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Inside ‘Orange Is the New Black’s’ Unlikely Journey to Become Netflix’s Most-Watched Original

Before “Netflix and chill” entered the cultural lexicon, before the streaming platform won its first Emmy, before it started inking deals with major showrunners, Netflix in the early 2010s was testing out a hypothesis about the public’s appetite for premium-quality television shows on the internet.

It had recently recovered from the Qwikster debacle — an aborted plan to spin off its DVD-by-mail business — and gritted its teeth through a tomato-pelting over a subscription price hike. Now Netflix was challenging network incumbents with its inaugural slate of first-run originals, including “House of Cards,” horror series “Hemlock Grove” and the revival of cult favorite “Arrested Development.” Also in the works was a less high-profile show from “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, based on a memoir about a motley collective of women incarcerated in a minimum-security prison. With no point of reference for what a highly produced online-only TV show would look like, the cast of that series, a diverse group of mostly unknowns, didn’t know whether “Orange Is the New Black” would become a hit or something that dissolved into the cyber-ether. Few guessed the show would become Netflix’s most-watched original series of all time.

“When we were making ‘Orange’ [in 2012], it wasn’t like ‘House of Cards’ was actually on television for us to be like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be that,’” says Uzo Aduba, aka Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the show. “It’s like, ‘Is it a web series? Is it going to be on YouTube? I don’t really get what this is.’ Additionally, the makeup of our show wasn’t something that was all over the television landscape.”

Years later, Kohan’s beloved series is now entering its seventh and final season, and can boast 20 Emmy nominations, four wins and the rare Netflix-provided statistic that around 105 million users have watched at least one episode. The show was, in retrospect, not just a signal that a group of diverse women could harness Hollywood clout and acclaim, but a major factor in cementing Netflix’s aggressive originals growth strategy.

The end of “Orange” punctuates the end of an era for the streamer: A question mark has become an exclamation point. With almost every major player in town invested in online originals, all eyes are on what comes next from Netflix as the streaming entertainment market goes into overdrive.

Never mind that Netflix wasn’t a traditional TV network: In seeking a home for “Orange,” Kohan remembers loving the streamer’s “all-in” straight-to-series model that bypassed the fatigue of pilot development.

“Here was a network that was willing to buy an entire season at once and fund it and support it,” says Kohan. “There was nothing better in my mind. I had gone through years and years of pilots, and [for them] to say, ‘We’re going to support your vision through a whole season’ was an amazing opportunity. It had a real budget and a team that was really into it, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of ‘No one will see it’ or ‘It’ll only be on the web’ or whatever. It’s like, ‘I get to make this.’”

Kohan’s bona fides as a writer and showrunner were clear, and the stories themselves were a meaty mix of comedy and tragedy that passed the Bechdel test a thousandfold, giving voice to female characters hardly found on TV. For those uncertain about the show back then, it was Netflix that raised eyebrows.

Nevertheless, 45-year acting vet Kate Mulgrew, who plays Litchfield inmate Red, prophesied the series’ starry destiny.

“I can sniff a winning pony,” she says. “Even though they gave me a very slender audition piece, I understood immediately that Netflix was going to do something very bold, and that working in concert with Jenji Kohan, it was going to [create] an absolute horse race in terms of the true advent of the golden age of television.”

Referring reverently to Netflix’s vice president for original content, Mulgrew adds: “But you must have a visionary like Cindy Holland. She saw; she understood.”

Holland, who joined Netflix 17 years ago, is a Stanford grad and former competitive water-skier who arrived in Los Angeles from New York in a GMC pickup truck on the same day in 1994 that O.J. Simpson was fleeing police across town in his Ford Bronco. After spending some time reading scripts and working for a production company, she left entertainment for a stint at ill-fated e-commerce company Kozmo.com before becoming Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos’ first hire in L.A. in 2002.

The two of them worked out of a little office in Raleigh Studios, back to back, desks facing opposing walls, often chatting with downstairs neighbors Bob Odenkirk and his wife, Naomi. Netflix, then a Silicon Valley entity that went public that year, was but a whisper in Hollywood.

Uzo Aduba Variety Cover Story Orange is the New Black
CREDIT: Robert Maxwell for Variety

People “mostly thought I was nuts,” recalls Holland from the company’s Southern California outpost, a slick 14-story building at Sunset Bronson Studios. “If they had heard of Netflix at all, [they said], ‘It’s a small DVD-by-mail company; what are you doing?’ But I really felt that the promise of Netflix, even as it existed then, was unlocking distribution of movies that I loved and that are under-distributed. My relatives in Nebraska could get access to all the foreign films and all these indie movies and documentaries that they otherwise would never see.”

She and Sarandos spent that first decade in L.A. navigating the evolving entertainment landscape, building out the company’s streaming and licensing businesses and creating the foundation for a launch into originals. In 2011, MRC Studios came knocking with prestige drama “House of Cards.”

