Netflix, Amazon and Sky chase blockbuster TV exclusives

House of Cards cast House of Cards has proven to be a huge hit for Netflix

An upstart rapidly rises from obscurity to become a household name by distributing a highly addictive product consumed by thousands.

There's an obvious parallel between Netflix's forthcoming show about Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and the video-on-demand service itself.

The question is whether the US company faces its own sticky end.

When the California-based firm posts its first quarter earnings this Monday, it's expected to confirm a rise on January's tally of 44 million subscribers. The figures will have been helped, no doubt, by the release of the second series of its Kevin Spacey-starring thriller House of Cards.

Pablo Escobar poster Netflix says its Pablo Escobar show will be a " gripping saga of blood, money and politics"

But by the time the cocaine-fuelled Narcos premieres next year the market in net-streamed exclusives could be more crowded.

Over the coming months Microsoft is expected to launch two sci-fi series - Halo and Humans - on its Xbox Live service.

Sony is developing Powers, a series about detectives investigating people with superhuman abilities, for the PlayStation Network.

And Yahoo is reported to be on the verge of commissioning several comedies for an as yet-unannounced venture.

Meanwhile Amazon Instant Video is going on its own spending spree with The After - a post-apocalyptic drama by X-files creator Chris Carter - among other commissions.

And in the UK, Sky is ramping up marketing for Now TV, offering Game of Thrones, 24, Mad Men and other hit US dramas for a fraction of what it would cost to subscribe to them via its satellite service.

Halo TV series Microsoft is developing a Halo live-action TV series based on its video games franchise
Story arcs

It's no coincidence that so many of these shows have complex multi-season plots rather than the more self-contained formats preferred by many of the TV networks.

"What our members love watching most and what we have focused on with our own series are highly-serialised stories," says Joris Evers, Netflix's spokesman for Europe.

"We like the kind of series that have a longer story arc, where over multiple episodes and multiple seasons you follow a storyline as opposed to a procedural show... where somebody gets killed in the first 10 minutes and within that hour you find out who it was and they get locked up."

Defying Gravity Defying Gravity was cancelled in 2009 half-way through its story

This used to be a risky strategy.

In the past audiences for such programmes tended to decline the longer they continued, affecting what could be charged for advertising.

All too often, big budget programmes were cancelled before their plots had been resolved. Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Flash Forward and Defying Gravity are just some examples.

This not only annoyed viewers but also made it harder to sell on rights to the shows.

But the format makes more sense in an age where firms sell TV subscriptions with the promise that you can cancel whenever you want.

"These high-value shows lock you in over a long period of time," says Ian Maude, from the media consultancy Enders Analysis.

"And in an ideal world they encourage people not to cancel at the end of the month but rather to carry on watching and paying."

Limited release

Sky's Now TV's entertainment service may not offer as much content as Netflix or Amazon.

Now TV screenshot Now TV offers movies and sports packages in addition to its entertainment subscription

But once its £4.99 introductory price expires in May, it could become the most expensive.

"The priority is for us to get the latest and best content," its director Gidon Katz tells the BBC.

Now TV screens shows at the same time they are broadcast on Sky's satellite channels and then tailors its catch-up services to complement them.

So, for example, past "box sets" of Game of Thrones only became available a month before the new series started and will disappear after the initial episodes have been screened.

"Big name shows get column inches because [the media] talk about them and make people have a try for the first time," explains Mr Katz.

Banshee Sky hopes lesser-known shows will convince customers to stick with Now TV

"What's critical is to then fragment that viewing, so that if you are watching Game of Thrones you realise Banshee or The Walking Dead - which are relevant to the same audience - are also available."

Viewers might be surprised to find Now TV's programmes are broken up by channel idents that briefly halt the action.

The reason is that Mr Katz has plans to add trailers.

"We are looking to promote other shows," he explains.

This could prove controversial. Other pay-to-watch services have tended not to interrupt their content with ads, with the notable exception of Hulu Plus in the US.

But it is the norm to use recommendation facilities of some kind to steer customers towards cheaper-to-acquire shows.

Amazon Instant shows Amazon Instant is offered as both a standalone service and part of a wider Prime offer

The more you watch, the better the software's suggestions should get.

"[At Netflix] we know what people are watching now, what they watched before, what they watch after, how much of a show they watch, how often they watch another episode followed by another, or if they abandon an episode after five minutes," says Mr Evers.

"We have a content planning and analysis team that does a lot of work in terms of crunching the numbers to predict the audience for a particular title and, based on that... how much we should be paying for it."

Creative skills

In theory, these algorithms should also give the services an edge over broadcasters.

But while they have had some break-out hits, other commissions - such as Netflix's Bad Samaritans and Amazon's Betas - have played to smaller audiences.

Industry watchers say the reason is that data crunching alone cannot create a blockbuster.

Netflix Netflix asks for feedback to personalise its recommendations

"Being able to nurture, select and create portfolios of great content is a very specific skill," suggests Sef Tuma, who leads business advisor Accenture's digital services division.

"It's a mixture of being creative, good at relationships and knowing the industry.

"That's something that a lot of these new market entrants may lack and need to buy by attracting the type of executives who have that experience."

In truth, not every commission needs to be a smash hit. But offering exclusives will help subscription services stand out as the market becomes busier.

Unlike many of its rivals, Netflix doesn't have alternative revenue streams to fall back on and can't bundle its TV shows with other products in the same way Amazon gives away TV shows and ebook rentals to members of its Prime delivery service.

But at least for now, Netflix can call itself the market leader - and that's not a bad place to be considering its data-driven strategy.

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