The streaming company looks to shake up yet another area of TV, and the outspoken late night host will shake free of the pressure of ratings
The very active conga line of late-night hosts–on, Jimmy! on, Larry! on, Seth, John and Stephen!–just got more interesting. Chelsea Handler, who recently gave up her E! talk show and campaigned openly for a CBS late-night spot that she did not get, has confirmed long-running rumors that she will host a talk show for Netflix beginning in 2016. The broad deal also commits Handler to a stand-up show in October and four “docu-comedy” specials next year. But the big news is that Netflix, which has expanded into scripted series, documentaries and children’s programming, is now venturing into one of the oldest-fashioned of broadcast TV formats, with the potential to shake it up as well.
The announcement is short on details about the show’s format (there will be interviews and “unfiltered opinions”), number of episodes or periodicity. Netflix has been committed to spreading the gospel of binge-watching, but unlike, say, House of Cards, I’m assuming a talk show does not lend itself to releasing a year’s worth of episodes in one day. But since Netflix isn’t bound to schedules, that still leaves room for experimentation; there’s no reason that its talk show needs to be bound to “late night” (or any time) or a daily release schedule. (Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos hinted at some experimentation in the announcement, saying the streaming company “is looking forward to re-imagining the late night talk show for the on-demand generation, starting with the late night part.”) And as the announcement notes, the show will be available globally, not just in the U.S.
For Handler’s part, signing up with Netflix is likely a good deal; again, no terms are given, but Netflix has a reputation for digging deep into its pockets. “If I was going to continue working in this industry,” she said, “I knew I had to do something outside the box to keep myself interested… [T]he team at Netflix is the most forward thinking, alert group I’ve sat down with in ages. No offense to the Shahs Of Sunset.”
It also frees her from the bane of high-profile talk-show launches: ratings pressure. Netflix is not measured for ratings like traditional TV networks are; it has highly granular data on who watches its shows, how much, and when, but it does not share it or have it independently vetted. Just this week, a Netflix executive told The Hollywood Reporter that Orange Is the New Black, which debuted a new season June 6, is its highest-rated show–and it may well be, but as with every other Netflix audience claim, you just have to take their word for it. As I write in my column for the print TIME this week (paywalled, like Netflix!), this and other technological changes have ushered in an era where it’s harder to know what is genuinely a hit anymore.
As far as Handler and Netflix are concerned, however, it won’t matter if the show is a “hit,” in the sense of having a broad cultural reach and audience. It will simply need to be worth it to Netflix, a calculus that is less about how many people watch Handler and more about how many people choose to sign up for Netflix, how many keep their subscriptions, and how much the deal and the new show will contribute to that nebulous but essential currency, “buzz.”
Netflix may well have leveraged its data to find that there is a potentially big audience for Handler. But big audience or small, her doing a TV talk-show for a burgeoning non-TV network will be new and newsworthy, and you–and Netflix–can expect entertainment journalists to binge on that.