Netflix Got the Water-Cooler Moment It Was Looking For When Chris Rock Slapped Back Live (Bloom)

Chris Rock
(Image credit: Netflix)

It’s entirely possible that Chris Rock’s savage verbal assault on Will Smith in his live Netflix special Saturday night has already been seen by more people around the planet than ever watched Smith’s actual physical assault of Rock, live on the Oscar stage almost exactly a year before. 

And that’s despite the fact that the Oscars remain one of the most-watched shows on broadcast TV. Being able to simultaneously reach 235 million paying Netflix households around the world, and maybe 100 million freeloaders, can do that for a high-profile show. 

And for those who missed the show because of an inhospitable time zone or other Saturday night/Sunday morning distractions, the performance will be easily accessible for a long time to come, further feeding Netflix’s attention and success metrics. 

And that was exactly the point for Netflix when it paid Rock a reported $20 million for Chris Rock: Selective Outrage, and made the show its first big-event live programming. 

Certainly, a wide-ranging and fierce 70 minutes of new material from one of the best standup comics still standing will have an appeal in many markets that will long outlive last year’s weird and discomfiting Oscar ‘cast. 

Netflix upped the Rock event’s appeal further, bracketing his Baltimore show with pre- and post-game conversations from a Los Angeles set that featured prominent comics such as Arsenio Hall, J.B. Smoove, David Spade and Dana Carvey, alongside the writer, social critic and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

Netflix has already announced another live event, a London stage production built around its hugely popular Stranger Things franchise. It also recently announced a deal to carry the Screen Actors Guild Awards live, though only showed the event on the Netflix YouTube channel last weekend. 

For the past few years, the company also has experimented offline with other kinds of live events, creating immersive takes on the worlds of Army of the Dead, Bridgerton, Arcana, and, yes, Stranger Things

And live, which once seemed like an afterthought in an on-demand streaming world, is revivifying in other ways, too. 

Live sports have definitely enlivened viewership of Peacock, Paramount Plus, Amazon Prime and other services. Early-morning games from Europe’s big soccer leagues have been a big driver of tune-in, which Apple TV Plus is betting will carry over for its just-launched MLS deal.

CNBC reported that ESPN is considering making a planned, free ESPN app a hub connecting viewers not just to the Worldwide Leader’s own programming but also to live games on other subscription services. It wants to make ESPN the go-to source for all kinds of live sports, not just the ones Disney has already spent billions of dollars on for TV rights. 

That’s a provocative idea for a new era of Build Your Own TV Bundle. But it begs some complicated questions. 

Roku, Amazon Prime, Android/Google TV, Apple TV and other services are already “platforms,” giving viewers easy access to other services’ subscription programming. What does it mean to have a sports platform on top of the platform platform? Does Roku let that platform sit on its devices? Does, especially, Apple? And what’s it mean for DAZN, or sports-oriented vMVPDs such as Fubo and YouTube TV?

There are other opportunities out there for possibly interesting live programming. 

A few hours before Rock’s performance, the Independent Spirit Awards unspooled on a Santa Monica beach, and on the awards’ YouTube channel, the only outlet available after cable TV’s Independent Film Channel dropped the show. 

“Let me reiterate how bad this is,” said the event’s emcee, Hasan Minhaj. “The Independent Film Channel did not want the Independent Film Awards.”

Minhaj, who created 40 episodes of comedy talk show Patriot Act on Netflix and more recently returned to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show for a week-long guest-host stint, had some pointed words for the Spirit Awards’ assembled indie filmmakers. 

“No one asked you to make the movies you made,” Minhaj said, “and honestly, no one watched them.” 

Ouch. True, except for the night’s big winner, Everything Everywhere All At Once ($104 million worldwide box office) and, possibly, Tar ($19.3 million). Confession: I watched both movies on streaming services. 

Soooo … maybe Netflix won’t be stepping in on that live Spirit Awards ‘cast anytime soon. And given the perilous finances of IFC parent AMC Networks, don’t count on a return to the Independent Film Channel either online or off. 

But it’s just about a dead-lock certain that Netflix will be finding other live events worth diving into. The company has largely avoided sports, where many expected it to go, though it did reportedly consider buying the rights to Formula 1 after its Drive To Survive series about the European-based auto-racing circuit became a big hit. 

In fact, Netflix’s show did its job too well connecting a new audience to F1’s particular thrills: annual TV rights jumped from $5 million to $75 million in last year’s negotiations. 

Perhaps news will appeal, though news is the absolute antithesis of evergreen programming. No one’s watching Friday’s newscast the next Tuesday. Minhaj’s Patriot Act was one attempt to created news-adjacent topical comedy, a la HBO’s John Oliver and Bill Maher, or Jon Stewart, who has an earnest and not overly successful talk show on Apple TV Plus. 

Late-night talk shows on cable and broadcast networks, once a lucrative corner of the industry, are now more endangered than white rhinos. Trevor Noah left The Daily Show because he could make more money in standup. James Corden’s Late Late Show is being succeeded by a retread game show.  

Other opportunities will come along, though, perhaps in standup comedy, where Netflix has invested heavily for years. Perhaps the upcoming Netflix Is a Joke comedy festival will end up spawning a few live streams among its 11 days of performances around Los Angeles. 

If so, comedians, remember Rock’s most important advice: don’t make more rappers mad at you, and, as his parents told him, “don’t fight in front of white people.” 

Mic drop.  

Daniel Frankel

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!