Netflix renews unseen series
July 01, 2013 10:50 AM

Netflix, unlike so many of its rivals on cable and broadcast, doesn’t share any ratings, so we won’t know how popular “Orange Is the New Black” is after the show has its debut on the service. But we can surmise that it is already pretty popular inside Netflix.

The company announced Thursday that it had ordered a second season, two full weeks before subscribers get to see the first season. Such an early pickup is a rarity in television.

“It is unusual,” Cindy Holland, the company’s vice president for original content, acknowledged Friday, but it was motivated by a practical matter: Netflix wanted to shorten the wait time between the first season and the next one. In Season 2, she said, “our hope is that we can launch in late spring to early summer, rather than midsummer.”

The one-hour series, which comes online July 11, has both dramatic and comedic elements; comes from Jenji Kohan, who created “Weeds” for Showtime; and stars Taylor Schilling as an unlikely new inmate at a women’s prison and Jason Biggs as the fiance waiting for her release.

“Orange” has received raves from those who have seen the first episodes (The New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum called it a brilliant cross between “Oz” and “The L Word” on a podcast last week), but it doesn’t have the same name recognition as other original Netflix offerings, like “House of Cards,” the political thriller that came online in February, or “Arrested Development,” the revival of the Fox comedy that came online one month ago. Renewing the show so early may boost interest in the first season’s worth of episodes.

“To the industry, an early renewal is a vote of confidence in the show’s creators,” said Diane Gordon, the television editor for Studio System News, an industry website.

“To fans, it encourages them to watch a show because they know it won’t disappear after two or three episodes, as often happens on broadcast networks. “

Earning the loyalty of fans is critical for a service like Netflix, which depends on monthly subscriber fees. “Orange” continues the company’s push to compete with traditional sources of entertainment and, along the way, alter the definition of television.

Television executives could recall only a few other occasions when additional episodes were ordered ahead of a premiere — some prophetic and others, well, not. The premium-cable channel Starz did so with “Boss,” a drama led by Kelsey Grammer, only to have that series wind down after two seasons. More successfully, Starz renewed “Spartacus” a full month before viewers saw the first episode in 2010.

“Even the best of shows take more than one season to fully develop,” Chris Albrecht, the chief executive of Starz, said in an email. “While we are always mindful of the audience, we are not slaves to ratings, which offers the creative teams we have confidence in the luxury of time to develop the stories and characters.”

HBO, the category leader, has a tendency to renew shows within weeks, and sometimes within days, of their start dates. In these cases, the network executives have already seen many of the coming episodes, so they have a good sense of what to expect.

Because Netflix releases all the episodes of a season at the same time, the executives there have seen all 13 episodes of “Orange Is the New Black.”

“We don’t have the benefit of having viewing information from our subscribers yet, but we do know creatively everything about the season,” Holland said.

Kohan alluded to that when she spoke at the New York premiere of the series at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. “I feel like I’m at the end of a pregnancy and I just want it out,” she said.

The announcement means that Netflix has renewed all of its original series to date, with one exception, “Arrested Development.” (While the company would like more episodes, it has warned that reassembling the cast would be very difficult.) It committed to two seasons of “House of Cards” from the get-go (the second is in production now); it long ago ordered more episodes of “Lilyhammer; and this month it renewed the horror series “Hemlock Grove.”

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