“We were intentional about wanting to change the perception of what internet content was,” says Holland. “At the time, it was mostly YouTube or Funny or Die, but there wasn’t really long-form premium content.”

Kohan’s series traces back to “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” the 2010 memoir from Piper Kerman. Kerman remembers Kohan being different from other industry folks who had pitched their visions to her.

Kohan is an “insatiably curious person,” says Kerman. Over a long lunch, the showrunner asked the ex-con “millions of questions” that ranged from the existential to the mundane: how inmates grapple with their sense of self, what maxi pads they use, what they eat.

“She’s interested in the truth of the experience, but also, like, whether there’s cheese,” says Kerman. (To that point: In prison there is “rubbery, orange government cheese.”) “That was before we knew what Netflix was going to be, so really, I entrusted that story to the creative person.”

Kohan brought the book to Lionsgate, where she had a deal at the time; the studio optioned it for her. As it happened, at around the time that Netflix announced “House of Cards,” Lionsgate TV Group president Sandra Stern and chairman Kevin Beggs had a general meeting scheduled with Holland. Stern told Holland to read Kerman’s memoir over the weekend, confident that the Netflix exec would come calling Monday to request a pitch meeting with Kohan. She did.

For her part, Holland affectionately calls “Orange” the “little engine that could.”

“There was a lot of press and hype around ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Arrested Development,’ and less so about ‘Orange,’” she says. “Really, as we were
making it, it was ‘Oh, we feel like we know something the rest of the world doesn’t. This is our little secret weapon.’”

Kohan has said before that the character of Piper Chapman, the white yuppie turned jailbird played by Taylor Schilling, served as a Trojan horse to introduce stories about Latinas, black women, older women and women of different socioeconomic classes.

“I’m super, super proud of what we did with ‘Orange,’” says Kohan. “I’m super proud to say that we presented all sorts of women, all sorts of minorities, and not just one, but different people within the minority. If there’s something emotionally that’s going on with a character, no matter what your background or color is, you can identify.”

For Aduba, who would become the first actress to take home Primetime Emmys in both the comedy and drama categories for the same role, “Orange” was the first TV job she ever booked.

“It was something that, up until then, I didn’t actively pursue, because I had never seen a space for myself there existent in it,” she says of television. She auditioned after “Orange” casting director Jennifer Euston saw her in a play in New York.

There weren’t enough dressing rooms while they were filming Season 1, so the cast would overflow into the green room, playing cards and bonding between takes. At some point, they organized a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, from Manhattan to Grimaldi’s pizzeria, recalls Aduba, 40 women taking up the whole restaurant.

Jenji Kohan Variety Cover Story Orange is the New Black
CREDIT: Robert Maxwell for Variety

They would soon take up space in a much more significant way.

“I don’t even know if people at the time knew what they were thirsty for, but when we gave them that to drink, it was consumed so quickly, because it was like, ‘Yes, that is what I’ve been looking for,” she says. “That had a huge impact. It was successful, and so many different types of people related to it. I think it made it, sadly, less scary to tell those kinds of stories, and made other outlets open to actually putting those scripts — that they’ve probably been receiving for years, frankly — on television.”

In the writers’ room, Kohan strove to cultivate a hardworking but “homey” vibe, an office “filled with dogs and babies and snacks and toys,” even a “BYO nanny”-style nursery for staffers who were new moms — hardly the norm in a male-dominated industry.

“I just know what I wanted to build,” says Kohan, describing her room as a “family environment where work still gets done but you’re comfortable and you’re safe and you’re fed and your needs are taken care of.”

Under Kohan’s wing, a cohort of actors, writers and producers have been magnified, amplified — and are making more originals for Netflix. Writer Lauren Morelli is showrunning the “Tales of the City” revival; Natasha Lyonne co-created critical darling “Russian Doll.” Kohan has started a pilot incubator with four “Orange” writers, the brainchild of exec producer Carolina Paiz, which will create four projects over four months.

Netflix’s Holland was aware of the show’s on-camera and behind-the-scenes uniqueness. She recalls being on set one day during the first season: “It occurred to us at some point it was all women, sitting at video village, which is kind of rare.”

In the six years since Sarandos memorably told GQ magazine that Netflix’s goal was “to become HBO faster than HBO can become us,” the company has walked the walk. In 2018, HBO and Netflix tied for No. 1 in Emmy wins, with 23 trophies apiece. Helping to secure those accolades were “The Crown,” the Kohan-produced “GLOW” and “Stranger Things,” the latter of which is Netflix’s first in-house original.

The streamer has won 66 Emmys total. To come that far just five years after winning its first, for “House of Cards,” is no fluke. “Orange” is the first series to be nominated in both the comedy and drama categories; Laverne Cox made history as the first openly transgender actress to earn a nomination.

Not long after it premiered, “Orange” became Netflix’s most-watched series — according to the streamer — finding an audience in international markets like Brazil and the Nordic countries. More than half the show’s viewers are outside the U.S., says Holland, with male and female fans alike. Its success has tracked through the years; an RBC Capital Markets survey recently found “Orange” to be a top-three favorite in France and Germany, indicating that the series still has legs abroad going into its seventh season.

