For a company that has expressed no interest in sports, Netflix Inc. is starting to offer quite a lot of them. It’s the unofficial home of Formula One, and, as of this week, both the PGA Tour and professional tennis.
Netflix isn’t airing any live matches of these sports, mind you. It offers documentary series that take viewers behind the scenes months after we know the official results. In Formula One, that means seeing how all the drivers and team bosses talk about their podiums and crashes. In tennis, that could mean seeing the current Novak Djokovic vaccine drama play out from the eyes of his competitors.
Sports documentaries aren’t a brand new category for Netflix. It released the first season of “Last Chance U,” about college football, back in 2016. “Sunderland Til I Die,” about a struggling English soccer team, debuted in late 2018. But nobody in major sports leagues paid Netflix much attention until “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” which first appeared in March 2018.
That show catalyzed Netflix’s interest in sports documentaries – and sports leagues interest in Netflix. “The first season helped the show reach core fans, but the audience of the show has ballooned over the past couple years,” Brandon Riegg, Netflix’s head of unscripted programming and documentaries, told me this past week.
“Drive to Survive” came about after Liberty Media bought Formula One and tried to broaden the sport’s appeal. Long popular across Europe and some other pockets of the world, Liberty thought it could be a hit in the U.S. as well.
It took a couple seasons of the show to prove that thesis, but they were right. Formula One TV ratings climbed about about 40% in the U.S. since the debut of “Drive to Survive.” Ratings for the sport have also climbed outside the U.S., which surprised both Netflix and the league.
“With tennis and golf, the leagues took notice of the ‘Drive to Survive’ effect,” Riegg said. “We were recruiting folks who’d never watched sports or never watched Formula One.”
The PGA Tour had agreed to make a documentary series with Vox, and they approached Netflix about releasing the show. The tennis tours had approached the production company Box to Box, run by Paul Martin and James Gay-Rees. Box to Box produces “Drive to Survive” for Netflix, and brought the tennis project to the streaming giant.
(Box to Box is also producing another sports documentary about the World Surfing League. Netflix lost out on that one to Apple.)
These sports all share attributes. They have global appeal with athletes from all over the world. The best male tennis players are primarily European. The best female tennis players hail from all over. The best golfers, though largely American, are not exclusively so.
They are niche sports relative to football, basketball or soccer, which could be a blessing in disguise. The characters and stories aren’t quite as well-known, which makes the job of a producer just a little bit easier. There haven’t already been loads of documentaries about Ashleigh Barty. (She’s the top-ranked tennis player in the world.) It also means that the sports leagues are willing to cede a little more control. The producers have final cut on the projects – not the leagues.
But the real selling point for the docuseries may be the cost. Netflix has always cited cost as a big reason it doesn’t want to offer live sports. The company can make dozens of docuseries for less than it would cost to show a single season of games from a sport like the NFL.
These shows can also live forever. “How long has ‘Inside the NFL’ been going on? Or ‘Inside the NBA?’,” Rieggs said. “We’re trying to build that same virtuous cycle.”
Netflix has ever so slightly adjusted its public posture on live sports of late. It used to say no way Jose. Now it says it would be interested if it could acquire global rights and be the exclusive home of a given sport around the world.
Co-founder Reed Hastings left the door open to buying the rights to a sport like Formula One. Netflix also held talks with the WWE about international rights the last time those were available. Those talks didn’t lead to a deal, but it’s hard not to believe that sports is somewhere in the future. Maybe not this year. Maybe not next year. But five years?
“We’ve been very consistent and public about not getting into live sports,” Riegg told me. “That said, sports is a huge category. Part of our remit is to serve as many audiences as we can. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t accommodating something in the sports space.”
Should Netflix ever decide it wants to show live sports, these series are the best proof point that it can deliver eyeballs. – Lucas Shaw
The best of Screentime (and other stuff)
- Interscope at 30: A Chat With Jimmy Iovine and John Janick about the future of art
Iovine and Janick convinced dozens of artistic greats to make pieces inspired by albums and songs from the Interscope catalog.
- Novak Djokovic is a profile in selfishness, and sports leaders are failing us all
Howard Bryant writes the definitive take on the state of vaccines in sports.
