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How NBCU Badly Misplayed Its Hand with 'Manifest'

(Image credit: Warner Bros. TV)

The fate of the Warner Bros. TV-produced sci-fi drama Manifest has been one of the video business' most compelling stories of the streaming era. 

The show about the mysterious reappearance of a missing jetliner, along with its crew and passengers, was in a terminal linear flight pattern in the late spring, as it wound down its third season on NBC, drawing only 2.9 million viewers on May 3, one its final broadcasts. 

But just as NBC announced the show's cancellation, its off-net streaming run took off into the stratosphere on Netflix, producing subscription streaming's biggest weekly audiences of 2021 so far in June. 

Last week, Netflix announced a deal with Warner Bros. TV to produce a 20-episode fourth season of the show, while locking in the rights to put up the third season on the platform immediately. 

NBCUniversal? It ended up committing millions of dollars worth of promotional air time for Manifest, only to wind up with nothing. Nothing for the NBC TV Network. And nothing for struggling streaming startup, Peacock. 

On his new platform, Puck, former Hollywood Reporter top editor Matt Belloni plied his substantial Hollywood connections and insight to paint a rather damning post mortem for an NBCU management team that seemed to totally miss an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade ... or even a tasteless, watery beverage of some kind.

For starters, Belloni argues that NBC--under the control of former Warner Bros. TV exec Susan Rovner--could have at least delayed for a little while its decision not to order a fourth season of Manifest, especially with the show's first two seasons already surfacing as No. 1 on Netflix at the time. (Manifest was "No. 1 in the U.S.," according to Netflix's ratings widget, on the mid-June day NBC cancelled the show.)

"NBC definitely could have asked for an extension of its option to pick up Season 4 until after Netflix had aired it for a few months," Belloni wrote. "I’m betting the producers and actors would have agreed to it, and then NBC’s Rovner, rather than Netflix's [TV chief, Bela Bajaria], would have been in that pole position when the show became a Netflix-fueled hit."

With the option to secure a fourth season open, NBCU and its joint venture with Disney, Hulu, kept exclusive control of U.S. streaming of Manifest Season 3, keeping it out of the hands of Netflix for another year. 

"Who would want to air Season 4 of a serialized show when the other seasons are elsewhere?," Belloni noted. 

This dynamic would have effectively kept Rovner and NBCU in pole position.

And if the early indicators on Netflix weren't enough to convince NBCU to keep its options open, it had other sources of data to indicate that Manifest performs much better in the realm of on-demand streaming than it does with appointment-driven linear broadcast TV.

For example, each episode and season of Manifest was available on Hulu before it posted on Netflix. 

"I’m told Manifest did pretty well during that Hulu window after its first season, and I’m betting more people would have watched the show on Peacock than Girls5Eva or the Punky Brewster reboot," Belloni said.

Ultimately, with NBCU abdicating its primacy for the show, Netflix was able to come to the table with a lucrative 20-episode commitment, upping the per-episode fee from $4 million to $5 million. The global pact was robust enough to convince Warner Bros. to "unwind" international deals for Manifest in territories like the UK. 

At the very least, Belloni said, "NBC could have prioritized teaming with Netflix to fully exploit a show it helped make a hit." 

After all, NBCU had already poured equity into Manifest.

"Bajaria knew that NBC had created value around Manifest, even if the show wasn’t exactly Emmy-worthy. Despite their declines, broadcast networks still enjoy a big promotion platform, and anyone who watches Sunday Night Football or SNL probably saw a Manifest promo or 10 at some point. People may not have actually watched Manifest on NBC, but it was a show they had heard of, so when it appeared on Netflix, a place where they are increasingly looking for and watching these kinds of shows, it popped in a way that most of its original stuff does not," Belloni wrote.

But NBCU wound up with bupkis, not just for NBC, but for Peacock, which only has around 20 million active users. 

"It’s an open question whether Peacock can make anything a hit—or whether any streamer but Netflix can make an off-network show a hit—but NBC can certainly try harder with these broad-audience plays," added Belloni, who spent his formative career years as an entertainment lawyer. 

"When the epitaph for broadcast television is written, it won’t be streaming video that is credited as the killer; it’ll be the networks’ inability to adapt to an on-demand ecosystem and co-exist with (and even capitalize on) what streaming does well. The Manifest situation perfectly illustrates the limitations of the current thinking," he also wrote, opening his report.


Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!