In April, David Lynch took to Twitter to announce that he was not going to direct the new Twin Peaks TV series. He couldn't negotiate the right money with Showtime, the network funding its production. Fans were in uproar. Almost immediately, Showtime issued a statement saying nothing had changed - they were still negotiating with Lynch. In May, Lynch announced the deal was done and he was going to direct after all. The crowds went wild. Meanwhile, over at the Simpsons, writer-actor Harry Shearer announced on Twitter that he'd quit the long-running Fox Broadcasting-funded show. A couple of weeks ago, he was back on the series, presumably with his contractual demands met.
TV show writers and creators: first try Twitter
These two high-profile examples may well be the start of a new phenomenon: writers, directors, creators and other traditionally backroom-boys, successfully flexing their muscles on Twitter during contract negotiations. While they always had some clout, in the olden days most had no real way to vent their frustrations in public. They also had no real way of testing the water; finding out how popular they were as individuals and artists, outside of the programme ratings. But today, they have Twitter, and they're starting to see how useful it can be. This is slowly shifting the balance of power away from the networks and into their hands. But it's not enough, as high-profile Twitter spats such as Father Ted-creator Graham Linehan's dispute with RTE and the BBC over the cancellation of his series 'The Walshes' demonstrates. However, there is another, much bigger, factor at play: Video-on-Demand (VoD).
If Twitter doesn't work - go to Netflix
Showtime is a very large, very successful company. It funded Homeland and Dexter, the US version of Shameless and Masters of Sex. Showtime didn't have to bow to David Lynch's contract demands, with or without his monster 2.47 million Twitter followers. What swung it for Lynch was something that he didn't have in 1990: VoD. Lynch owns the rights to Twin Peaks and that was a very smart move. He knew that if Showtime didn't pay him properly to direct a new Twin Peaks series, then Netflix would. And there's the rub. VoD is big business and that's what really tips the balance in favour of the writers and creators. Netflix is determined to create the next Breaking Bad and it has the vision and money to do it. So when Lynch tweeted, he wasn't talking to his followers - or even to Showtime - he was talking to Netflix.
VoD is the exciting new global option
Let's take two other examples of the power that VoD has over the TV industry: Top Gear and hit-US show Hannibal. Even James May thinks Jeremy Clarkson is an idiot. But idiot or not, he created a show that was so incredibly popular that it made £42 million per year for BBC Worldwide. The BBC sacked him - they had to - but low and behold, Netflix picked up his creative talent, his long-time producer and the two other blokes almost immediately. No questions asked. After all, think how many more subscriptions they'll sell the instant a Clarkson show is aired worldwide. It's a no-brainer for Netflix. People want VoD and they want Clarkson.
Another cult-show, Hannibal, was dropped a few weeks ago by NBC. It was popular and only on its third series, so there was a collective gasp at the news. But rather than taking a time-out to lick their wounds, the creators jumped straight back up and opened negotiations with Netflix or another VoD giant. And why not? If your work isn't appreciated by the old-school traditional networks, then today there is another, much bigger and more exciting global option - one that's taking over the world.
Traditional TV can't compete with VoD
That's probably the reason why many of these cult series are being dropped by traditional broadcasters. The networks just can't compete with VoD. For the old-school broadcasters, every cent counts and before they commission a TV series they have to be sure it's going to be a huge hit. VoD channels like Netflix aren't so bothered. Netflix has 65million subscribers - that's three times the largest cable network in the USA - and they operate in 40 countries worldwide. In 2014 their total revenue was $5.5billion. So money is not so much of a problem. But content is. They need it very badly indeed - and lots of it. They like successful movies but what they really love are long-running original series with 100-plus episodes to keep the punters paying their monthly dues. And they're prepared to accept that not every series is going to be a huge hit. It doesn't really matter if a series only appeals to a few million fans, because it takes time for those millions to watch a big box-set. And time, for Netflix, is money into their pocket.
The balance of power has already shifted. VoD is a door that won't be slammed shut. The traditional broadcasters have spent the last few years looking down their noses; throwing a few out-of-date series in the direction of VoD. But recently things have changed. Suddenly there's a new desperation. Traditional-TV ratings are falling; catch-up TV is not as popular as it once was. People want big box-sets; they want Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video; they want original, immersive shows they can watch anywhere and everywhere. Viewers have turned to VoD and they're not coming back. And soon the traditional broadcasters will be throwing every series they've got at VoD. So my advice to any writers, directors and creators currently negotiating a deal with a traditional broadcaster or US network is: use this new power, keep tweeting and keep your options wide open - Netflix is watching you!