Between 2011 and 2019, the basic cable channel USA Network broadcast all nine seasons of the series Suits in the United States. The legal drama was set in a luxury law firm in New York, where a tremendously intelligent young lawyer arrived with a phenomenal memory and a secret: he wasn’t really a lawyer. Suits landed on Netflix in the United States in the middle of June with its first eight seasons. Shortly after, it was at the top of the most viewed productions on platforms according to audience measurement experts, Nielsen. It has been leading the ranking for more than a month and has broken the record for streaming views in a single week for an externally produced series. In four weeks, it has already exceeded 12,000 million minutes watched and is already the seventh most watched series on platforms so far this year.
All 134 episodes of Suits were already available on Peacock, another digital service. Netflix doesn’t even have the complete set: the ninth season (only the ninth) is on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. How can we explain, then, that the show of the summer in the U.S. is one that premiered 12 years ago and ended four years ago?
One of the reasons that experts adduce is in the very operation of Netflix. As TV critic Alan Sepinwall explains in Rolling Stone, many viewers of a series on Netflix come to it simply because the platform highlights it in their app. “Netflix is everywhere, and it snowballs: people start watching Suits, that makes them tell their friends they’re watching Suits, which leads to articles being written about how many people are watching Suits, which makes more people watch Suits, and so on. This is a quieter summer of television than usual, even on Netflix, because everyone is spacing out their releases because of strikes by writers and actors. If something had to attract people’s attention, why wouldn’t it be the last performance of the future Duchess of Sussex?”
The success of Suits teaches us several lessons that can be applied to television in general and to the platforms in particular:
The viewer loves traditional formats
If legal, medical, and police dramas have been on television for years and years, it’s for a reason. Suits is still a typical legal drama that includes a small twist in its approach, the secret that Mike (Patrick J. Adams) is keeping. It is an easy series to follow, with single-episode cases and some long-term plots that concern the two main characters, Harvey Specter and Mike Ross (played by Gabriel Macht and Patrick J. Adams, respectively) and the relationships with some secondary characters, among whom is Rachel (Meghan Markle), who left the series at the end of the seventh season to marry the U.K.’s Prince Harry.
It’s the kind of program that doesn’t require a lot of attention. It is precisely the type of series that platforms are reluctant to make, but that their subscribers love.
The platforms need linear television more than they think
In the television industry it has been shown that, while flashy premieres are very effective for platforms to attract new subscribers, well known series are the ones that help retain customers. That is, viewers come for Stranger Things, but stay for Friends. Series with many seasons and many episodes are essential for platforms that, in their obsession with getting more and more subscribers, have made novelty a priority.
“They aren’t making series like they used to be, and that’s a big problem,” wrote journalist and television critic Josef Adalian in Vulture. Until now, the platforms have not seen the need to produce series with lots of episodes because they have been able to buy them from traditional television. However, even the U.S. free-to-air networks are cutting the number of episodes ordered, and many cable networks have reduced their original output.
“Platforms should start making series with more episodes each season and, if the audience likes them, they should allow them to run for six, seven and eight seasons instead of two or three,” Adalian writes. “In fact, TV was much more profitable when there were fewer shows with more episodes because they were just so much less expensive to produce than 10 episodes of shows that think they’re movies,” he adds. TV critic Maureen Ryan posted a message on X (formerly Twitter) to the same effect: “U.S. TV was a money-printing machine for decades because people like 12-22 episodes seasons that allow for meaty character development and adroitly mix tones, [as well as] episodes of the week with ongoing arcs. Lots of people of all ages love this! This model [has been] dismantled, and I don’t love that for us.”
Success can come to the second or third
Money Heist can attest to this. The fact that a series did not explode in its original broadcast does not mean that it cannot do so in another place or at another time. It is very normal, and even advisable, that the series circulate between chains and platforms. On Peacock, the NBCUniversal platform that operates in the U.S., Suits had been fully available for some time, but it is a service that does not have the audience and the pull of Netflix, far from it. Also, selling a show on a different network is a way to get extra return for content and, at least in theory (we’ll see the practice in the last point), it allows writers and actors to earn more money.
Until now, the platforms have been very reluctant to share or take their series outside of their services. That is starting to change. Warner Bros. Discovery decided to remove some series from HBO Max and sell them to free platforms with ads, which in addition to bringing them renewed profits, allows those titles to reach another audience. Even some HBO productions, like Insecure or Ballers, are now available on Netflix.
Why writers and actors are on strike
Last week, writer-producer Ethan Drogin, who worked on eight seasons of the series, wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times titled “I Helped Write Netflix’s Surprising Sensation Suits. My reward? $259.71.” The text explains: “It doesn’t matter if the series you helped build generates 3.1 billion minutes watched in a week on Netflix and Peacock, setting a Nielsen record. It doesn’t matter if it occupies 40% of the top 10 on Netflix. [...] In total, NBCUniversal has paid the six original writers of Suits less than $3,000 last quarter to make the first season available on two platforms.” “This is why the writers and actors are on strike,” adds Drogin, putting numbers to the conflict.
Residuals are the money generated by selling a show to a new market, and it’s one of the key bargaining points these days between syndicates and studios. While the studio makes a lot of money from these sales, the profits for those who created it are little, derisory, or none. The residuals would be something like copyright. The unions ask that they be calculated on the audience (data that the platforms do not provide) or, at least, that their percentage be increased with a fairer formula.
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