‘Chelsea’ Hints at a Radical Shift Ahead for Netflix

Chelsea Handler Netflix trailer
Courtesy of Netflix

When Netflix first announced its intent to get into business with Chelsea Handler nearly two years ago, the company breathlessly guaranteed she would “revolutionize” and “reimagine” the talk-show genre. But now that episodes of “Chelsea” have finally arrived, the underwhelming response from critics (like Variety’s own Maureen Ryan) makes it difficult to understand just what Netflix thought would be so radical about her show. While she dispenses with certain conventions like a desk, sidekick and band, “Chelsea” is a familiar formula.

Look close enough though, and the seeds of disruptive potential are there–but less for this hoary genre of TV programming than for Netflix itself.

The streaming service has subsisted entirely to date on a mix of original and licensed content for which it doesn’t matter to the company or consumers whether an episode is being viewed shortly after being produced or years later. But a talk show doesn’t really fit Netflix’s strategy because topical jokes and interviews with newsmakers become less compelling over time, calling this kind of programming’s shelf life into question.

Judging from the three episodes released so far, “Chelsea” seems to be bending the perishable talk-show format in the direction of a less time-specific kind of funny in order to make the episodes more binge-friendly.

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For instance, she opens the second episode with an extended riff on medicinal sleep aids instead of, say, the latest Donald Trump controversy. There’s only a faint nod to topicality in a sprinkling of jokes about the presidential race, though none that really play off recent headlines as closely as most late-night comics typically do in their monologues.

The approach makes strategic sense from Netflix’s long-tail perspective, but there is a creative risk that needs to be noted; most talk shows draw their strength from mining what’s freshest in their audience’s minds. To some degree, Handler can’t do that because she is taping episodes 24 hours before their release in order for the episodes to reach the over 190 countries where Netflix is available.

But then there are also hints of how “Chelsea” does play off of current events, like a third episode that goes very heavy on reigning box-office champion “Captain America: Civil War,” complete with interviews with the cast members.

When you consider how close “Chelsea” can come to traditional talk shows, it’s hard not to conclude that what Netflix is doing here is floating a trial balloon to gauge its subscribers’ interest in perishable programming, a move that could presage an even bigger push into the kind of content that could reshape our perception of the streaming service.

Today there’s a talk show but think of where Netflix could go tomorrow: a morning show that goes up against Matt Lauer? A daily newscast opposite Scott Pelley? An entertainment newsmagazine a la “Access Hollywood?” The possibilities are numerous for Netflix to get into the kind of programming that would seem unthinkable given its current archive-centric mindset.

Some of Netflix’s rivals are already thinking along these lines. In March, Amazon launched “Style Code Live,” a live show about fashion and beauty trends. HBO Go seems poised to make similar moves in partnership with Vice Media, with which it announced a daily newscast last year.

This kind of content may have dramatically diminished value the day after it airs, but could be a worthy loss leader by changing the complexion of these streaming services, injecting them with a sense of immediacy and establishing them as a daily habit among their users.

Because Netflix is such a force now, it’s a little strange to think of the service as having still more gears into which it could shift. But if Netflix seemed a threat to traditional programmers these past few years, just wait to see how much more powerful it could still get. Even something live and expensive like pro sports, which Netflix execs have previously professed no interest in, could eventually be on the table.

Maybe “Chelsea” will be successful enough by collecting enough viewers immediately after episodes air that it won’t matter that they will be ignored in the long run. Or maybe Netflix will defy our expectations by proving what we all presume to be perishable isn’t, thus not a departure from the company’s strategy after all.

“Chelsea” feels like Netflix is inching toward a whole new world that would truly make the series “revolutionary” in its ability to redefine the service as more than just a repository for evergreen programming. The data on audience behavior the company so closely guards could encourage them to continue down this road, making more such experimentation not a matter of if, but when.