It’s no secret. Netflix has what a lot of the broadcast networks want: creative freedom, no censorship and a seemingly endless pool of money for talent. But what the streaming giant has not had is a music competition series — until now.
With hits like “The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent,” “American Idol” and “The Masked Singer,” the broadcast networks thrive in the music competition genre, which is an area that Netflix has not yet successfully tapped into. With boundless streaming options and fewer people watching linear TV, the Big Four can still brag about millions of viewers tuning into competition shows that serve as a family-friendly co-viewing event where the broadcasters succeed over any other platform.
With “Rhythm + Flow,” the first-ever major music competition series to focus on hip-hop, Netflix execs know they’re taking a risk — or as they like to call it, an experiment.
Rather than dropping the entire season in Netflix’s typical binge fashion, “Rhythm + Flow” will roll out over three weeks. Each week, a new set of episodes will be released, which are staggered into three parts: the auditions, the battles and music videos, and finally, the big spectacular stage shows.
“We are trying a new approach. It is very much an experiment of rolling it out over three weeks, which is a little bit of a nod to the way that consumers are used to viewing these shows. But we’re striking a balance between a weekly cadence that you see on linear and this all-at-once pattern that people are familiar to on Netflix,” says Brandon Riegg, Netflix’s VP of nonfiction series and comedy specials. “We felt so good about this series as a whole that we wanted to turn it into a true event, and the hope is that we’ll create this buzz around the event over those three weeks.”
Netflix is optimistic that over the course of the three weeks, the series will build by word-of-mouth, but they also believe the series stands on its own and can be binged long after the winner is announced, which is a stark contrast to the broadcast versions of competition shows, which are spoiled once the winner is announced.
“I think the beauty of this show and the nature of what hip hop is, is that it is evergreen and you can go back and enjoy it,” Riegg says. “The joy should be in the journey, not just the end point. If you look at a show like ‘The Bachelor,’ you’d be robbing yourself of enjoyment if you just watched the end. On this show, you’re falling in love with the contestants and getting to know each of them.”
Riegg, who previously worked at NBC on shows like “The Voice,” has had his eye on finding Netflix the perfect music competition series for quite some time, and developing a hip-hop-centric series serves as a vehicle and platform for hip-hop and rap artists who haven’t had this type of opportunity before. “It’s engaging music fans and hip-hop fans in a way that they haven’t seen before, so that was really the promise of the pitch,” the executive says.
Unlike other predecessors in the music TV genre, all of the music coming from contestants on “Rhythm + Flow” is original, so it speaks to personal stories within the musicians. Also unlike other competition shows, there is no record deal at the end. The prize is the experience and the exposure — and with Netflix, that means a global audience.
If Netflix is hoping for buzz and word-of-mouth, they certainly cast the right team of judges. Executive produced by John Legend (who, yes, is also on “The Voice,” and no, Netflix says there’s no conflict between the two shows), the panel of judges includes T.I., Chance the Rapper and Cardi B, who is a living, breathing headline-making machine.
“Cardi and Tip and Chance are really behind this idea, and they’ll be really evangelizing the series over the three weeks,” Riegg says, adding that the three judges were so committed to the series, they called up their famous friends to take part as guest judges, including Snoop Dogg, Fat Joe, Jadakiss and the late Nipsey Hussle, who will be honored with an acknowledgement of his passing in the credits.
“Each of them has cemented their place in the industry in ways that were unique and disctinct to them, so they bring their own experiences to the competition and they bring their own point of view to help the competitors,” Riegg says of the three judges, adding that they would spend time off-camera to work with the contestants because they were so invested in helping to grow new talent. “It was this huge list of hip-hop icons and royalty. It felt like everyone was paying it back on the show with the contestants.”
When Jennifer Lopez looks back on her time on “American Idol,” she now credits the experience at the judges’ table as revitalizing her career into multi-zillion-hyphenate territory because audiences were able to see her as an authentic, relatable woman, rather than an unattainable superstar. Cardi B, who has been on a hot streak ever since she burst out on the scene, certainly needs no career revitalization, but viewers will see a new side of the rapper.
“Cardi took her role very seriously on the show,” Riegg shares. “She was equal parts compassionate and tough love. I think it will be really intriguing and impressive how she takes on that mantle of judging, and I’m really excited for more viewers to see that side of her.”
Anyone who’s tuned into any of her Instagram Live videos knows that if Cardi B were a judge on a network show, it’s safe to say there would be some issues with the standards-and-practices department. The good news with Netflix? There’s no censorship.
“We didn’t ask them to hold back on anything,” Riegg says, adding that the show will have a TV-MA rating, to serve as a guideline to viewers. Cardi B isn’t the only one who won’t be censored. The contestants are writing their own songs, so Netflix didn’t want to hinder their creative process with any restrictions. “A lot of it is around the contestants, too, and how they want to express their personal stories and how they manifest that into the lyrics and the verses that they write.”
Many hip-hop lyrics use the N-word, and Netflix made the decision not to censor that out, which is a stark contrast to modern-day broadcast guidelines — recently emphasized with ABC’s live “All In The Family” special that added lengthy bleeps to dramatically cover up “The Jeffersons” characters using the N-word. But the different with “Rhythm + Flow” is that the word is being used as artistic expression from the musicians in their lyrics.
“It came up and we didn’t censor them,” Riegg says of the decision. “I think having judges who are as thoughtful as Tip and Cardi and Chance, as well as the guest judges, they sort of self-regulate. They know the hip-hop world, they understand the community and they understand how all of that goes together, so it was really them having frank and candid discussions with each other.” He adds, “We are strong believers of freedom of expression and being authentic, so that extends to the language that they might use in some of the songs.”