Promoting Your TV Show In The Age Of Netflix

(Update: this piece has gotten a lot of attention since it posted. I've made one factual correction, which you'll note below. And I want to remind readers that this is my experience & that you should be careful about using this as some basis to extrapolate data about Netflix's overall publicity efforts)

I have been bullish on Netflix for a long, long time. I interviewed Reed Hastings in 1999 for a now-defunct financial news web site and at the time I was struck by his vision of the future. Even in the company's earliest years, he was already thinking about what Netflix would look like in the digital era. At a time when his company's business was entirely based on DVDs & most people still had dial-up internet accounts, Hastings talked about a future in which Netflix would deliver titles online. Which in 1999 seemed to be about as likely a scenario as the existence of a refrigerator that emails you when you need to buy eggs.

But for all of the things I think they do right, I've always been frustrated with how they promote their original programs. Netflix has some passionate, knowledgeable and helpful publicists. But the overall promotional strategy for the company seems to be that except for a few, high-profile projects, it's more important to promote the service than any individual program.

That's why I was not at all surprised when Netflix recently announced it was letting about 15 marketing people go in the company's L.A. offices. In the Variety story, a Netflix source admitted that the move was part of an effort to shift promotional focus to the overall Netflix brand:

The company will continue to promote individual shows as part of its greater marketing initiatives to promote the whole service.

In theory, I understand the reasoning behind the shift. With entire seasons of shows being released in one drop, spending time on any one show might seem like a waste of resources. Especially at a time when Netflix releases multiple new shows in one week (and often, one day). And to be fair, even broadcast networks end up doing triage when it comes to promoting its new shows. More than once, I've tried to get help from a show publicist & quickly realized that the network was already cutting its losses.

But Netflix's reluctance to promote all of its original programming has a couple of unrelated but important impacts on the way critics cover its shows as well as any individual show's ability to grab enough viewers to get the order for another season.

From a TV critic's point of view, trying to get even basic information about many shows is damn near impossible. Netflix sends out emails highlighting higher-profile shows and oftentimes review screeners are available. But it's common to only get 3-4 episodes of the 8-10 episode season. It's also common for reviews to have an embargo that doesn't lift until the show actually hits Netflix. Which leaves critics with the option of posting a review of a partial season when the viewers have access to the entire thing. Or screen the episodes we get ahead of time & then quickly watch the remaining episodes and post a review.

To be honest, while those restrictions are unwieldy at times, the biggest issue for me is the number of shows that hit Netflix with little or no promotional efforts whatsoever. Take, for example, the recent documentary series "Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak." The series is a great look at viral pandemics & given that it came out the week the Chinese coronavirus outbreak hit the news, the show should have gotten tons of attention. But there's nothing about the show on the Netflix media website & apparently no one received an early look at the show, since every review I could find was written after it premiered (here's my review, if you are interested). Providing at least some promotion for the series seems like a dunk shot, but it's just another show that came and went before most Netflix users discovered it. (Correction: It's been pointed out to me that there is indeed info on the Netflix media site for Pandemic, although I did search for it several times. I apologize for the mistake. But I do stand by my larger point.)

And that is often the case for mid-tier original shows premiering on Netflix. You have to scramble to track down screeners, and even if you get one there is often little or no cast and crew information. Photos have no credits on them and even when the show has a page on the Netflix media site, there is increasingly only a generic email contact.

This might all sound like inside baseball whining. But I WANT to promote these shows. I want to highlight the best of them and surface some great smaller projects. And oftentimes it's a near-impossible task. My inconvenience is real, but that's not the real issue. Netflix often seems to have more faith in its internal ability to push programs over most external promotion. And we have no metrics from the outside that would support or disprove that theory.

What is true is that an increasing number of producers and outside studios feel as if they have to hire outside promotional help when their show launches. Probably 75% of the Netflix shows I've covered in the past few months have hired outside PR help. And I frequently hear from those publicists that their efforts to work with Netflix publicists on their show is beyond frustrating. (Note: I've seen some other journalists tweeting this 75% figure around as if it was the results of some in-depth study. This is just my experience & YMMV)

Netflix PR people will likely consider this all a bunch of whining from a smaller individual web site. Fair enough, believe what you want. But Netflix is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on production deals in order to grab the hottest creative talent. And a fair amount of that effort is going to be wasted if the Hollywood community begins to believe that the creative freedom offered by Netflix is more than offset by the service's haphazard promotional efforts. Hiring an outside PR firm to promote your show shouldn't be the default approach on any network or streaming service. The fact that so many producers believe it's an essential expense is a failing of Netflix and it's not one they seem to be interested in addressing right now.

I am not one of the television critics or industry experts who believe releasing an entire season for binging at one time is a bad idea. But I do believe that covering and promoting bingeable television requires some new skill sets and approaches. And for all of its expertise, Netflix still hasn't figured out the most effective method to adequately promote all of its billions of dollars a year of new programs.