The TV Branding Battle: Networks Kindly Remind You Not Everything on Netflix is By Netflix

"The Good Place" and "Riverdale" are huge on Netflix — but networks like NBC and The CW are finding new ways to emphasize that these are their shows first.
TV Branding Battle: Not Everything on Netflix is By Netflix
"The Good Place," "Riverdale"

The Good Place” has never been a monster hit on NBC. But the Ted Danson/Kristen Bell comedy is a favorite with critics, and continues to attract a growing fan base — thanks in part to audiences discovering repeats of the show on Netflix.

Insiders at Netflix and NBC hint that “The Good Place” has become a smash for the streamer; about as many people may have watched it on the site as on NBC. That means, at this point, just as many viewers could consider “The Good Place” a Netflix show as they do an NBC show.

On the one hand, NBC’s in-house Universal TV studio receives a handsome license fee from Netflix for the show’s second window. But NBC sure would like to make sure viewers know “The Good Place” is, first and foremost, an NBC show, and that new Season 3 episodes are available on the broadcast network right now.

That’s why, at the start of every program on the network this fall, there’s a five-second animated peacock that morphs into the words “NBC Presents.” It’s an extra piece of branding to nudge viewers to remind them: Hey, you’re watching this show via NBC.

“The idea came from the general sense of wanting to maintain an NBC brand identity across the various platforms,” said Ron Hayes, NBC’s executive VP of on-air marketing and creative. “We’ve quickly been moving from a broadcast network to a multi-platform entertainment company, and we wanted audiences to understand that the peacock is equally at home on their TV sets as it is wherever else they may be choosing to watch our content.”

Welcome to TV’s new branding wars, where many viewers consider everything a Netflix/Amazon/Hulu show until proven otherwise; after all, that may be where they watched it first.

It used to be easy to figure out which show came from which network. Now, a show might air first-run episodes on a network, which will also stream those episodes. Those episodes may then be syndicated on local TV stations as well as on a cable network, which also has some streaming rights. And then the library may be available on yet another streaming service. The ubiquity of choice is great for the consumer — but leaves broadcast and cable networks less identified with the shows they originated.

There’s ego at play, of course, and some execs resent the fact that off-network TV shows are what helped turn Netflix into a behemoth — siphoning viewers from the traditional networks, which want to remain relevant and offer their own modern, digital platforms. Also, executives like FX’s John Landgraf have warned that Netflix is aiming to become the entire TV ecosystem — and if rival brands don’t reassert their own existence, it becomes more possible that viewers will eventually consider “TV” and “Netflix” to be synonymous.

“What we started noticing is there became a lot of consumer confusion in terms of what shows were produced where,” said Rick Haskins, executive VP for marketing and digital programs at The CW. “Especially on a show like ‘Riverdale,’ which a lot of people discovered on Netflix, but didn’t actually know it was a CW show. The dilemma we face is, how do we let people know that it’s a CW show and that when we go into a new season, we’re the only ones that are going to have new episodes? We love Netflix, and the Netflix deal works for us really well. But by the same token, we want our consumer to know that there are new episodes on The CW — and that they should watch on The CW.”

Network branding as seen at the top of NBC, ABC, The CW and Fox seriesNBC/ABC/CW/Fox

It’s not a new practice. Cable networks, which air a lot of broadcast network repeats, have long included messages at the start of their first-run shows identifying them as “AMC Originals” or “FX Presents.”

Until recently, broadcast networks didn’t feel the same need to brand their shows. Now, Fox has added its name to some shows’ opening credits (“Fox Presents ‘Empire'”) and ABC’s in-house programs all open with the tagline “An ABC Studios Production.”

“Having gone away from network branding for so long because of the importance of the program, I think the circle is coming back,” said CBS Marketing Group president George Schweitzer. “The No. 1 place we found this to be a driving force and important is in streaming and VOD. We started a couple of years ago with all of our VOD, ‘you’re watching so-and-so on CBS On Demand.’ We moved it over to streaming. The branding is important on streaming because you’re not watching a linear network there. When you’re recording something, you’re not watching linear either.”

Adding to the confusion: Netflix often buys exclusive international rights to shows that air on a U.S. network, and calls it a “Netflix Original” overseas. Some of that messaging bleeds over into the United States. “Riverdale,” for example, is branded a “Netflix Original” in the rest of the world — and anyone who types “Riverdale Netflix” into a search engine may see that branding, with The CW nowhere to be found.

“On Facebook, you can geofilter on a country-by-country basis, but on Instagram you really can’t,” Haskins said. “So the actors a lot of times will say, ‘Be sure to watch us on The CW and Netflix.’ They have to do that to get the word out worldwide that the show is on the air. And so that does cause some consumer confusion. It is the new world, and something we have to accept.”

Haskins said it required “thousands of hours” of negotiation, but as part of its programming deal with Netflix, The CW is allowed to flash its logo before every episode of its shows on the streaming service in the U.S. That’s a rare feat — ABC also is able to run its logo before episodes of its Shonda Rhimes-produced dramas and Marvel TV shows on Netflix.

But others haven’t struck a similar deal. That’s why viewers watching “The Good Place” on Netflix don’t see a single Peacock or “NBC” mention anywhere.

“Not all the streamers go along with that,” Schweitzer said. “We’ve had that issue with some of the streamers in the tiles.”

Netflix show tilesNetflix

Ah, the tiles — the checkerboard of postage stamp-size program identifiers that are a key way that viewers select what to watch on a streaming platform.

“You’re on a grid with 30 other tiles for shows and you’ve got to get picked out — man, try designing for that!” Schweitzer said. “We put our logo on most of these, and some of the streaming companies don’t like that.”

The Netflix interface doesn’t help that confusion. If a “Riverdale” tile is surrounded by Netflix originals like “Stranger Things” and “13 Reasons Why” on a user’s homepage, there’s no reason not to consider “Riverdale” a Netflix original as well, especially since it doesn’t have The CW logo attached.

Indeed, a quick glance at one Netflix home page shows very little continuity when it comes to which networks get to include their logo next to a show title, and which ones don’t. Netflix, of course, will put its name next to every one of its originals. But acquired series are a grab bag: NBC’s logo isn’t on “The Good Place” tile, yet it managed to get its Peacock logo on the tile for “The Office.” AMC has its logo on “Better Call Saul,” but USA Network doesn’t have its logo on “The Sinner.”

Netflix show tilesNetflix

“Those tiles, who knew that they were going to be so important, right?” said Haskins. “It’s a fight for the tile. On their side, I think that a lot of times the other platforms may not care if it’s a CW show. But we do. We want our audience to know and I think we’ve built up enough brand equity that being a CW show means something. And I think it’s important for new shows that people discover that it’s got that CW magic — and they’re probably going to want to tune in more, or want to run away from it faster.”

Logos like the CBS eye and the NBC peacock have the benefit of decades of brand awareness. “We know from our research that there is an incredible positive association with the peacock that actually has a halo effect on our new content, so these branding efforts are really twofold,” Hayes said. “One is certainly to get credit for all the great shows we’re putting out there right now, but also it’s a way to say to fans — ‘Hey, give this new show a shot. We have a pretty good track record with these things.'”

However, Schweitzer still believes that ultimately it’s the show’s brand that matters most. “Netflix is a supermarket,” he said. “You go down the aisle, see something you like and grab it… The source of where it comes from is a matter of trust and a matter of identification. But no one is saying, ‘What is on ABC or NBC or CBS tonight?’ They’re saying, ‘When is Murphy Brown on?'”

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