Streaming services are a different beast from traditional TV programmers, so putting together a general preview of the best streaming bets for midseason 2016 isn’t going to cut it. For one thing, these new-media creatures aren’t tied to the same seasonal approach, and they tend not to announce release dates until much closer to a show’s premiere. And, generally speaking, they put out far less original programming than the major networks do.
But that doesn’t mean the major streamers are not ready to pile on the already intimidating mountain of TV your friends keep saying you “have to watch.” Here’s what to watch out for in 2016 from the Big Three streamers: Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.
The Good: Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told investors earlier this month that Netflix will just about double its amount of original programming in 2016, meaning there’ll be new material from 31 shows for you to wade through. That means not just more seasons of series like “House of Cards” (returning for a fourth season on March 4) and “Marvel’s Daredevil” (which should come back in early spring), but new shows like “The Crown,” a drama about the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and her many prime ministers, and Baz Luhrmann’s 1970s hip-hop musical drama “The Get Down.”
The Bad: By now, Netflix has silenced even the most steadfast skeptics of its ability to put out quality shows. But let’s put quality aside for a moment.
We won’t see exactly how much more money Netflix is committing to content expenses in 2016 until it releases its annual report in January. The company started 2015 with $9.4 billion in content obligations over the next five years, but several other factors could inflate that number even more: Studios are starting to charge more for streaming rights to shows that have already aired on traditional networks, and production costs in general for series are on the rise — “The Crown” alone is reportedly costing almost $150 million. Add Netflix’s continued (expensive) launches in other countries, and the fact that it's still losing money on the international markets it has launched in, and Wall Street’s continued Netflix obsession looks a little odd.
The Big Bets: The BuzzFeed-ification of television reaches its zenith with “Fuller House” on Feb. 26. The “continuation” of the “Full House” story will reunite just about everyone from the original cast of the 1990s sitcom, except the Olsen twins (who will nevertheless not, as jokingly speculated, be killed off). “The Crown” may very well appeal to all 10 million American “Downton Abbey” fans who will be mourning that show’s conclusion this winter. Ahead of her still-amorphous talk series that will also debut on the service sometime in 2016, Chelsea Handler’s four-part docuseries premieres Jan. 23. And that’s to say nothing of Netflix’s expanding film slate.
The Good: In September, Hulu introduced an ad-free option for $12 a month, and the internet lost its collective mind in gratitude. The service is aggressively acquiring popular movies like “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” and has signed exclusive deals with networks like AMC for “Fear the Walking Dead.” You can’t watch more than a few minutes of regular TV without seeing an ad for Hulu. And because it carries current seasons of broadcast shows (minus those on CBS), it's an attractive option for cord-cutters, particularly members of Gen Y. And Hulu got its first major awards show nomination this year: The dark comedy “Casual,” from executive producer Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air") and creator Zander Lehmann, won a Golden Globe nod for Best Musical or Comedy.
The Bad: “Netflix” is still the verb people use most as a catch-all for “streaming,” and the truckloads of money Hulu is backing up for all that content are one reason rumors of a potential new investor — Time Warner, which owns the Turner family of networks, HBO and production company Warner Bros. TV — abound.
The Big Bets: “11/22/63,” based on the Stephen King novel about a time traveler sent from the present to prevent JFK’s assassination, stars James Franco and has “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams listed as an executive producer. Appropriately, the show will premiere on Presidents Day (Feb. 15). Hulu is touting it as an “eight-part event series,” taking a page out of the traditional TV network playbook. Raw viewership is important to Hulu, which does rely on advertising as a revenue source, so attracting a large audience is a must for more reasons than just bragging rights.
The Good: The streaming service says viewership of Prime this holiday season doubled that of 2014, and Prime says it added 3 million customers in the third week of December, presumably to take advantage of the free two-day shipping option for Christmas gifts. (Viewership “data” not supplied by an independent monitor should always be taken with a grain of salt, particularly when a basis for comparison isn’t supplied.)
More important, for a service still trying to make itself a destination for creative talent, “Transparent” continues to be one of the best-reviewed shows out there, in addition to being a magnet for awards show hardware, and producers and actors who work on shows like charming ‘80s comedy “Red Oaks” can’t stop themselves from heaping praise on their employers.
The Bad: One of the few ways of ascribing some kind of success to a streaming series is “buzz,” that ephemeral, hard-to-quantify quality. Are large numbers of people mad online that an outlet spoiled the end of the show’s season? Have any of your relatives over age 60 heard of it? How many “likes” does it have on Facebook?
Aside from “Transparent” and perhaps “The Man in the High Castle,” there just isn’t a whole lot of buzz or chatter about Amazon shows. “Hand of God,” a drama about a former judge (Ron Perlman) who starts hearing heavenly voices, has just shy of 37,000 Facebook fans, or less than 2 percent of the number of Facebook fans for “House of Cards” (2.2 million) and less than .2 percent of the number of Facebook fans for CBS’ “NCIS” (17.5 million).
The Big Bets: At some point in 2016, Woody Allen’s six-episode series, which still doesn’t have a name or any kind of description, will premiere. So, too, will the car-centric reality show built from the former “Top Gear” team of Jeremy Clarkson (fired from “Top Gear” for attacking a producer), Richard Hammond and James May. These were controversial deals that may or may not truly pay off — Amazon Prime video is still merely a bonus, for most people, rather than a destination, and 180 minutes of whatever comes out of Woody Allen’s head is no guarantee of increased viewership or membership.