‘Chelsea’ Proves Netflix Can’t Always Beat TV at Its Own Game (Opinion)

Chelsea Handler Netflix trailer
Courtesy of Netflix

Let’s take a moment to celebrate a rare victory for traditional TV over Netflix.

There’s no other way to read the demise of “Chelsea,” the streaming service’s talk show featuring Chelsea Handler, who announced Wednesday that she is moving on after its second season concludes at the end of the year.  Though CEO Reed Hastings recently encouraged his company to take more swings on new originals, it’s always surprising when another season doesn’t happen considering how trigger-happy Netflix tends to be about renewals.

But maybe it shouldn’t be at all surprising when you contrast the quiet end of “Chelsea” with the white-hot zone that is late-night TV. Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden are as culturally relevant as ever, with impressive ratings to boot. HBO, TBS and Comedy Central are also succeeding in this genre, and for that they can all thank Donald Trump, the comedy gift that keeps on giving.

Netflix had high hopes when Handler was introduced as a one-woman revolution for one of TV’s most hidebound formats. “The Internet has disrupted many of the conventions of traditional television and together with Chelsea Handler, Netflix is looking forward to re-imagining the late night talk show for the on-demand generation, starting with the late night part,” was how Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos put it back when the announcement was made in 2014.

But the show clearly didn’t end up being the disruptive force it was made it out to be, and it’s hard to understand why considering the talent involved. Handler seemed tailor-made to seize this opportunity. She’s a consummate talk-show vet who was evolving with more of a sincere social consciousness than her previous work on E! indicated. This kind of re-calibration that has worked wonders in these politically turbulent times for her rivals, who made similar shifts much later.

But the show simply never generated much buzz. Netflix hasn’t shared anything in the way of audience data, but it presumably wasn’t good considering the show went from three episodes per week to just one midway through its run. She has another Netflix documentary coming as well.

Handler has demonstrated a knack for drawing attention to herself with political commentary on social media, where she’s particularly adept, and in public appearances. But that didn’t translate to her talk show, which felt as if it was hermetically sealed within the Netflix world in a way that didn’t resonate in the larger media landscape. It’s not unlike the way Howard Stern’s public profile seemed to diminish when he made the switch from terrestrial radio to Sirius XM.

And therein lies some irony: The streaming world did provide a huge boost to TV talk shows…only not on Netflix. It’s primarily YouTube that has helped enormously by exponentially magnifying the audience for traditional TV’s late-night offerings, serving as a second window for excerpted clips.

Handler had a presence on YouTube as well, but was apparently drowned out by the sheer volume of competition. Maybe the fan base that loved her on E! for being more of a tabloid commentator wasn’t ready to go upmarket with her as she tackled more refined subjects.

In her exit announcement, Handler characterized her departure as an opportunity to redouble her efforts as a politically minded activist; she’s already putting her money where her mouth is judging by a $1 million donation she made Thursday to a charity for Puerto Rico.

Her mindset is laudable, but the show itself should have been the right forum for her to have gone that route. What Kimmel has done so brilliantly using ABC as a platform for the health care debate is a perfect example of that.

Trump has been such a galvanizing force for the entire genre, particularly at HBO, where Bill Maher seems to be re-energized (with some degree of controversy) and John Oliver continues to be on fire. Netflix could argue that Handler doesn’t need to be generating headlines the way her rivals routinely do as long as she drives value within the Netflix ecosystem.

But HBO is proof positive that talent can both succeed within a subscriber-only walled garden AND also resonate much louder in a way that does what any SVOD service must do: scream outside its paywall in a way that draws in would-be subscribers.

What’s even more maddening about “Chelsea” ending is that the talk-show genre is far from the zero-sum game that marks many TV-industry competitions, where one winner steals all the wind from everybody else’s sails. Even Comedy Central is getting traction with Trevor Noah, which seemed highly unlikely during his rough first year.

And then there’s TBS’s Samantha Bee, who is essentially enjoying the stature that should have been Handler’s, standing out from the crowd as a female personality in a genre that has been dominated by white males for too long.

If Sarah Silverman’s “I Love You, America” talk show, which just launched on Hulu, hits, it’s going to be tough for Netflix to stomach watching another streaming service have success here.

What’s so strange about “Chelsea” is that what it ultimately didn’t do–stand out amid our cluttered cultural landscape–is exactly what Netflix seems to excel at almost effortlessly when it comes to scripted content, where hit after hit from “Stranger Things” to “Making a Murderer” broke big. “Chelsea” could have been for talk shows what “House of Cards” was to scripted TV.

As fairly perishable content, talk shows always seemed out of step with a business model that put considerable value on content conducive to long-term, on-demand consumption. Is the disappointment of “Chelsea” just a one-off outlier or does it tell us something more about Netflix’s capacity to stretch outside its scripted core of series and movies? What if Sarandos wants to try news or sports, for instance?

Netflix will take smaller stabs at the talk-show genre; Bill Nye already has one going in the science niche. Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” is coming over to Netflix from Crackle, and David Letterman is doing his own thing for six episodes as well.

But the question that hangs in the air now is, should Sarandos set aside some of the $8 billion he plans to spend on content in 2018 and make good on his intent to take a truly big swing at this genre?

It would sure be nice for Netflix to solidify what could be one of the pillars for its comedy brand, where the company has been pouring its promotional energies as of late. There’s some great scripted half-hours on the streaming service, as well as a stockpile of stand-up specials so ridiculously deep that one wonders what Netflix’s talk-show track record would be like if a few of those comedians were given a desk and a coffee mug instead of a microphone and a brick wall.

It’s hard to believe Sarandos won’t make another big bet here; the question is on who. Perhaps whatever Jon Stewart went through with HBO regarding his aborted animated series there has him rethinking his future. If Sarandos is capable of luring over Shonda Rhimes from Disney, there’s really no one too big out there for him to bring over to Netflix. So enjoy this moment, traditional TV, because it may not last long.