- Netflix Needs New Subscribers. Its Korean Playbook Is Its Secret Weapon.
An inside look at how Netflix cracked South Korea, one of its most important markets in the world’s largest region.
- Why Brian Cox Wasn’t in Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean, and ‘Harry f-cking Potter’
The “Succession” star dishes on Edward Norton, Spike Lee and Johnny Depp in an excerpt from his new memoir.
- America Is Running Out of Everything
Derek Thompson offers a new pitch for solving mask shortages, rising housing prices and college debt: the abundance agenda.
Is this the end for OAN?
DirecTV is dropping OAN, a major blow to the right-wing TV network that’s been criticized for spreading misinformation. Here’s more from Gerry Smith, who broke the news Friday:
DirecTV is OAN’s largest TV distributor by far, so its decision to drop the channel from its lineup is a big deal. OAN relied heavily on millions of DirecTV customers paying for it, whether they watched its programming or not. In 2020, an OAN lawyer said in court that if the channel’s DirecTV contract ended, “the company would go out of business tomorrow,” Reuters has reported.
DirecTV hasn’t publicly said why it’s dropping OAN. The channel isn’t measured by Nielsen, so its actual viewership is hard to determine. Pay-TV providers often stop carrying channels that charge a fee and don’t attract many viewers. DirecTV may lose some subscribers among OAN fans, but it will also save on programming costs.
OAN isn’t just any cable channel. It’s a devoted supporter of former President Trump and has spread misinformation on Covid-19 and the 2020 election. DirecTV faced pressure on social media to stop carrying the network, and its decision will likely embolden advocates to push for OAN’s remaining TV distributors, such as Verizon, to drop the network, too.
That’s not a simple demand. Unlike social media platforms, pay-TV companies have long-term contracts to carry channels. DirecTV’s deal with OAN ends in early April.
The big question is whether OAN can survive without revenue from DirecTV. When Trump was president, industry observers speculated he might buy Herring Networks Inc., the company that owns OAN, and turn it into his own TV network. Trump now plans to start a media company. Could that be OAN’s next chapter? OAN’s founder, Robert Herring Sr., hasn’t commented on DirecTV’s decision. His last tweet in December urged his followers to “take a stand and burn your masks!”
Joe Rogan is causing Spotify headaches (again)
Hundreds of doctors asked Spotify to institute a misinformation policy, citing the podcast host Joe Rogan’s “history of broadcasting misinformation, particularly regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.” His latest misadventure was hosting Dr. Robert Malone, who has spread a bunch of falsehoods about mRNA vaccines.
We’ve covered Spotify’s Rogan policy before, which is that all of this controversy is good for business. But Casey Newton made a great point in his newsletter this week. (Warning: paywall.) These doctors aren’t asking Spotify to take down Rogan’s show. They just want Spotify to be more consistent with its policy. Spotify says it has a misinformation policy in place, and many of the things that Malone says would seem to violate said policy. Here’s Casey:
The true policy is the one that is enforced, and Spotify’s reluctance to challenge its star host over the past year, however predictable, casts doubt.
The No. 1 album in the world is…
“Encanto.” The soundtrack to the hit Disney movie supplanted Adele’s “30” as the best-selling album in the U.S. Its biggest single, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” is one of the five biggest music videos on YouTube all over the world (48.6 million views in a week) and a top 20 song on Spotify.
A musical about a Colombian girl born without the same magical powers as members of her family, the movie generated a modest $90.6 million total domestic ticket sales. (It hit $216 million globally.)
But its popularity has exploded since being released on Disney+ just before Christmas. The film has been the most-viewed title on the Disney+ streaming service since its release, per Chris Palmeri.
- The No. 1 movie in the world is “Scream.” The latest installment in the horror franchise grossed about $30 million in North America this weekend.
- The NFL is partying like it’s 2015. Ratings for professional football jumped 10% in the U.S., per Gerry Smith. About 17 million people watched the average NFL game this past season. There isn’t any other show on TV that averaged that many viewers. More people watch a relatively meaningless regular season game than the average World Series or NBA Finals game.