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What 'Orange is the New Black' and Netflix original programming tell us about the future of TV

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JUNE 15, 2014

Viewers and critics of the second season of “Orange is the New Black” have been singing the show’s praises so loudly that they’re practically shouting — and with good reason.

The second season of the Netflix original series is just as boisterous and keenly penetrating as the first. Both seasons of the dramedy should be lauded for their standout ensemble cast and dedication to nuanced, thoughtful depictions of incarcerated women. In “Orange is the New Black,” these women are predominantly women of color, queer women and elderly women — women whose lived experiences are rarely, if ever, represented onscreen.

While protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) has garnered criticism for her tendency to oscillate between latent white guilt and full-frontal white savior syndrome, it is important to acknowledge that the business of confronting one’s privilege is an uncomfortable one. Witnessing Piper’s missteps is a similarly excruciating process and underscores the fact that we are supposed to (love to) hate her. Piper, shrouded in her sense of entitlement, is an antihero — a privilege rarely afforded to leading ladies.

In an interview with NPR, creator Jenji Kohan concedes that Piper is her “Trojan horse.” When she pitched the series to networks, Kohan used Piper as the point of entry for a series in which “fascinating tales of black women and Latina women and old women and criminals” are the true focal point. That such industrial maneuvering was required to produce a show like “Orange is the New Black,” is appalling, but the fact remains: The second season is here and people are watching it.

Just how many people are watching it remains a mystery, as Netflix refuses to release viewership numbers. Netflix’s silence on matters of viewership resonates loudly — it is one of many strategies that differentiates the company from its premium cable channel competitors. In this way, “Orange is the New Black” is remarkable both for the content it provides and for the glimpse it offers into the future of television. It’s as if the entire cohort of Netflix original programming is perched atop the precipice of a changing media landscape.

Don’t forget, Netflix wasn’t always in the business of original programming. The company was founded in 1997 and debuted its mail-order subscription package in 1999. Streaming services for television programs and films were only introduced in 2007. Netflix’s lineup of original series is merely the company’s most recent, and radical, endeavor.

By bypassing cable network gatekeepers, Netflix has guaranteed that its programming will never be beholden to advertising dollars, cable ratings or network time slots. Netflix releases the seasons of its series in their entirety, effectively short-circuiting the usual promotional fanfare and speculation that accompany weekly broadcasts and explicitly facilitating the sort of binge-watching that viewers have already engaged in for years.

Even without viewership data, Netflix’s success is obvious, but its motivations are more mystifying. By offering original content, the company may be trying to retain existing customers, bait new subscribers, offset studio licensing fees or distinguish itself from other media streaming services. It is most likely, however, that Netflix isn’t trying to set itself apart from obvious competitors, such as Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus, at all. In building a library of original content, Netflix seems intent on rivaling the network behemoths of premium cable, including HBO, Showtime and Starz.

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, admitted as much when he hinted at the company’s long-term trajectory in an interview with GQ. “[Netflix’s] goal,” he explains, “is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

As of now, Netflix isn’t HBO. But like Red and her kitchen or Morello and her Christopher, Netflix knows what it wants — and it’s well on its way to getting it.

Contact Sarah Adler at [email protected].

JUNE 16, 2014

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