Chelsea Handler is a true pioneer of latenight, one of the few women to make a stand in a programming format dominated by guys. Now she will have to conquer a new frontier.
Handler will have to do more than make people laugh when she takes the reins of a new “talk show” that Netflix will launch in 2016. She will have to make them seek out her efforts in a way that Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and soon-to-be CBS face Stephen Colbert do not. Yes, one can argue that talk-show hosts from Ellen DeGeneres to Seth Meyers regularly battle for viewer attention, but Handler will be behind a wall of sorts: the Netflix home page.
With its dozens of clickable choices, the Netflix screen will render her new program — in whatever format it arrives — into just one more selection alongside the latest season of “Orange Is The New Black,” a new cache of “Daniel Tiger” episodes and “Machete Kills.” At least Fallon, Kimmel, etc. have the benefit of an always-on TV network promoting their shows during some of TV’s most-watched programs in primetime.
Handler will have no late local news reminding viewers about which stars are set to appear beside her chair. No ready cache of Netflix-branded sketches available on YouTube to drive buzz about her new show (though, to be sure, she will produce four docu-comedy specials for Netflix in 2015 that the video-streamer might be able to use in some fashion). And no coterie of Netflix programming on which she can appear to cross-promote her efforts, like Jimmy Fallon does with “Saturday Night Live” or Jimmy Kimmel does when he hosts special editions of his talk-fest after special ABC events (would Netflix insist Handler get a walk-on role in a new season of its buzzy dramas?).
None of this is fair to Netflix. The company has made a business for itself where there ought to be none. It mines its proprietary database of how and what subscribers choose to watch to figure out what sorts of new series to launch. And the shows get some form of traction — some of then get Emmy nods, for example — even if the company never lets anyone know the exact viewer numbers and patterns behind each series.
There are other formats out there that suggest Netflix can do just fine. Consider Bill Maher’s “Real Time” or John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on HBO. Or Howard Stern’s ongoing efforts on SiriusXM satellite radio. Like Handler’s new series, these attractions require an extra subscription in order to gain access (so, too, for that matter, do “Conan” on TBS and Comedy Central’s various late-night entries).
And yet, a new talk show — Handler’s new effort was billed by Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, as a “reimagining” of the late-night talk show “for the on-demand generation” — is a different sort of format from the high-concept scripted series, documentaries and kiddie-show revivals Netflix has attempted so far. Will Handler be producing a five-day-a-week program? Will she need to compete with other progams to book guests? Will she need a writing staff at the ready? For that matter, will sidekick Chuy Bravo also make the journey from E! to OTT?
These are questions worth considering, because a regular talk show is a giant machine that pumps out product almost daily. It feeds on relevance. The shows need the celebrity in the midst of a scandal, a hot theatrical release, an important cause, a momentum-building arc on TV. They need to nod to current events. And their backers need to be relentless in their promotion of these efforts.
Which raises an interesting issue. TV networks seem to lap up ads for Netflix these days. It’s all part of a new stream of entertainment advertising that comes from emerging players like Hulu and YouTube. And it’s all a great revenue boost. But how long will it take until CBS and TNT start to regard program pitches from digital streamers as bids to steal viewers away from their own shows? There’s a reason HBO has come to rely so strongly on print advertising and social and digital media. Many broadcast networks don’t want to run ads from a company that is trying to steal viewers away on Sunday night (and other days of the week, too).
Netflix executives may already have solutions to these seeming challenges, or an eyebrow-raising idea that will shatter conventions about how talk-shows ought to run in a world where consumers can determine what they want to watch at a moment’s notice and be rewarded for it. But unless the bookings for Handler’s show are spectacular, they may have to work a little harder to get her off the launching pad and into the public consciousness.