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Friday, June 21, 2024

Netflix’s New Chris Rock Special Revives an Old Idea: Live TV

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

This week, like Dr. Frankenstein before it, Netflix ran around frantically screaming “It’s aliiiiive!” 

Well, it wasn’t exactly like that. But the streamer did start airing commercials, touting its upcoming Chris Rock stand-up special, with the tagline “It’s live.” That news again, in case you missed it: Netflix, the service that disrupted terrestrial television and cable by streaming everything on-demand, is airing a comedy special. Live, on Saturday, at 10 pm ET. 

It’s a move that feels both ironic and smart. Rock is a veteran, someone Netflix’s vice president of stand-up and comedy, Robbie Praw, told The Wall Street Journal is “on the Mount Rushmore of comedy.” His comedy specials were appointment television back when appointment television was the only kind of television out there. 

In terms of getting people to watch something en masse, giving Rock a live special—one that’s airing (for lack of a better term) a week before the Academy Awards, where last year Rock was slapped on stage by Will Smith—is a bold move by Netflix. It’s also funny that their latest attempt to dominate the discourse comes in the form of, well, live TV—complete with a pre-show and after-show

As Praw told WSJ, watching a comedy special “live on Netflix is a real change in the construct” it has with its 231 million global subscribers. But it’s also one that attempts to inject Netflix into the conversation using the methods it disrupted when it launched its streaming service in 2007. Back then, it shifted the entire dynamic of appointment television by getting people to tweet, Facebook post, etc., about the fact that they were binge-watching House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black. Now that streaming has left viewers so overwhelmed with choices that every show feels like it’s at “I’ll get to it when I can” status, a live event with a comedian who hasn’t really spoken publicly since the Oscars drama feels like the best way for Netflix to dominate the group chat. 

This column has already given lots of inches to the notion that streaming services are just TV/cable networks now—even the ones that weren’t launched by TV/cable networks (Hulu, HBO Max, Disney+). But as Netflix couples this move into live TV with its proposed crackdowns on password sharing and introduction of ad-supported subscriptions, it looks as though streaming didn’t disrupt TV so much as show the established players what TV could look like in an age of fast-speed internet. It took a while, but networks finally learned from Netflix’s example and launched their own services. Now, Netflix is learning what those companies learned in the years before it even existed. Namely, that sometimes people will watch ads if it means saving money, but the companies that will buy that ad space need assurances that people are tuned in. 

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So what does this mean? It depends in part on how successful Saturday’s broadcast (such as it is) is for Netflix. But if it’s even marginally popular and conversation-starting, it will likely lead to more streamers, including Netflix, picking up more live events. Amazon is already doing this, paying around $1 billion a year for the rights to Thursday Night Football. By some counts, its viewership numbers missed expectations, but they also showed promise. People will watch live programming on streaming platforms—with ads! Everything old is new again. 

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