How Chelsea Handler Changes Our Understanding of Netflix

Chelsea Handler TCA
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Netflix’s hiring of Chelsea Handler marks the most audacious move the TV industry has seen since “House of Cards” set the benchmark for audacity last year by becoming the first viable premium original series delivered on the Internet.

Just in case anyone misinterprets signing Handler as anything less than eye-popping, Netflix made sure to underline its own verve in an announcement pledging to “revolutionize” and “reimagine” what has come to be the medium’s most ancient but cherished relic: the talk show.

But what Netflix isn’t saying is also interesting: why on earth are they even trying a talk show, which contradicts some of the most fundamental assumptions about the streaming service’s programming strategy?

The logic to its ballsy move is subject to interpretation, opening up some fascinating questions about Netflix’s future direction.

SEE ALSO: Can Chelsea Handler’s Netflix Talk Show Compete With Fallon, Kimmel and Colbert?

Big deal, you might say. Netflix has proven they can juggle a slate of scripted series and documentaries; they’ve even indicated an interest in original movies. Handler is just another show, right?

Wrong. From the beginning, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos has been abundantly clear that what Netflix values most is a piece of content’s ability to continue attracting eyeballs long after its premiere. That’s why there isn’t a single episode in its vault of original and library content that isn’t at least semi-serialized storytelling. That’s why Netflix doesn’t care about ratings–because Netflix doesn’t care when you watch something.

But the talk show represents the diametric opposite of the content Netflix has concentrated on to date. It is known to be the most perishable of TV formats. While cable has done some day-after syndication deals to repurpose broadcast late-night shows, there’s never been any kind of aftermarket for late-night content. The conventional wisdom is that no one wants to see monologue jokes about a headline from two days ago, or an interview with a celebrity tubthumping a movie that came out the previous weekend.

What little Netflix has also shared about its programming strategy is that its every decision is guided by data. Spending $100 million on two seasons of “House of Cards” sight unseen, as the mythology goes, was informed by information about Netflix’s viewing audience that indicated robust consumption on the streaming service of Kevin Spacey, David Fincher, and the BBC drama on which it was adapted.

Does that mean algorithms told Sarandos to pursue Handler, too? Fat chance. Not only is she not on Netflix, but no talk show of any kind is. That’s probably an oversimplification of Netflix data capabilities; this decision may have been more guided by what the data says is missing from the service than what’s there. But that’s not much to go on.

So if talk shows are perishable and data didn’t work its magic, what gives here?

Well, there’s two different ways to view the Handler hire: as a deviation from a core strategy or the formation of a new strategy. Either way, the move begs explanation.

First, consider the possibility that Handler is just a detour. Fine, Netflix’s success has provided enough insulation in the event that taking a flier goes badly. But surely there’s a rationale for this particular flier.

The rationale might be more understandable if you consider Handler less as a programming strategy and more as a marketing decision.

Netflix wants to be known to its audience and the creative community as a revolutionary upending our traditional notions of what TV is. It’s a smart tactic, though the actuality of its revolution-iciousness is questionable. To date, that brand positioning has rested largely on its audacious decision to provide all the episodes of a series at once. But the novelty of that will wear thin in time (and Netflix knows it was far from the first to introduce that behavior).

Netflix might argue that its original programming slate is so daring that shows like “Orange is the New Black” also set it apart from the rest of the TV pack, but that’s a charitable assessment. As amazing a track record as the company has built for itself, Netflix isn’t really doing anything in original programming much different in tone or style than anything else on pay TV.

So Netflix has to do something to up the ante to earn its bona fides as a true innovator.  There’s no better way to do that than to take on what is inarguably TV’s hoariest, cliche-ridden format–the talk show–and put Netflix’s own distinctive stamp on it.

Stylistically, Handler isn’t really all that different than anyone else in the talk-show genre. But the very fact that she is a woman in a male-dominated genre sets her apart from the pack, which Netflix no doubt loves. What Netflix will also do is figure out one or two things to put a fresh spin on the genre and then trot out the show as the latest example of how capital-d different Netflix is from everyone else.

So it’s OK that no one is going to watch an episode of Handler 2.0 for more than a few days after it airs. This is meant to cement Netflix’s brand identity, not be a long-tail attraction. And if she can bring over some audience from E!, that’s gravy.

But maybe writing off Handler as a marketing-driven loss leader underestimates just what Netflix is doing here. The other possibility is that she represents an honest-to-god turning point for the streaming service. The long tail may have always been a short-term strategy. Perhaps the Netflix brain trust has a vision for a second gear for original programming that it has barely hinted at to date, but Handler is the first glimpse at where it’s all going to go.

At the end of the day, there’s one very simple metric for success that matters to Netflix: subscriber totals. And nowhere is it written that can only be increased with content that has equal drawing power whether it’s watched today or 10 years from now.

But if that’s true, a talk show could be just the beginning of what programming is coming to Netflix. Maybe a newscast is next. Maybe something as insanely expensive as professional sports, like the soon-to-expire NBA TV rights, is under consideration. Maybe all this means that–gasp!–advertising is on the way!? Netflix execs have long denied interest in any of these things, but who knows?

There’s a lot more to the Handler deal that makes little sense. Given Netflix’s increasing global footprint, Handler seems an odd choice for the type who would play as strongly in Brazil as she would in Peoria. And hoping quarterly specials in 2015 will be enough to keep her a hot commodity until a 2016 launch gives her an awful lot of time to see her career risk cooling down.

Regardless, it’s a mystery at this point as to whether Handler represents an outlier or a pivot for Netflix. And the truth may very well be that Netflix itself doesn’t know the answer but has a willingness to experiment and see what its famous data tells it to do next.