As Vulture’s Gazelle Emami put it, “TV, as a form, is constantly in flux,” and there is no better example of the rapid change in the production and distribution of content then HBO’s High Maintenance. High Maintenance doesn’t only mark the arrival of the short film on television, but also is a first mover in a trend that we are going to see accelerate in the next few years; shows originating from content and personalities that already have a mobile presence through webisodes, vlogs, YouTube and other video sharing platforms.
The success of High Maintenance has led to more opportunities for indie filmmakers on television, evidenced by Joe Swanbers’ upcoming series on Netflix, and the Duplass brothers’ series on HBO. Last year’s premiere of HBO’s High Maintenance was the first on TV, but is the seventh overall. The show began as a Vimeo web series in 2012 and was later funded by Vimeo, receiving the title as “the greatest show not on television.”
High Maintenance’s co-creator Katja Blichfield said the idea “was just us throwing something at the wall to see if it stuck,” in an interview discussing short films on television. The show cut through the clutter of low-budget webisodes with low production value and immediately “stuck” because of its well-thought out plot development and impressive production. As a result, the show’s first season was regarded by some critics as one of the best shows… on television. Not only has the show’s success spawned similar orders from cable networks, it has served as a catalyst for relatively unknown creators to have creative authority over their work.
It’s no secret in the media industry that traditional cable networks are under pressure as their brand strength is weaning in an increasingly fragmented media landscape where people watch shows, not networks. The traditional cable bundle has been slowly losing its appeal among price sensitive consumers who want a tailored entertainment experience which has resulted in significant subscriber loses (8M last year). As “skinny” bundles and a-la-carte internet-pay-tv packages continue to gain favor, network license fees will continue to decline. I don’t believe that the cable bundle will dissipate in the next 10 or even 50 years, as bundled services, regardless of industry, deliver higher value than a-la-carte offerings – but the threat is real and networks are increasingly making riskier bets with their production and distribution strategy.
As technology and media continue to converge, technology companies are becoming media companies (Amazon, Apple) and traditional media companies are becoming tech companies. Legacy media companies are building out robust digital platforms, utilizing targeted advertising and investing in AI and machine learning to fuel expensive recommendation systems (Netflix values their recommendation system north of $1 Billion). Networks have been forced to be more creative and innovative in their approach to original content as streaming behemoths with deep pockets continue to take bigger risks without the repercussions that traditional, linear TV networks face.
Though High Maintenance’s structure may seem odd or even futuristic for a linear cable network, presenting vignettes of indifferent length, ranging from the time of a YouTube clip to a standard sitcom, it will become commonplace. Networks need to capture Millennials, and more specifically Gen Y viewers who are used to and will continue to grow up in a digitally fragmented world. In the past two years, we’ve see cross-platform distribution and viewing become commonplace. I believe the content creation will follow the distribution model as the distinction between short form and long form creators, producers, and actors will continue to dissipate as the importance of digital influencers will allow traditional networks to stay prominent and age with the next generation of viewers.