Netflix and HBO Max Want to Put You to Sleep: Inside Streamers’ Plans with Calm App and More

As Headspace and Calm move into TV production, they face a unique set of challenges when falling asleep is a metric of success.
"Headspace Guide to Sleep"

A show that makes you fall asleep? That’s the counterintuitive pitch that Jennifer O’Connell, EVP of non-fiction and live-action family at HBO Max, received from Nutopia — the production company that brought you “Mankind The Story of All of Us” — and Calm, the meditation and mindfulness app.

“We sat down, they played a sizzle reel, they dimmed the lights,” O’Connell recalled. “By the end of the sizzle reel, our shoulders lowered, our breath was calmer — we could feel ourselves feeling good.”

The pitch became “A World of Calm,” a 10-episode HBO Max series featuring zen stories gently narrated by the likes of Keanu Reeves and Nicole Kidman, accompanied by relaxing sounds and images. It’s part of a growing segment that turns entertainment into “mindfulness content.” Rather than make something that excites, stimulates, and thrills, its goal is to make viewers to chill out, take a breath, or even fall sleep.

Calm’s chief rival, Headspace, has taken a broader approach to penetrating the mindfulness TV market. In spring 2020, Headspace and Sesame Street premiered their first “Monster Meditation.” (Cookie Monster can’t wait for his cookies to finish baking! Headspace cofounder “Mr. Andy” Puddicombe is there to help.) September brought the premiere of “Mindful Earth,” which Headspace produced with the BBC. And on January 1, Headspace launched the first of three Netflix shows with “Headspace Guide to Meditation; April brought “Headspace Guide to Sleep.” (A third installment, expected later this year is described as an “interactive viewing experience.”) The company is also exploring ideas for scripted projects.

“All of this was thought of and done prior to March 2020,” said Morgan Selzer, Headspace Studios’ head of programming and development. “Obviously, COVID really accelerated all of this and made the need for taking care of your mental health really apparent for a lot of people. People were more open about talking about their mental health. I think it really was because you couldn’t ignore it anymore.”

Case in point: In mid-March 2020, as the US headed into lockdown, Selzer said the Headspace app download rates doubled. By the end of the year, there was a 500 percent increase in companies purchasing Headspace subscriptions for their workers.

It doesn’t take a pandemic to get people interested in watching soothing images designed to help them relax. WPIX president Fred Thrower invented the televised yule log in 1966 — then a three-hour black-and-white loop of a crackling fireplace, paired with relaxing Christmas music. (The New York Times called it “the television industry’s first experiment in nonprogramming.”)

Calm and Headspace deliver far more sophisticated presentations (which, of course, also serve as marketing tools for their apps). “Headspace Guide to Meditation” combines animation, science, personal anecdotes, and introduces different techniques in each episode to deliver a series that’s instructional and relaxing. Episodes include “How to Deal with Pain,” “How to be Kind,” and “How to Fall in Love with Life.”

“A World of Calm” is less instructional, reflecting an expansion of the Sleep Stories available on the Calm app — nearly 300 soothing bedtime stories for grownups narrated by A-list talent that, according to Chris Advansun, head of Sleep Stories and an executive producer on “A World of Calm,” have been listened to 300 million times. Television, he said, was “a way to take the success that we found on the app and extend it to make it more accessible to people on other platforms where they’re spending time.”

When falling asleep is a metric of success, Calm programming presents a unique set of challenges. “How can we be engaging, without being too riveting and too engaging?” Advansun said. “Every creative element that goes into a production like ‘A World of Calm’ has to be really rethought for the question ‘Is this helping to guide and lull the viewer off to sleep?,'” Advansun said. “Every creative person who worked on this series had to set aside some of their toolkit that they’ve been taught their entire career.”

For narration actors like Lucy Liu and Idris Elba, it means they need to speak more slowly, and with less dramatic emphasis, than they may be used to. Words are chosen for their sound and sentences are structured to create a pleasing meter and flow without harsh or jarring sounds. Even the editing is more leisurely.

“There’s an imperative to cut quickly in any TV commercial, or documentary, or sitcom to push onward,” Advansun said. “What we were able to do really as a luxury was just take some shots and hold on.”

Selzer and Advansun are each familiar with criticisms that come from incorporating mindfulness into cell phones and mass media — the same things that contribute to stress.

“We know people are watching TV, we know people are using their phones. It’s more about your relationship with that object and how we can meet people where they are,” Selzer said. “That’s a big tenet of mindfulness: meeting people where they are.”

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