Prison overalls to hit Kiwi screens as TVNZ announces Orange is the New Black box sets

TVNZ is bringing a Netflix original to Kiwi screens in the shape of Orange is the New Black, in a move that will see all the episodes of both seasons of the popular prison dramedy, which recently won three Emmy Awards, streamed via the TVNZ Ondemand service for the month of September.

TVNZ has signed an exclusive deal with Netflix to stream the show, meaning that the newcomers to the subscription video on demand (SVOD) game will be precluded from streaming the show via their services during the month. The exception to this agreement would however be for Slingshot subscribers, who could potentially use the controversial Global Mode feature to access the content via the Netflix website. This would however seem counter-intuitive given that Netflix charges a subscription fee, while TVNZ’s on-demand service is ad-funded.

The decision to launch the box sets of both seasons is an interesting move, because TVNZ has also announced plans to screen the show on television on Monday nights from November. And while this does pose the risk of cannabilising the show’s TV audience, TVNZ’s general manager of programming John Kelly says that it is about giving viewers a service that meets their demands.        

“We want as many Kiwis as possible to be able to view our great content—whether that be on TV One, TV2 or on Ondemand,” says Kelly. “We’ve been trialling the premiere of carefully selected titles on Ondemand for some time now.  As Orange Is the New Black will play in a later time slot on TV2, we are looking at this as an opportunity to further expose this series.  We’re happy  that we have been able to put up all episodes in one go.”

The decision to launch both seasons online also makes sense, because it gives some viewers a chance to catch up on the backstory in anticipation of watching the show on TV. Furthermore, the move will also dissuade Quickflix, Lightbox and Sky’s upcoming SVOD offering from streaming the show while it’s airing on TV, on account of the fact that the nation’s binge-watchers would’ve already gotten their fix without having to pay for it.  

This move is quite similar to the approach taken by MediaWorks, when it launched the second season of House of Cards—another Netflix original— via its on-demand offering earlier this year. On 25 May, after screening the first episode of the second season of the hit show, MediaWorks made all the episodes for the show available for online viewing through 3Now for a period of 28 days, giving binge viewers four weeks to squeeze in all 13 episodes. This move followed on from the decision to release an on-demand box set to coincide with the screening of the first season, which became the broadcaster’s most-streamed programme, tallying up a total of 230,000 hits (about 17,700 per episode).

Interestingly, the success of Netflix’s original shows has little to do with the serendipity of a moment of creative genius. Before the company agrees to produce any show, it first analyses the market to determine whether or not there is an audience for it. 

This concept was recently explained by journalist David Carr in an article for the New York Times:

“Netflix, which has 27 million subscribers in the nation and 33 million worldwide, ran the numbers. It already knew that a healthy share had streamed the work of Mr. Fincher, the director of ‘The Social Network,’ from beginning to end. And films featuring Mr. Spacey had always done well, as had the British version of “House of Cards.” With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.”  

With the Netflix approach, the creative process is guided by insights obtained from big data and it gives the show’s producers an indication of where the audience’s sweet spot lies. And in this sense, it steers Netflix away from taking gambles on interesting creative ideas that end up flopping when put on a screen.

Throughout history there have been examples of broadcasters investing in shows that have ended up as ratings disasters, but few stand out quite as much as My Mother, The Car, a 1964 show that depicted the story of a man who finds out that his mother has been reincarnated as a 1928 Porter. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the show didn’t connect with the audience, was cancelled after its first season (a French broadcaster would later pick it up), and is today often included on lists counting down the worst television shows ever made.    

And while the Netflix method doesn’t remove all the risk from investing in a new show as absurd as My Mother, The Car, it does give Netflix an idea of the type of programming that would appeal to its massive database of subscribers (Forbes does however make the point that it’s questionable whether this approach would’ve been able to predict that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was directed by David Fincher and featured Daniel Craig, would’ve performed poorly at the box office). 

Since its inception last year, Orange is the New Black has garnered a cult following and it is regularly applauded by critics for its smart use of black humour. Much like House of Cards, Netflix’s prison drama also sits at a cross-section of elements that viewers have in the past shown an interest in: incarceration, race relations and drug smuggling.

Locally, Kelly says that TVNZ has also been looking at the Kiwi market in an effort to determine which shows are likely to appeal to its viewers. 

“Like many kiwis, I grew up with Prisoner: the daytime soap that inspired Wentworth, the second season of which is currently playing on TV2,” says Kelly. “Wentworth was one of our highest rating dramas last year. In any case, we know that our viewers have an appetite for good drama, and that’s what we look for whether it’s set in a prison or anywhere else.”    

The second season of the show has been available on Netflix since 6 June, and the online streaming company has announced plans to release a third season next year.   

And Kelly says there’s also more to follow. 

“We have a really exciting line-up of series still to come this year on both TV ONE and TV2, including some of the most anticipated dramas from America: Gotham, The Flash, the Walking Dead, Marvel’s Agents of Shield—all of which will play as close to US transmission as possible,” he says. “TV One has some brilliant new drama coming up too, including the breath-taking Happy Valley, Australian hit Love Child and some incredible New Zealand series like Our Big Blue Backyard and Intrepid NZ.

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