Netflix upended the entertainment business by successfully moving into nearly every genre — scripted dramas, comedies, stand-up specials, documentaries, reality shows and feature films. But one type of programming has proved tricky for the streaming giant: the talk show.
In the last two years, Netflix has canceled three shows in the genre: “The Break With Michelle Wolf,” “The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale” and “Chelsea.” Two other Netflix talk shows — “Norm Macdonald Has a Show” and “The Fix,” starring Jimmy Carr, D. L. Hughley and Katherine Ryan — haven’t generated much buzz.
Part of the problem may be that talk shows make for an awkward fit with streaming.
From Johnny Carson to Trevor Noah, talk show stars have bonded with audiences by riffing on current events. Netflix and other streaming services, on the other hand, have won over viewers mainly through binge-worthy programming that has no real expiration date.
“Late-night hosts usually make jokes off of the day’s events, and people have to watch them pretty soon,” said Jeff Ross, the longtime executive producer for Conan O’Brien. “When you’re at Netflix, people can wait a month and maybe it just doesn’t hold up. A daily show, how do you binge that?”
“Chelsea,” featuring the former E! channel host Chelsea Handler, lasted two seasons; Netflix pulled the plug on the shows hosted by Ms. Wolf and Mr. McHale after much briefer runs.
Two Netflix talk shows that have fared better are “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj,” which won a Peabody Award this year, and “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman.” Mr. Letterman’s program has gotten a lot of attention for Netflix, thanks to its celebrity guests (Barack Obama, Kanye West, Ellen DeGeneres) and its star’s shift toward a sincere demeanor after a career of late-night irony. But the size of the audiences for those two shows is a mystery, given Netflix’s habit of releasing viewership data only in select cases.
Netflix conceded that coming up with successful talk shows hadn’t been easy.
“The timeliness of the genre is a challenge for us as an on-demand service,” said Brandon Riegg, Netflix’s vice president of nonfiction series and comedy specials, in a statement. “We’ve worked with many talented artists to pioneer talk shows for streaming audiences, and although some shows ended, we hope everyone involved is proud of what they created.”
For several talk shows created for streaming services, the small number of episodes ordered by programming executives has been another obstacle, some producers have said. The series hosted by Ms. Wolf — the comic who drew national attention for her no-holds-barred performance at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — lasted all of 10 episodes before Netflix ended its run. And Hulu canceled “I Love You, America,” hosted by Sarah Silverman, after a mere 21 episodes. Most hit talk shows on traditional TV, by contrast, are broadcast almost every weeknight, becoming an almost unnoticed part of a viewer’s routine.
“A talk show is about habit,” said Gavin Purcell, a producer who helped run Ms. Silverman’s Hulu program after working on Jimmy Fallon’s NBC shows. “With Fallon, we’re not trying to get you there every single night. We get you two or three times a week and that’s a win. We want Jimmy to be part of your life.”
Netflix moved closer to a daily frequency with “Chelsea,” the show hosted by Ms. Handler, streaming 90 episodes in its first season — but still failed to break through.
Viewers hoping to sample that first season will run into trouble: Netflix has removed 66 “Chelsea” episodes. It is the only instance of the company’s having scrubbed content that it owned and created, according to a Netflix spokeswoman.
Mr. Riegg, the Netflix vice president, said in a statement that Netflix had reduced the number of available “Chelsea” episodes before the show’s second (and final) season in an attempt to provide “an easy way for viewers to catch up before the new episodes launched.”
Mr. Riegg added that he had been heartened by the addition of Mr. Minhaj and Mr. Letterman to Netflix, and he noted that neither host depended on mining the day’s headlines.
Like John Oliver’s program on HBO, Mr. Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” is a weekly show specializing in single-issue deep dives. By focusing on topics ranging from Saudi Arabia to the streetwear brand Supreme, the host can be relevant without having to weigh in on trending topics. Another Netflix talk show that has remained aloof from the news is Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” an interview program that started on the streaming service Crackle before Netflix bought the rights.
“With Hasan, Dave and Jerry, we have three distinct and original styles that are thoughtful and topical but have longer shelf lives than traditional linear shows,” Mr. Riegg said.
Another Netflix talk show that ignores current events — the decidedly casual interview program hosted by Norm Macdonald — has not met expectations, however.
Mr. Letterman, who is listed in the show’s credits as “special counsel,” acknowledged Mr. Macdonald’s plight on a recent episode of Marc Maron’s podcast “WTF” when he described a conversation he had had with Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.
“I remember saying to Ted Sarandos, after all of Norm’s shows had been produced, I said, ‘Boy, I think you guys really got something here,’” Mr. Letterman said. After a pause for comic effect, he added, “Apparently not.”
The comedy and show business historian Kliph Nesteroff said the problem now faced by streaming services brought to mind the early days of television, when hosts like Steve Allen learned that the new medium came with its own rules and demands.
“If you look at the early 1950s, most of the shows on television that were transitioning from the radio stayed with the same format,” he said. “All of the shows that didn’t do anything new visually, and just filmed a radio show, failed. It was the early innovators like Steve Allen that played with form that succeeded.”
Mr. Riegg said Netflix would “continue to try new things.” And the producer Mr. Purcell, who recently signed a deal with Universal, said he was intent on making a talk show that worked for streaming.
“You’re watching every human being changing how they watch TV,” he said. “It happened really fast. With time, I think these shows will succeed.”
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