In a Peak TV universe, shows get axed before they’ve had a chance to register in the pop culture consciousness. That 105 million TV viewers have watched one episode of anything, even over the course of six years, is a major accomplishment for “Orange,” and for Netflix.

“It has certainly encouraged us to take more risks and to really think big about the types of content that we could program for an audience willing to try new things and discover different things,” says Holland. “And also to push into making sure that we’re programming for underrepresented audiences and really try to serve all audiences.”

How does that massive figure stack up against other Netflix originals?

“It’s the biggest,” says Holland.

By what margin?

“I’m not going to tell you,” she says, smiling, then breaking into laughter.

The tacit joke, of course, is that Netflix is notoriously stingy about providing viewership data, releasing snippets as and when it pleases, and only about its best-performing programs.

Gauging Netflix’s success in originals is more art than science, given this reluctance. Series renewals are a good sign. Social media buzz is a good sign. Emmys are a good sign. Real-life fans chasing you down the street is a good sign.

“I remember going to Brazil for Pride and feeling like the Jackson 5, the way people were just hollering at us on that float,” says Danielle Brooks, who plays Taystee. “It was a whirlwind. And when we got off the float, we had to run, because people were chasing us to get a photo. It blew my mind.”

Netflix also has Wall Street groupies, sending its stock price from around $50 in 2013 to nearly $400 now, largely because of its growth to 149 million subscribers. Originals are seen as a major anti-churn factor.

“The key for Netflix is that when they first came out with some of these original programs, there was chatter in the industry that they ‘got lucky’ by having multiple hits in a row,” says Piper Jaffray analyst Michael Olson. “But now it’s become apparent that this is a repeatable process for them to generate quality original content.”

Cindy Holland Orange is the New Black Variety Cover Story
CREDIT: Robert Maxwell for Variety

Before “Orange,” Netflix had been a place where studios would sell off-network rights to existing shows. But the second wind that Lionsgate-produced “Mad Men” had gotten on Netflix, introducing people to the acclaimed AMC series, served as a proving ground.

“‘Mad Men,’ for me, was a bit of an inflection point,” says Lionsgate’s Stern. “It brought home to me how influential Netflix could be and how important a role it could play in gaining traction, finding an audience for a series. And if it could do that for a series that had begun life on another network, why not an original?”

The trouble is the sustainability of this quest, as the number of originals on the service surpasses 700. The company expects $3.5 billion this year in negative free cash flow. That, combined with a hefty debt load, preoccupies Netflix bears. Content spending has exploded from around $2 billion in 2013 to a projected $14.2 billion in 2019, per Olson. Still, he expects positive free cash flow coming in four or five years, as subscription growth outpaces content spend.

The investment is expensive but crucial. Disney, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal and others are building their own streamers, yanking lucrative properties like Marvel movies, “The Office” and “Friends” off Netflix.

Holland anticipated that.

“We started original programming to get ahead of that,” she says, “and to chart our own destiny and not be reliant on others to supply content to us.”

Netflix also began signing creators to overall deals in response to the landscape.

“When we started original series, we sort of looked at ourselves as the alternative to the traditional studio overall deal model,” says Holland. “But we could see and believe that as the industry started to consolidate more, as studios were going to start producing and keeping that content more in-house for their own services, that there was going to be a natural evolution of the business. So as we started thinking about who were the folks we would want to have these overall deals with, it’s also natural to say, ‘Well, we sure ought to reward the folks who brought us here,’ and Jenji’s certainly one of them. I believe we’ll be doing a lot of stuff with Jenji.”

Netflix is entering a new era, one marked by the creative firepower of Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Kenya Barris — and yes, Kohan, with whom it inked an overall deal in late 2017. Rhimes’ and Kohan’s pacts were negotiated concurrently, meaning they were the first two to sign overall deals with the streamer.

Alongside “GLOW,” Kohan is executive producing “Slutty Teenage Bounty Hunters” for Netflix, is developing docu-series “Worn Stories” and has optioned the David Eagleman book “Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives.”

As for her next personal project as a showrunner? She’s not sure yet.

“It’s been a big year of endings,” says Kohan. “I got divorced, ‘Orange’ ended, two out of three of my kids are going or are away in college. It’s a lot to figure out. I’m hoping all this transition and turmoil leads to some really interesting writing. But right now I’m still roiling a little bit, so it’s hard to get the pen to write straight.”

Moving on from Litchfield, she knows what she doesn’t want — which Netflix might be wise to take as an indicator of what to expect next from the creator.

“Let me say what I’m not interested in right now: dystopia and darkness,” says Kohan. “I think there’ve been too many shows of late that are either instruction manuals for evil or just depressing. I’d like to reflect more hopefulness and more light and what life could be in a better way while still having conflict and darkness. But I’m really weary of this feedback loop of awfulness, and I kind of have a mandate right now to show better worlds.”

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