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The Netflix Effect on Outlander the Show

With the announcement that Outlander seasons 1 and 2 will be released on Netflix on May 27, 2019 in the U.S., we explore the potential implications of the Netflix effect on Outlander the show. 

Five years and four seasons into its run, Outlander is finally going to be accessible to anyone who has a Netflix account (or anyone who’s stealing their parents’/friends’ password from THEIR Netflix accounts.) Since there are over 61.97 MILLION Netflix subscribers in the United States, this is a pretty substantial development for not only Outlander, but STARZ and Lionsgate as well.

That subscription opportunity is staggering for a show that normally averages a little over 1 million people per episode. Not to mention the fact that Outlander season 4 ratings showed an overall average 31% dip from its previous season. So there is going to be a substantial uptick in eyes watching Mr. and Mrs. Fraser.

While I think we can all agree that the more Fraser we have in our lives, the better off the world would be, I do think it appropriate to look at how much of an effect this kind of exposure can truly have on our favorite couple.

Let’s acknowledge this up front: STARZ does not expose its IP very often. Generally, if one wanted to watch a STARZ original, whether it be Power, The White Princess, The Spanish Princess, American Gods etc., they had to subscribe directly to STARZ. It’s a tried and true model that lends itself to direct subscriptions and even a sense of elite level proprietary content. See Game of Thrones on HBO.

But why make this move now? Better yet, why would STARZ, the sole distributor of Outlander for the United States, give up its leverage on the second most popular television show in its current lineup?

Well, there could be a number of reasons. The first is the most likely, the second is really cynical, and the others are overly positive.

The most likely scenario is that Lionsgate (the parent company of STARZ) is trying to expand its reach to increase overall revenue for bigger purposes by propping up potential subscriptions with a tested IP (intellectual property) that also happens to represents a fair cross-section of its current content.

The cynic in me, however, still sees one common denominator. Even though Netflix probably paid a pretty penny in fees to help distribute seasons 1 and 2 of Outlander, one clear fact still remains true: STARZ does not peddle its product from its platform. Of course, STARZ properties currently are on the U.S. version of Netflix, including Spartacus, Ash vs. Evil Dead, and Black Sails. But that’s it. The scary part is that all of those shows have since been canceled.

No, this does not mean Outlander is going to be canceled, but, again, the cynical view here is that Outlander COULD be on its way out.  Maybe it’s not as valuable to STARZ/Sony and they have decided to make it free for Netflix users to maximize it’s final legs.  So, by putting Outlander in the hands of the common person, STARZ is ensuring more eyes on its product, more potential subscribers, and more chances of getting those people hooked on its OTHER content that STARZ/Lionsgate is solely producing.

In other words, STARZ could be using Outlander on Netflix to enhance the prospect of getting people to buy subscriptions that would prop up other content for the future. Of course this the name of the game isn’t it? More subscribers, more money in, and less money out because Lionsgate would be getting people attached to shows they own outright (See: The Continental and The Rook) instead of shows they are partnering on like Outlander.

BUT — and this is a BIG BUT — I choose not to feed into the cynical part of me. What I really want to believe is that this is a net positive for STARZ and, most importantly, Outlander. Yes, the show has been renewed through seasons 5 and 6 and that pretty much guarantees us a place at Fraser’s Ridge through 2022. But after that? Well, here are a couple of scenarios:

This opens up in-roads for Sony to sell Outlander to Netflix IF STARZ doesn’t choose to renew and, another big if, Netflix chooses to purchase it.

Since Netflix is already an international distributor of the show and is going to distribute the first two seasons here in America starting in May, I can see an avenue where they might find value in that IP. While Netflix is famously secretive about their viewership numbers,  you can rest assured that they DO have their own metrics readily available within their walls and if it means more subscriptions to bring a show back or to keep the show going, then they will. See: Arrested Development.

Netflix is also NOT afraid to spend serious money in making a high quality show.  See: Marco Polo.

I will be the first to say that this is an exciting prospect, but I am not 100% sold on it because producers (including Netflix) have started to focus on their own IP and not partnering. But there is a way this could make sense for both networks should they nail down the details.

STARZ is testing the waters about the actual viability of Outlander and its potential growth. 

Whether we like it or not, Outlander is an expensive show to make, and it’s only going to get MORE expensive as its stars rise in fame, the story widens, and STARZ has to make the inevitable investment in the requisite marketing to keep the show in the fickle public consciousness. Having said that, STARZ needs to know that it’s worth the investment, and dedication needed to keep creating the show into seasons 7 and beyond.

The real truth is that Netflix can be a huge positive for Outlander, and that’s fact, not opinion. Don’t take it from me. Read what Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, said to Mashable back in 2013:

“Television has changed a lot in six years … a big part of what has changed is streaming video on demand, specifically with operations like Netflix and iTunes and Amazon.”

Gilligan also noted Breaking Bad may have met its demise after season 2 had it not been for streaming video on demand, as it ushered in new viewers and encouraged time-starved people to keep watching at their own pace.

“I think Netflix kept us on the air,” Gilligan emphasized.

Granted, Breaking Bad was on AMC, a channel that is included with nearly all cable packages, but Gilligan’s show went from having fewer than 1 million viewers at the end of season 2, when it was only on AMC, to being put on Netflix before season 3,  then peaking at about 10.5 million viewers by its now famous series finale, “Felin,” in season 5.

You’re smart enough to know that is a MASSIVE, nay, a GARGANTUAN gain in viewers simply because AMC decided to put Breaking Bad on Netflix. One of the greatest television programs ever created would have been canceled if it were not for its distribution on Netflix. Can you even imagine that?!

This is what I honestly think could happen to Outlander if the right marketing is done, and it happens to catch on with the right people at the right time. Netflix could literally keep Outlander alive through book 10, and, indirectly, season 10. That’s the power it has.

You better believe that this announcement is no coincidence with that fact that there is another year — at least —before we get a whiff of season 5, which to me, seems like just enough time for new viewers and time starved people to watch the first two seasons on Netflix, subscribe to STARZ, and watch the next two seasons at their own pace.

Is there a chance Outlander has the same kind of growth as Breaking Bad? I’d love to think so. The problem is that Breaking Bad was easy to describe: Teacher dying of cancer sells meth to save family, teacher turns into Heisenberg, and it stars that guy from Malcolm in the Middle. Oh, and it just happens to be probably in the top three shows ever written and it won a bunch of Emmys as a result.

Outlander, on the other hand, is much harder to sell because it’s such a genre-defying show that you can’t pin it down to one easy sentence. Even I still can’t do it and I make a partial living off of talking about it.

At any rate, you’re reading this article so I know you’re a fan. Here’s your job should you choose to accept it: whenever you rewatch the first two seasons, do it on Netflix.

Next, do your best to come up with an intriguing pitch about what Outlander is and how great it is. Tell all your friends that Outlander is coming to Netflix and they can watch the first two seasons for free. Tell the people at your kids’ schools. Tell your Yoga teacher. Tell your drinking buddies down at the pub. Heck, tell the gas station attendant. Because in the end, the more people watch, the more likely STARZ sees the value in continuing the show, or Netflix sees the value in investing its own cash into keeping Outlander going as a Netflix original. Now’s your chance.

And now is Outlander’s chance to prove what it is, how good it is, and to see where it can stand in the already crowded zeitgest of shows currently available. If it’s ever going to grow into what we always thought it could be, NOW is the time.

Because as Murtagh famously says to Jocasta, “Some things are worth the fight.”

What do you think the Netflix announcement means? Is this a good sign or a bad sign for Outlander and its future?

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