“What is the likelihood we compete directly with Vice in the next two years?” Hastings asked.
“Probably high,” Sarandos replied. (Netflix later clarified that this does not mean the company wants to get into the “reporting and live news business.”)
Whatever shape its nonfiction programming eventually takes, it’s clear that Netflix, like other players in the digital media realm, is committed to offering an alternative to the old guard of cable and broadcast networks. It’s already begun to acquire and produce both feature-length documentaries (“Virunga,” “The Square”) and docuseries (“Chef’s Table,” the forthcoming “Our Planet,” from the creators of “Planet Earth”), and will venture into the kind of daily programming that’s long been traditional TV’s bread and butter with Chelsea Handler’s new talk show, which is set to debut next year.
For its part, Vice—whose HBO series concluded its third season this summer, and which aired its most recent special report, “Fixing the System,” on the premium channel last month—now has its sights set on the last bastion of TV’s analog origins: the daily newscast. The company has hired former Bloomberg content chief Josh Tyrangiel to oversee the program, which will air on HBO.
The confluence of these two items with the news that CNN’s live stream of the Democratic presidential primary debate peaked at 980,000 concurrent views is a reminder that even 24-hour news channels, much less the broadcast networks’ moribund nightly news programs, have largely failed to keep pace with our on-demand world. Twitter reigns, at least when news breaks, Facebook dominates the search for readers, and cord-cutters increasingly seek out reportage on YouTube.
How the new players in TV news will cover events remains to be seen, and it’s possible that the challenges of the nightly format itself are insurmountable at a time when the constant flow of information can often feel like a flood. It’s actually a series that isn’t even categorized as “news” that may suggest a model. With a few “trending”-type quick hits and one substantive deep dive per episode, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” manages to keep in touch with pressing issues here and abroad without ever seeming too light on information and analysis—something that can’t be said of CNN’s much-derided missing Malaysian airplane coverage, for instance.
The way for Vice, Netflix, and other companies to thrive as producers of nonfiction may be to give up trying to cover everything, and focus on covering a few things exceptionally well. In any case, as once-surging Netflix faces slowing growth, a sea-change is coming in how, and where, we watch the news. Stay tuned.