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HRTS Panel Tackles Evolving TV Math – And the Netflix Equation

Although TV remains a numbers game, a Hollywood Radio and Television Society panel made clear the math continues to evolve — including the conundrum that is Netflix, which reiterated its commitment not to provide ratings or other metrics to offer insight as to its use.

During a summit of programming chiefs Thursday, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told the Beverly Hilton crowd that there’s no upside in discussing numbers — “It’s irrelevant to us,” he said — while noting that the company’s subscription-driven business model allowed it to support programming at a much lower audience level than might be required elsewhere.

“That sounds really fun,” quipped NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke, who — despite the fluctuations discussed in terms of delayed viewing — noted that the network still needs to see programs open well to perceive them as being viable.

Sarandos also pointed out that Netflix isn’t shackled to a schedule in the way TV networks are and provides almost unlimited latitude to producers once it has greenlighted a project, as opposed to ordering pilots or insinuating itself into the development process. “For the most part, we’re betting on the storytellers and the story,” he said.

By contrast, Showtime Entertainment President David Nevins said he saw value in a network’s input, noting, “We do see ourselves as developers. We’re not acquirers.”

Nevins also cited some benefit in slowly unfolding a show over weeks — as opposed to the binge viewing DVDs first and subsequently Netflix have popularized, with Sarandos noting that most Netflix customers watch a single program all the way through before starting the next one.

The Showtime exec employed a colorful metaphor to describe the deferred gratification of playing a show on an episodic basis, saying, “I do believe in the tantric form of television.”

Jeff Wachtel, president-chief content officer for NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, said because of the glut of scripted programming being launched, “breaking through the clutter’s never been harder.” He also drew applause from the crowd by suggesting every network executive or buyer should be forced to spend two years selling shows, in the same way MBAs must go out and gain real-world business experience.

Although Netflix doesn’t release data, Sarandos noted the company is awash in it — including the ability to see the exact moment when viewers bailed on a program. He also noted that the company will spend $3 billion acquiring content in the next year, and thus felt within its rights to demand an element of exclusivity — or, conversely, discount its pricing structure. (As Wachtel noted, cable, satellite and phone operators also pay to carry networks, so given the complicated nature of sorting through such rights, “It’s a balance.”)

Salke did say that NBC is experimenting with various production models, such as the series “Hannibal,” which is infused with enough international support so that the network “can tolerate a lower rating.” The series returns for its second season later this month.

Despite the popularity of “binge viewing,” Sarandos said when the term was first being used in connection with the Netflix model, the company debated whether to push back against media outlets, given the negative connotations associated with it.

“As long as they’re not purging after,” Wachtel said.

(Pictured: Variety‘s Cynthia Littleton, David Nevins, Ted Sarandos, Jennifer Salke, Jeff Wachtel)

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