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‘Floor Is Lava’: The Stupid Brilliance Behind Netflix’s Surprise Hit — Streaming Wars

Plus, Apple TV has a chance to stand out amid all these new streaming launches, and FX solidifies a bright future.

FLOOR IS LAVA Netflix 2020

“Floor Is Lava”

Patrick Wymore / Netflix

With streaming dominating the industry, IndieWire is breaking down what really matters in the ongoing news cycle to provide a clear picture of what companies are winning the streaming wars — and how they’re pulling ahead. By looking at ongoing trends and curating daily developments, the Streaming Wars Report will offer a clear picture of what’s happening in streaming. This column will cover the major players, from Netflix to Disney+ to HBO Max, and be sure to check out our Indie Edition for thorough coverage of the boutique services.

New Numbers

“Floor Is Lava” Is a Stupid, Brilliant Hit

When “Floor Is Lava” hit Netflix June 19, the streamer’s so-dumb-it-hurts reality competition series arrived in the midst of a global pandemic — and immediately erupted. The 10-episode first season became the No. 1 program on the service for the second half of June and has stayed in the streamer’s overall Top 10 list for 24 days (and counting). That’s longer than big-name originals like “13 Reasons Why,” “Hollywood,” “Queer Eye,” and movies like “Da 5 Bloods” and “Eurovision” (though movies rarely stick around as series).

So, what’s the secret to its success? Netflix has a massive, global audience (182 million and counting) made up of people who are bored, scared, and need an escape — previous reality shows like “Love Is Blind” and “The Circle” did well, too, so case closed, right? Not exactly. For one, “Floor Is Lava” isn’t just a dumb reality show. It’s not really a reality show at all. It’s a game show. There’s no sniping or backstabbing; alliances aren’t formed, and competitors’ subjective opinions of each other don’t affect the outcome. Whatever team gets the most people safely across the lava wins. That’s it.

“Floor Is Lava” may not be a reality show, but it is dumb, and that’s important. For one, the name says it all: “Floor Is Lava” barely needs any more explanation than that, because everyone knows what that means. The floor is lava. Lava is bad. Don’t touch the lava. That kind of quick recognition makes it appealing, but producers were also wise not to overcomplicate the basic premise while turning it into a game show.

Anyone old enough to remember the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” craze of the early aughts knows that game shows can become hugely popular if there’s consistent, drawn-out suspense and a good chance the audience thinks it knows better than the participants. Quiz shows can alienate viewers who don’t want to look or feel foolish when they don’t know the answers to every question. “Jeopardy!” is a lot less fun if you can’t keep up. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” was not only multiple choice (which makes guessing easier), but it allowed contestants to narrow their options through lifelines. “Floor Is Lava” goes a step further (like “Fear Factor” and plenty of other physically challenging game shows before it): There are no answers. There’s just lava.

Watching groups perilously climb the walls and jump from a miniature moon to the Apollo capsule draws out the suspense, and every end result is satisfying, whether someone solves the problem (“Good for them!”) or falls into lava. (“Cool! They’re dead!”) Herein lies one more key to the show’s success: “Floor Is Lava” is family-friendly. No one is in any real danger (which can be too much for young kids), and the competitors are a variety of ages. Not only does that open up the show to a wide demographic, but it makes the show even more timely. Families at home may not have the means to flood their own homes with real lava, but they can still set up their own (safe) obstacle courses to run through during a long binge or in between episodes. Any opportunity to reconfigure the room you’ve been trapped in for months on-end sounds pretty good right now, as does indoor physical activity. “Floor Is Lava” hit at a time when audiences needed not only escape, but inspiration, and it provides both.

Now, the question turns to sustainability. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” has had a long life in syndication and through various revivals, but ABC’s primetime version burned out in a few years. “Floor Is Lava” has plenty of ways to improve its competition in Season 2, but I’ll be curious to see if audiences respond in the same overwhelming fashion again. Part of its appeal is in its all-too-obvious accessibility; overcomplicating things with new tweaks, additions, or formats could over-clutter a simple game.

