Until just a few years ago, network television series had exactly two options after their initial runs — syndication or the memory hole. Once a series reached the semi-magic number of 66 episodes or the absolutely golden 100 mark, it could live on as the space filler between early afternoon soap operas and the local news. Then, with the transition from VHS to DVD in the late 1990s, completists could own an entire series without buying a new bookcase.
Streaming video services took storage out of the equation and also allowed studios to roll out content on the fly — on Hulu Plus, subscribers can watch the latest “Modern Family” episode the day after it gets pre-empted by Oklahoma storm coverage. But the advent of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime is changing the networks' syndication strategies, which means that the streaming sites are becoming crucial players in the second lives of series.
Last month, CBS announced a multi-tier rollout for reruns of “The Good Wife,” its popular legal drama starring Juliana Margulies, Chris Noth and Alan Cumming. Beginning on March 14, Amazon Prime subscribers could access the first three seasons of “The Good Wife,” and Amazon Prime will be the only portal for the series until September, when it expands to Hulu Plus. Four months later, in January 2014, “The Good Wife” enters into an exclusive cable marriage with the Hallmark Channel for nine months. The rollout reaches its completion stage in Sept. 2014 when “The Good Wife” enters into mass weekend syndication that will reach 85 percent of the domestic viewing audience.
Notably absent from this equation is Netflix — type “The Good Wife” into the search engine for Netflix' streaming service and a 1987 Rachel Ward/Bryan Brown period piece set in the Australian outback pops up. But this tracks with the growing relationship between CBS and Amazon Prime: in February, the network inked a deal to make their upcoming adaptation of Stephen King's “Under the Dome” exclusively available through Prime, with episodes landing on the portal four days after broadcast. As is the case with content providers' relationship with Apple's iTunes, the networks are loathe to allow power to concentrate with single streaming or download services.
In addition to Netflix' expansion into original programming, the next few years will likely be an exciting and potentially contentious time for the acquisition of beloved syndicated series. While some 1990-2000s powerhouse syndicated titles with 200-plus episodes such as “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Frasier” are available on both Netflix and Prime, big revolving investments such as “Friends” and the aforementioned “Seinfeld” are still absent. A handful of non-sequential “Seinfeld” episodes drift around on the less-populated Crackle service, but nowhere close to a complete, start-to-finish show about nothing.
But the CBS rollout of “The Good Wife” is likely the shape of things to come. As the streaming services add subscribers, the stakes will get higher, and the road to eventual broadcast arrival for many syndicated services could take more twists.