PASADENA, CALIF. -- Did Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz really think Fox's cult-favorite comedy, canceled after three low-rated seasons, would ever come back?
"Icertainly didn't think of it in terms of TV," he says, partly because"it would be impossible to get everyone together at the same time" tofilm it. But a few logistical somersaults - and a deep-pocketedbenefactor in Netflix, the streaming service with 23 million subscribers- has improbably revived the dysfunctional-family sitcom, nearly sevenyears after Fox dumped it.
Netflix is responding to a newgeneration of fans who discovered the show online and lapped up 53episodes with the oddball Bluths. In the process, it's turning thetraditional broadcast model of weekly episodic television on its head.
The service subsisted on a sometimes-moldy collection of movies untilit began snapping up beloved TV shows as a way to keep customerswatching. They've grown to represent 70% of viewing on the service.
NowNetflix is making shows of its own: Starting next month, it willunveil six series that viewers won't find anywhere else, following apattern set by pay-TV channels such as HBO and Showtime, who lured newsubscribers with can't-miss shows such as The Sopranos and Homeland. And it will offer them wherever it does business, in Europe, South America, Canada and Mexico.
A steady stream of streaming originals includes:
- House of Cards (Feb. 1), a darkly cynical political drama from producer David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)that stars Kevin Spacey as a scheming congressman who plots revengewhen he's outmaneuvered for a political post. "The swath of his sword isnever-ending," Spacey says. Fincher directed the first two episodes,and a second 13-episode season is planned by early 2014 as part of theestimated $100 million commitment.
- Hemlock Grove(April 19), a murder mystery set in a Pennsylvania steel town in which"killer creatures" are among the suspects. Produced by Eli Roth (Grindhouse), it's based on a novel.
- Arrested Development (May), reviving the Emmy-winning series, after reruns were among Netflix's biggest draws.
- Orange is the New Black (late spring), based on the comedic novel set in a women's prison, from producer Jenji Kohan (Weeds). Jodie Foster is among its directors.
- Derek (summer), the latest series from writer-star Ricky Gervais, about lovable losers who work in a nursing home.
- Lilyhammer (fall), a second season of last year's series starring Steve Van Zandt (The Sopranos) as an ex-mobster in the witness protection program who's transplanted to Norway.
Unlikeonline rivals such as Hulu and YouTube, "we're not trying to figure outhow to make cheaper shows," says chief content officer Ted Sarandos."We're trying to figure out how to make better television," with budgetsand talent to match. Netflix outbid Showtime for the right to remake Arrested, and bested HBO's offer for House of Cards by promising two seasons upfront.
Itsshows will also be eligible for Emmy awards, and Wednesday the servicewill, for the first time, tout shows to the Television CriticsAssociation semiannual meeting in Pasadena, Calif.
"We're mostlyinterested in very highly serialized storytelling," based on a book,movie or existing show that is "somewhat well known," Sarandos says.Unlike traditional TV networks, Netflix doesn't commission pilots,instead ordering series based on completed scripts and commitments fromactors.
And it releases entire seasons all at once, catering tothe "binge viewing" method more viewers have developed for cable seriessuch as AMC's Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead,all of which count Netflix as their exclusive TV home for priorseasons. On each release date, every episode will be available forinstant viewing on Netflix's website, mobile apps or Internet-enabledTVs, by all of its $7.99-a-month subscribers.
"There's less riskbecause we're not programming for a time slot," Sarandos says. Nor ishe dependent on advertising or companion shows. Instead, asophisticated recommendation algorithm, like the one used by Amazon,mines data from customers' prior viewing to suggest viewers check outnew projects based on their appetite and rating of similar series ormovies.
So subscribers who often watch serialized TV, political movies or are known Spacey fans will be pitched Cards, and "we can find an audience over time," he says.
"It'sattractive because the film industry and now the TV industry has theopportunity to learn what the music industry hasn't," Spacey says. "Givethe audience what they want, when they want it, at a reasonable price,and they will buy it and won't steal it."
The all-at-once model"flies in the face of everything that's been going on in televisionforever," says Hurwitz, and assumes that voracious viewers are always upto speed. "Part of the experience of waiting for the next episode(forces) the need to create artificial cliffhangers (that) ultimatelydilute the storytelling," Sarandos says.
Original shows make up10% of Netflix's $2.3 billion content budget, says Cowen & Co.analyst John Blackedge, who applauds the exclusive strategy: "The wholegoal is to have subscribers increase the amount of time they spend onthe service, so evolving their content is clearly the best way to dothat."
But it's not forsaking movies, either: In a first,Netflix just nabbed first-TV rights to new Disney movies, starting in2016, that historically have gone to pay-cable channels right aftertheir DVD and video-on-demand releases.
House of Cards was shot in Baltimore in a feature-film style, and Arrestedis also applying a new model, less because of its new home thancompeting demands for its stars, several of whom appear in otherprojects. "Contractually, we couldn't use all the characters in everyepisode; they were not free to do as much television as they want,"Hurwitz says.
Each of 13 or 14 episodes (up from 10 originallyplanned) will focus on a single character, and only Michael Bluth (JasonBateman), the level-headed son who holds the clan together, will appearin all of them. (Michael Cera, who plays son George Michael, is alsonow among the show's writers.)
"The show will look verydifferent," Hurwitz says, and is being assembled as a "very, verycomplex puzzle" from scenes shot out of sequence over many months.
Thoughfamous for its layered flashbacks and juggling of multiple story lines,held together by Ron Howard's narration, new episodes adopt a differentrhythm. "We're not jumping from one thing to another; you're stayingwith one character," while other cast members appear in smaller roles,and recurring characters played by Henry Winkler and Liza Minnelli,among others, will return. Howard and Brian Grazer, whose Imagine TV isbehind the project, will also appear.
"The bigger story is thefamily has fallen apart at the start of our show," Hurwitz says. "Theyall went their own way, without Michael holding them together, sothey're left to their own devices, and they're not the most successfuldevices." The season is designed as a "first act to what we eventuallywant to do, which is a big movie," though there's no guarantee it willever get made.
"Each individual (episode) kind of depicts whathappens in 2006 as the Bluths fled from the law on the Queen Mary" inwhat was once the series' finale, then explains what's happened to themsince and leaves them in the present day, he says.
The trueflavor "slowly reveals itself, as the moment you saw in one show willreappear in another show from a different character's perspective," hesays. "If people watch it all at once, it will seem like a giant Arrested Development. It's really tailored for Netflix."
Only once did the entire cast reassemble, as the final episode teases amovie by promising an imminent family reunion. "It was such a joy tobe back with everybody; it didn't feel like work, it felt like beingback with friends," Hurwitz says. "You don't see them all together untilyou see the movie." But even apart, "I can assure you that thecharacters are just as damaged, self-involved and self-righteous asever."
Netflix is betting passionate TV fans looking for showsthey can't find elsewhere are the most likely candidates to remain loyalstreaming subscribers.
"One of the reasons Arrested wasn'tembraced at the time was it wasn't easy to get your head around it,"Hurwitz says. "It was a point of pride with me; I wanted to create ashow that had surprises. But that's what they want to do (at Netflix).They want to take risks. They encouraged the complexity that had beendiscouraged before."
And Spacey says keeping users happy is "avery different way of measuring what you would call success in this formthan driving viewers to Sundays at 8. It's very exciting trying to dosomething that creates a new paradigm. (But) it could also wind up beinga big thud heard around the world. Who knows?"