Data, Strategy and Content Thoughts on the Flops, Bombs and Misses From the First Half of 2023

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(Welcome to the Entertainment Strategy Guy, a newsletter on the entertainment industry and business strategy. I write a weekly Streaming Ratings Report and a bi-weekly strategy column, along with occasional deep dives into other topics, like today’s article. Please subscribe.)

As I wrote in the intro to my deep dive on the film flops so far this year, there’s no real point to this whole exercise—figuring out what films and TV shows underperformed on streaming—if you don’t try to draw any conclusions from it.

Two weeks ago, we collected the data. This week, we analyze it. Last week, for The Ankler, I looked at two specific “genres”: sports docs-series and basketball shows and films. Today, we go further. So far, a few strategy lessons have emerged:

  • Don’t overpay for content!
  • Don’t just make the same types of shows that Netflix makes.
  • Don’t take development meetings with celebrities.
  • We’re still in a streaming bubble.

Today, I want to explore those trends, looking at four different types of streaming content. And then I’ve got some quick hit strategy thoughts on the streamers. 

Before we get to all that, I have some corrections from last week’s articles:

  • I wrote that American Born Chinese was based off Marvel IP. It was not. That said, it was based on a graphic novel that won just about every comic book/graphic novel award out there so…it’s still a big deal comic book from a big deal comic book writer. 
  • Also, regarding the Academy of Country Music Awards on Prime Video, I was sent this article from Billboard which argues that the ratings for the show were up significantly from last year. And while I don’t really doubt that, I’d remind everyone that “growth” is not the goal, but viewership. I’d add, digging into the ACMs, they’re produced by Dick Clark Productions, a company owned by Penske Media. In fact, Billboard is owned by Penske too. But get this: the data used by Billboard is from Luminate…a data company that’s also owned by Penske. So you have a news outlet publishing an article about how successful an awards show produced by its own company was…using data from that same company!

Four Thoughts on Streaming Content After Analyzing the “Misses” of 2023 So Far

Before we get into everything, a brief admission. While I try to collect every notable title, invariably I miss some, which means that when I review all the types of shows that missed the ratings, I may forget or miss a title. Consider this the “floor” not the “ceiling” for these genres. I’d add that, while I just collected the data for the last half of the year, some of these thoughts are informed by data going back a few years now.

The Vast Majority of Stand Up Specials Don’t Make the Viewership Charts

So far, this year, almost every standup special that came out on a streamer didn’t make the charts. Here’s what that looks like:

What does that look like in terms of ratings? Well, since only two standup specials made the charts this year, it looks like this:

Which brings us to the million dollar question: is this a good hit rate? Is this genre working? 

Probably not, with some caveats: standup specials tend to be short! Usually about an hour. So they’re competing with Original TV shows on the Nielsen charts that are five to ten episodes long. Perhaps if the weekly Nielsen charts were fifteen or twenty titles long, we might see more standup specials, but not that many more.

Still, this excuse doesn’t really justify this investment either, because I think a lot of these standup comedians get big, big paychecks for these specials. 

The weirdest part about standup specials and their proliferation on streaming is that this isn’t some data-driven, “algorithm”-fueled rage; it’s a personal, human-led decision. Ted Sarandos loves standup comedy, so he invested heavily in it. Often times, in life, things feel inevitable when they’re actually the result of quirky decisions by eccentric humans. And that makes the decision by a few other streamers to copy the (expensive) Netflix strategy only more perplexing.

All that said, I have a somewhat unique take: if I were running a streamer, I might invest in standup specials! This could work…I’d just do it completely differently. 

More and more, I have a thesis that streamers needs to make shows that used to work on cable TV. In this case, we know exactly what standup looked like on cable TV. On one end of the spectrum, there were the buzzy HBO specials starring big name comedians…and on the other end, there was Comedy Central, who used to film half-hour comedy specials with (cheaper, more affordable) standup comedians who needed their “break”. 

Right now, every streamer is trying to be HBO; no one is trying to be Comedy Central, including Paramount+, which actually owns Comedy Central!

