In this case, both Amazon and HBO can benefit from online syndication. This is an example of how OTT syndication is supposed to work, a lesson lost on NBC.

For the past 18 months I have argued that the future of TV is an app. I stand by this prediction, which is truer now than it was when I first made the observation. But watching Netflix gobble up Seinfeld makes me realize I may have been understating how broad this phenomenon will be. It now appears that TV’s past – including the classic shows on which many of us grew up – will also end up as an app or as part of an app-based online service.

Stay tuned, as TDG will keep you ahead of the curve when it comes to the future of TV and its evolution toward an app-based model.

Joel is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.

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