Netflix and Hulu have made international television more accessible than ever. Now, one's favorite "new" show is often phrased as a "discovery." And often, viewers' interests lead beyond borders.
Broadcast television, of course, offers many cable stations from abroad. But in the vast digital repositories of Hulu and Netflix, shows aren't segregated by country of origin. Instead, programs are discovered and rediscovered through word of mouth and recommendations from friends, often through social media or those sites' own recommendation engines.
American networks have long looked across the Atlantic for programming to copy - for example, franchised hits such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and attempted remakes such as Coupling. Many shows also end up on BBC America or PBS, such as the recent, acclaimed upstairs-downstairs drama Downton Abbey.
But often, such hits as Downton Abbey send viewers back to Netflix, where they search for more top-notch British costume drama. Viewers need not wait for what often turns out to be dumbed-down, Americanized remakes, but can instead seek out the original series.
Hulu, which is owned by the parent companies of ABC, NBC, and Fox, is attempting to make a splash this summer by streaming three British series not before seen in the States.
Misfits, a Channel 4 comedy about community service-sentenced teenagers turned into superheroes by an electrical storm, premiered on Hulu last week. The Vuguru-produced Web series The Booth at the End, a moralistic thriller about a man who grants wishes for a price, will premiere July 11. Whites, a BBC comedy about a country house hotel chef, debuts July 20.
"We'd much rather find a show that a small to medium audience loves to death than a show that a broader audience might kind of like," says Andy Forssell, senior vice president of content acquisition and distribution for Hulu. "In an online [video on demand] environment, there are some aspects of that environment that are much different than linear [TV] that steer you to those type of shows."
Forssell says the tools of a Web-streaming experience - such as social media - are conducive to seeking out what he calls "the secret band concept," where fans feel they've found something obscure and want to tell their friends about it. He calls it a "self-organizing audience."
"That leads us to content in a number of different areas, but one of them, interestingly, has been content from the U.K.," he says.
Hulu earlier noticed a surprisingly strong response to British shows such as the cult comedy Spaced by Simon Pegg, which ran from 1999 to 2001. Also popular on Hulu were the 2004-2006 hospital sitcom Green Wing and the 2003-2010 sitcom Peep Show.
"They're shows that spread by word of mouth, spread virally online and they really just punched above what we thought their weight class was on Hulu," says Forssell. "It really led us to spend more time getting to know content producers in the U.K. and making sure we had the relationships to understand what might be opportunities ahead. That yielded Misfits and Whites, and we'll go farther than that in the future."
Similar findings also led Netflix to look abroad.
House of Cards, a political thriller starring Ian Richardson as a plotting Parliament politician, was a sensation for the BBC when it ran in 1990, with subsequent parts in 1993 and 1995.
In a first for the service, Netflix is paying producer Media Rights Capital for the exclusive rights to distribute an American remake of the series. The new House of Cards, to star Kevin Spacey and have director David Fincher as executive producer, will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning next year.
Netflix hasn't disclosed how much it is paying for the rights, but it's backing House of Cards for not just one season, but for 26 hour-long episodes. Netflix has been pushing its streaming option, as opposed to, or in addition to, its mail-order rental DVD subscription. It now has more than 20,000 titles in its streaming library.
"We did license House of Cards because of this very premise," said Steve Swasey, Netflix spokesman. "The British production of House of Cards performed very well on DVD. We knew that a lot of Netflix members watched and rated it highly."
Episodes of the new House of Cards may be released in bunches, rather than just one a week. Viewers often consume serialized dramas on Netflix in a rush, either one after another on Netflix Instant or in waves of DVDs sent in the mail.
"Netflix puts a premium on completeness," says Swasey, citing Netflix's first seven seasons of the beloved British series All Creatures Great and Small.
"We try to get the complete catalog up to the current season," Swasey adds.
There's a natural connection between U.S. viewers and British TV programming because of the shared language, but the increasingly global TV watching goes beyond that. Forssell says that Japanese anime and Korean dramas are also thriving on Hulu.
"The U.K. is a particularly low barrier just given the common language and overlapping cultures," says Forssell. "But it's going to happen in a lot of other places that you would never expect. Foreign content, if you can find something that's really passionate to an audience, whether it's small, medium, or large, it will find a way to get there in today's world."