Back in the day, Comedy Central could make these standup specials at a reasonable cost while comedians launched their career, usually being able to tour across the country after they appeared in their own special or appeared on a variety program, usually hosted by someone famous or semi-famous, with four or five other comedians. And yeah, Comedy Central made tons and tons of these shows. Netflix has tried this (sort of) but in a classic Netflix way; their half-hour comedy show, The Standups, is binge-released and has only put out 18 episodes in six years. 

For the cost of one mega-headliner, you could probably film twenty or more half-hour specials. (Which also gives struggling, up-and-coming comedians a big break, something already-famous and mostly-rich standup comedians don’t actually need.)

Celebrity Travel Docs Aren’t Working

One of the weirdest subgenres I started noticing this year was the “celebrity travel show”. Shows like Peacock’s Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss or Apple TV+’s The Reluctant Traveler, starring Eugene Levy. Of course, both seem inspired by Netflix’s Down to Earth With Zac Efron (which was on Netflix, moved to the CW, and got pulled after two episodes). 

But there’s a whole host of celebrity-focused reality shows and docu-series, like Max’s What Am I Eating? With Zooey Deschanel, Downey’s Dream Cars or SmartLess: On the Road. Hulu has Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi and Planet Sex With Cara Delevingne. Disney+ has Rennervations and Prime Video had Clarkson’s Farm. Netflix had a docu-series, Working: What We Do All Day, starring Barack Obama!

And these are just shows that had new episodes in 2023. There’ve been a bunch of celebrity shows on the streamers. Selena Gomez had a cooking show on HBO Max; the Wahlberg’s had one too. Chris Hemsworth had a Disney+ show, and so did David Beckham. Prime Video had James May: Our Main in Italy.

Like standup specials, I’m really skeptical about this content. Not one of these shows made the ratings charts, and what data points we do have is bad: the CW pulled Down to Earth With Zac Efron after two episodes, and Disney+ removed The World According to Jeff Goldblum from Disney+ in June. 

But since they all feature famous celebrities, including some mega-celebrities, they don’t seem cheap! Even their filming-style often seems top notch, ie, expensive. (Again, compare this to basic cable channel fare, like what’s on Discovery or NatGeo.)

I get why this happens and—like standup specials—it’s not data-driven, but relationship-driven. You know who can get into the door of any streamer? A celebrity. They can get meetings with anyone! (Especially if they’re attractive or funny, which sort of describes every celebrity above.)

As I wrote for The Ankler last week, the same thing explains all of these basketball TV shows and films. The streamers made a TON of basketball shows and films compared to, say, football or baseball. Why? Well, over the past decade, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and other mega-star NBA players, flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in NBA salaries and endorsement deal, decided that Hollywood production companies were 21st century way to invest/throw away money, like restaurants were on a smaller scale in the 20th century.

And if you’re a development exec of a certain age and profile (male, coastal elite in his 20s-30s) chances are, like me, you love basketball. (This isn’t even speculation. I’ve worked in Hollywood; it’s just true.) And then you get a chance to meet with Steph, KD or LeBron? Who isn’t taking that meeting? And who’s not trying to convince their boss to greenlight this show so they can keep meeting with them?

What’s odd, in this era that’s so allegedly “obsessed” with data, moneyball analytics, and algorithms, a very personal explanation explains this entire thing. Hollywood is still built on relationships.

I’d argue celebrity travel documentaries suffer from the same thing. What’s cooler, a documentary starring the next Huell Howser or Rick Steves…or one with Chris Hemsworth? The latter. So instead of starring unknowns, travel docs now star famous celebrities. Because it’s more fun to be in the room with them.

True Crime Docs Have a Lot of Hits and Misses

The rest of this article is for paid subscribers of the Entertainment Strategy Guy, so if you want to know…

  • My thoughts on the true crime genre
  • Take a look at kids content on streaming.
  • Read my brief take on each streamer’s performance this year so far
  • And more…

Please subscribe. We can only do this work with your support.

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

Former strategy and business development guy at a major streaming company. But I like writing more than sending email, so I launched this website to share what I know.


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