Illustration by Goñi Montes
“When TV had to appeal to everybody, you never would have — or could have — had a show like Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Sopranos, The Wire, shows that are among the best the medium has ever offered,” says Dr. Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “A show can survive today, even thrive, with an audience that would have once been considered unacceptably small.”

The quantum shift in the past several years has been courtesy largely of SVOD companies like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Crackle that allow viewers to immediately call to whatever available screen exactly what they want to watch. “With a lot of these delivery systems, you can essentially be your own programmer,” Birnbaum says. “Even better, the mix of original programs being created by some of these SVOD companies is spectacularly good.”

Launched in April 1998 as a DVD-­rental service, Netflix, which accounts for 90 percent of the SVOD market according to the NPD Group’s June report, boasts a subscription base of 37.6 million worldwide, streaming 7 billion hours of programming around the globe each month and charging users a $7.99 monthly fee for access to its extensive library of films and television programs. (Approximately 70 percent of content streamed via Netflix and other SVOD companies is television shows.)

But in March 2011, Netflix took things a step further when it announced an initiative to produce original TV series for its subscribers, a move that came to fruition with the bold, two-season order of House of Cards, directed by David Fincher and starring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey. (The series launched in February 2013.) Though Netflix does not release specific viewership numbers for its original series — despite being able to know, according to Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, “to the minute, to the device, how many viewers we have on a particular program” — executives were so sanguine about another original offering, prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black, that they ordered a second season before the first premiered. Netflix has also ordered a second season of horror tale Hemlock Grove, while another installment of Arrested Development looked likely at press time.

Every episode of Netflix’s original fare becomes available simultaneously for streaming, allowing viewers to binge their way through the narrative or watch it in smaller increments if they prefer. And in December, a newly signed pact between Netflix and DreamWorks Animation will bear fruit, offering subscribers expanded family-friendly fare based on properties like Turbo, Kung Fu Panda and Shrek.

Also entering the original-programming frontier is Amazon Prime, which offers instant streaming of selected movies and TV shows for an annual subscription fee of $79. The nearly 3-year-old service gave its members unprecedented authority when, earlier this year, its Amazon Instant Video service posted to its website 14 television pilots made through its Amazon Studios branch, then allowed viewers to choose via electronic ­feedback the slate of programs it would take to series.

“The old-school TV networks will test their shows with 30 people, or even 300,” says Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios. “We had a test audience of 300,000. That’s not a representative sampling of the audience; it’s the actual audience.”