Thursday, May 23, 2024

Netflix is rebuilding the cable bundle, but there’s one conspicuous topic it is avoiding | CNN Business

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New York

Netflix is rebuilding the cable bundle, sans one important ingredient: news.

The company, having blown up the decades-old linear television business and ushered in the costly and destabilizing era of streaming, is inching closer and closer to resembling the entertainment behemoths of yesteryear.

Netflix has added advertisements to its plans, a move it initially resisted for several years, touting more than 40 million subscribers to the ad-supported tier on Wednesday. It has added live late-night comedy, most recently with the roast of Tom Brady and John Mulaney’s “Everybody’s In L.A.” And it has made great strides into the live-sports arena, despite public statements asserting it does not wish to wade far into such waters.

On Wednesday, the streaming giant announced that it had struck a groundbreaking deal with the NFL to broadcast not one, but two games on Christmas Day this year. Those games add to the company’s ever-growing portfolio of live-sports offerings, including WWE “Raw,” which will air exclusively on the platform starting next year.

“Last year, we decided to take a big bet on live — tapping into massive fandoms across comedy, reality TV, sports and more,” Bela Bajaria, Netflix chief content officer, said in a statement explaining the decision.

Notably absent from Bajaria’s statement and the company’s programming strategy, however, is news. Netflix has shown little-to-no interest in investing in either live-news or pre-taped programming (a la, a show akin to “Vice News Tonight” or “60 Minutes”). To date, it has neither publicly discussed nor launched any such projects. And in conversations with talent agents, it has made clear that the streamer has no interest in even dabbling in the news business.

“The entertainment platforms are not interested in news,” one talent agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me. “Their audiences don’t want it and it can be polarizing. It’s just not worth it for them.”

In actively avoiding the news, Netflix joins Meta as a pioneering technology and media company that has upended the business models news organizations have relied on for decades, only to turn its back on the industry.

To be fair to these companies, there are plenty of business reasons to avoid dabbling in the news. First, news reporting is simply not as popular as entertainment content. Second, and perhaps more importantly for these companies, news has become incredibly polarizing in recent years.

Simply stating that the 2020 presidential election was not stolen — a proven fact — alienates Republicans. That polarizing factor means that not only is it more difficult to sell advertisements around the content, but that by carrying such programming, there is a chance a swath of the customer base will be turned off by the brand and motivated to unsubscribe.

Which is all to say that Netflix investing in news programming would translate into spending money on content that is not as popular as other genres, but far more risky to the overall business. From a purely business standpoint, avoiding that type of programming make sense.

Of course, the counterargument is that these companies perhaps have a civic responsibility to invest in news and public affairs programming — especially since they contributed greatly to the destruction of the business model that had supported television newsrooms for so long. Journalists are crucial to thriving democracies and the hollowing out of the news industry has vast implications for the future of the free world.

It’s anything but unprecedented for large media companies to invest money in journalism. Warner Bros. Discovery has CNN. Comcast has NBC News. Disney has ABC News. Paramount has CBS News. The list goes on. And, back when cable was ascendant and disruptive, as Netflix is today, the major carriers financed the birth of C-SPAN, offering the public a continuous feed of its government at work. So, is it really out of the question to wonder whether a streamer like Netflix should consider a similar move to offer news programming that informs and enriches the public?

Rebuilding the traditional cable package without news is akin to putting together a meal that includes steak, potatoes and ice cream, but not the broccoli. The vegetables might not be the tastiest, most popular item on the menu, but neglecting them would not be healthy. Likewise, only investing in comedy and sports might be more satisfying for its audience, but it certainly isn’t a healthy choice for society.

That is the destination, though, where the current decisions are leading. And as the streaming revolution continues to take the wind out of the traditional cable bundle by poaching the rights to live sports, the once-towering television news outlets will be further diminished, turning the situation even more dire.

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