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the Steve Jobs Theater during an event to announce new products, in Cupertino, CalifApple Streaming TV, Cupertino, USA - 25 Mar 2019

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the Steve Jobs Theater in March

Tony Avelar/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Buzzy Originals

The Time Is Nigh for Apple TV

OK, the biggest test facing Apple TV+ this month is the Emmys; on July 28, nominations for the 2020 Emmy Awards will be announced, and the tech giant will find out if its pricey entertainment expenditure will be granted the prestige label it was built to obtain. I’ll be looking at exactly what Apple needs (and can expect) from the nominations in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Apple TV, the app, may prove more important than Apple TV+, the originals service.

Even before Apple launched its originals slate (back in November 2019), experts stressed that the company wasn’t trying to compete with Netflix, Hulu, and their massive libraries of content. Sure, it wants hit shows and big name talent to fill them, but it also wants to be the hub for all things streaming. As Vulture’s Joe Adalian wrote at launch, “Much the way Google moved early in the internet age to establish itself as the dominant power for web search, Apple wants to become the home page for video — the place people go to discover, buy, and watch everything streaming, anywhere, whether it’s a show, a movie, or a network.”

As Peacock primes for its national launch July 15, and in the afterglow of HBO Max, Disney+, and Apple TV+ hitting the market over the last six months, a hub for all things streaming has never felt more valuable. New shows pop up everywhere. Old shows switch services. All shows are added or subtracted from streaming lineups every month. It is literally impossible to keep up with where everything is available.

Apps like Reelgood and JustWatch try to offer solutions with a few clicks on your phone (as does simply Googling titles to see what pops), but the Apple TV app comes built-in on the uber-popular iPhone and somewhat popular Apple TV box. That’s a huge advantage for the tech company, and regarding its set-top box: If new services with in-demand programming like HBO Max and Peacock can’t work out agreements with the leading platforms (neither are available as of publishing on Roku or Amazon Fire TV), and viewers know they can use the Apple to organize the ever-shifting TV landscape, it will only drive consumers to the simplest, most inclusive option. (Both HBO Max and Peacock are already available on Apple TV, along with all the major streamers.)

Now is the time to pump out the message that Apple is the end-all, be-all for entertainment. It’s not fighting a losing battle with Netflix, Hulu, and everyone else; it’s bringing them all together, for an all-inclusive entertainment experience. If Apple can convince people to use its TV app as a utility, then Apple TV+ will be a lot better off.

Sarah Paulson and Cate Blanchett in "Mrs. America"

Sarah Paulson and Cate Blanchett in “Mrs. America”

Sabrina Lantos/FX

Big Deals

FX and Hulu Shore Up Critical Talent

It was a great birthday for Pamela Adlon. Not only did a bunch of outlets publish new stories announcing “Better Things” had been renewed for Season 5 (which was first announced in May), but the multi-hyphenate behind FX’s best series (and one of the best shows on TV) signed a new overall deal with FX Productions on Thursday, July 9. “The agreement covers all scripted and unscripted programming exclusively for FX, as well as potentially other divisions of Walt Disney Television,” per the press release, which means Adlon could be cooking up projects for Hulu (or family fare for Disney+, ABC, or plenty more outlets). When a talent as deep as this one is given a wider reach it’s always something to celebrate, but the good news at Disney keeps going.

Cate Blanchett signed a similar deal with FX on Friday, locking up an exclusive, first-look TV deal with FX Productions that offers the same distribution flexibility within Disney’s assortment of brands. In the coming weeks, Blanchett is set to become a first-time Emmy nominee for FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” while the first series she co-created, “Stateless,” premiered to positive reviews on Netflix. (Though it has yet to crack the Top 10.) Snagging a two-time Oscar winner and growing behind-the-scenes player is a great get for Disney’s prestige sector, while the flexibility to move Blanchett and Adlon’s projects to the best possible outlet shows an added advantage for Disney in attracting future big-name talent.

Oh, and lest we forget: Hulu also renewed “Ramy” for Season 3, making it an all-around great week for the future of Disney’s best brands.

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