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Is Netflix recreating the old broadcast TV network?

October 16, 2020, 2:10 PM UTC

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Good morning Data Sheet readers. We’re starting on our new schedule. I’ll write the entire newsletter on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from now on. Robert Hackett will switch to Tuesday and our West Coast colleague Danielle Abril will take over on Thursday. Enjoy!

If you reach page 1,168 of Harlot’s Ghost, the very last page of Norman Mailer’s rollicking faux history of the CIA, the story doesn’t quite finish. “TO BE CONTINUED,” it says. That was 1991 and Mailer, who died in 2007, never published the sequel, leaving readers frustrated.

But what if the author, or the auteur as we say in the case of TV and movies, does have an ending, but the publisher or the network has other plans?

Lately, Netflix has made news over early cancellations, in some cases drawing protest from the auteurs and actors involved. “No more GLOW. Sorry. Stinks,” actor Marc Maron tweeted the other day when Netflix dropped the award-winning show about 1980s female wrestlers. Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have said they had “hundreds of ideas” for continuing the story. In the past year or so, Netflix also axed The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, Altered Carbon, and many more—two dozen in all. That’s sparked fan protests, calls for moves to other networks, and concern over loss of representation, given many of the lost shows featured women, LGBTQ+ people, or people of color in the lead.

It’s an age-old drama in Hollywood. The age of streaming has put a new twist on finishing unfinished stories, however. When Comcast’s Syfy network cancelled The Expanse a few years ago, Amazon swooped up the still-running space opera for more seasons. Arrested Development, Lucifer, and Designated Survivor are among shows that Netflix has saved from another network’s trash bin.

Now Netflix’s cancellations are a sign of changes at the streaming leader.

Seven years ago, when Netflix had only 30 million subscribers worldwide, its then-head of content Ted Sarandos famously crystalized the company’s goal: “to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” That meant taking chances on risky fare and giving the auteurs freedom—and big budgets. HBO rarely cancelled anything after one or two seasons and, for years, Netflix followed suit. Sarandos let one of his early hits, House of Cards, finish its sixth and final season even after its star Kevin Spacey got fired.

Sarandos’s quippy strategy turned out absolutely correct. Netflix caught up to HBO and now, with almost 200 million subscribers, has far surpassed it.

Sarandos is co-CEO now, and his emphasis has clearly changed. It’s one thing to attract tens of millions of viewers with niche-y shows. But now Netflix is aiming for an audience of hundreds of millions. And it’s looking more and more like one of the big networks from the pre-cable TV landscape, when shows needed big names and broad appeal and those that didn’t rate well could get axed at any time. Even after airing just one episode. (AT&T seems to have similar goals for broadening HBO itself, with the streaming version rebranded as HBO Max and now rerunning Friends and The Office.)

That may be a shame for fans. But so many smaller services are picking up the mantle. It’s a good bet that Apple TV+ or another rival can become the new “old Netflix.” And that would be a very good thing.

***

Fortune has been upping its podcast game and the latest can’t-miss episode is from my colleagues Michal Lev-Ram and Brian O’Keefe exploring how tech companies are trying to bring innovation to the fight against California wildfires.

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Love to hear the robin go tweet tweet tweet. The magic of A.I. continues to impress. News out of the Googleplex on Thursday that the search giant has figured out a way to identify songs that people can only hum or whistle for 10 to 15 seconds. People already ask Google to identify 100 million songs a month the old-fashioned way, by having the service hear the actual music playing.

Clean up on aisle four. As Danielle noted yesterday, the social networks still struggle to police themselves and stop toxic filth from spreading. The same week that Twitter and Facebook decided Holocaust deniers should be banned, Google's YouTube followed Facebook in banning videos promoting deranged conspiracy theories like QAnon. But self-policing may only last for so long. After Twitter and Facebook initially limited the spread of a dubiously sourced New York Post story, Republican lawmakers renewed their attacks on the companies Thursday. And Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai announced that he would take up the president's call to narrow the legal protections for social networks in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Inspiration or duplication. The knock on Peloton's business model is that it's just peddling a lot of hype and overpriced exercise equipment. If so, then why is the parent of rival NordicTrack suing for patent infringement on Peloton's new bike? Icon Health & Fitness accuses Peloton of building its "entire businesses on the back of Icon’s patented technology.” Oh yeah, Peloton also sued Icon in May over patents related to showing pre-recorded classes.

Not the good kind of bookworm. Hackers stole customer data from Barnes & Noble including billing and email addresses as well as order history. Payment information was not accessed, the bookseller said. The incident forced B&N to take many systems offline, including its Nook e-book service. Software mogul Robert Brockman may be going offline for a while, too. Federal prosecutors charged Brockman, who made a fortune selling apps to car dealerships, with evading taxes on $2 billion of income—the biggest tax evasion case ever. Brockman pled not guilty.

Take a picture if you can. In gadgetland, Fujifilm unveiled a new camera aimed at vloggers. The $1,000 X-S10 is a lot less retro in design than most of Fuji's prior models and has a fully articulating rear screen. Thursday was also the review embargo date for Google's new Pixel 5 phone. CNET's Lynn La loved the Pixel's camera but found the phone overpriced. Michael Fisher, aka MrMobile on YouTube, liked it more. Also, it's iPhone 12 pre-order day if that's your bag.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The U.S. military has long used complex unmanned aircraft in combat, but simpler and cheaper drones are proliferating across battlefields all over the world. In a piece for NBC News, military writer Sébastien Roblin outlines the risks from the unchecked spread of combat drones.

In short, drones are giving smaller countries affordable ways to project force with greater lethality at lower risk. And that is likely to tempt many countries to resort to force more often if the United States' rampant use of drones to assassinate "high-value targets" is anything to go by.

And there are other places beyond Nagorno-Karabakh where long-standing "frozen" conflicts might be reawakened if one side obtains what it perceives as game-changing drone capabilities. Countries with outstanding border conflicts like India, Pakistan, Serbia and Ukraine are all purchasing attack drones.

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few great long reads I came across this week:

This spacecraft is being readied for a one-way mission to deflect an asteroid (MIT Technology Review)
Can slamming into a space rock at 15,000 miles per hour prevent it from hitting Earth? The DART mission aims to find out.

The rise and rise of creativity (Aeon)
Once seen as the work of genius, how did creativity become an engine of economic growth and a corporate imperative?

The Making of My Octopus Teacher (Sea Change Project)
My Octopus Teacher follows the story of the year Craig Foster spent with a wild octopus. It was created by the Sea Change Project and showcases the Great African Seaforest.

The life and death of SNET, Havana’s alternative internet (Rest of World)
As Cuba sluggishly got its population online, the shadow internet developed by volunteers provided a lifeline for thousands of people.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Google makes finding voting locations easier By Danielle Abril

How fast will Apple’s new 5G iPhones be? By Aaron Pressman

The polls are wrong. The U.S. presidential race is a near dead heat, this A.I. ‘sentiment analysis’ tool says By Jeremy Kahn

Influencers beware: The U.K. is cracking down on undisclosed Instagram shilling By David Meyer

Russian and Chinese spacecrafts could collide in space junk super-spreader By Robert Hackett

COVID could reinvent how we go to the movies By Austin Bunn

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

Drones have many benign and positive uses, too. Siena Awards announced its annual drone photography awards and the winners are beautiful. Check out the shark in the "heart" and this very geometric wedding party. Have a great weekend.