Netflix is in a really dangerous spot as a streaming service, and it may find itself out of an audience if it doesn’t take steps to right the original content ship.
The problem is this: It’s a company that, by the nature of its service, has to be all things to all people, which is hard to do when it largely has to rely on original content versus acquiring content distribution rights, like it was able to do when it first started.
The company has a lot of money to throw at new shows, but its aim has been very shaky of late, focused on broad crowd-pleasers (such as its recent Ryan Reynolds films, which I enjoyed, but, let’s face it, didn’t necessarily need to exist) over the kinds of narrow genre work that keep users excited and engaged over time.
We think of Disney’s many content acquisitions over the years, like Star Wars and Marvel, as the broadest of the broad, but these content plays actually reflect the opposite—cult properties where the cult grew so mainstream that they came to no longer be seen as niche. Netflix doesn’t really have as much in this wheelhouse—though Stranger Things and The Umbrella Academy would neatly fit within it—so it has to aim broad to hit massive audiences. Everyone kind of likes Ryan Reynolds, and lots of people like reality TV (even if they don’t admit it), so we get more of those things.
Nothing against Ryan Reynolds and company, but this isn’t the path to deep, sustainable audience passion.
But the things that build devotees are the more narrow genre plays, which can evolve into more mainstream phenomena if given the room to breathe on their own. Traditionally, networks have been very bad about making these kinds of bets, in part because of the limited number of inputs. When you only have one number—ratings—to go on, it fails to appreciate the depth or the of the success. Which is why Arrested Development and Firefly lost out to American Idol on Fox, despite both of those shows having had the potential for significantly more durable fanbases, and Fox already having had evidence, in the form of animation, that durable fanbases targeted at genre were successful long-term strategies. (I should note that, as a counterpoint, Fox has basically leaned into the appointment-based viewing approach, exemplified by stuff such as The Masked Singer and the NFL, since most of its assets were acquired by Disney, which makes sense because it now makes most of its money from first-run programs.)
Netflix has far more inputs, but it seems to be falling into the same trap of letting its broadest plays win out over the audiences with the most potential for long-term passion.
My thought on this? Give the audience a stake in that passion. Example: I am a huge fan of absurdist comedy like I Think You Should Leave and Aunty Donna's Big Ol' House of Fun, which are probably my two favorite pieces of content Netflix has produced in the last five years. If I’m really into that kind of content, let me pay an extra dollar a month for Netflix is a Joke tier, which emphasizes that content on my front page, but also gives me early access to the next reboot of Mr. Show they do. (Hint, hint.)
More of this!
This tells Netflix that I am a consumer of this kind of content to the point where I will pay extra money to gain early access to it. This tells Netflix to invest more money in this type of work, because I’m passionate about it and want to see more of it. This gives Netflix an understanding of the depth of passion for their creative work, so that, even if those shows don’t get killer ratings, they know that people want to see more of it and are willing to invest in Netflix doing more of it.
This expands to other areas—say, anime, or fantasy shows, or other deep-genre bets. The thing is, Netflix kills excellent shows like Tuca & Bertie based on what its inputs tell it, and honestly, the inputs don’t account for the fact that the show has 50,000 superfans; it only really knows that it has 100,000 viewers. That probably isn’t enough on Netflix scale, but it would be if Netflix knew those 50,000 people were more likely to be deeply engaged than someone who watched those Ryan Reynolds films. Ultimately, it needs the 50,000 people who love everything Lisa Hanawalt does more than it needs the audience of people who will watch an Adam Sandler movie once, because those people will be more likely to follow Netflix around long-term.
Right now, the path that Netflix is on is that it aims broad because it needs the biggest audience possible, and its primary input for ROI is that people watched a show, not that they are going nuts for Tuca & Bertie online. (That show later became a hit for Adult Swim, a more narrow niche play by comparison, after Netflix shut it down—a massive missed opportunity, given that Hanawalt found her first major success on Netflix with BoJack Horseman.) This is the same problem MTV and VH1 faced in the early 2000s. They were unable to monetize the fact that the network created millions of music fanatics, at least to the degree its corporate parents wanted; eventually, the data points that told it it needed to build the largest possible audiences won out.
That is why MTV is a Ridiculousness wasteland now, with its content basically decimated because ratings won out over audience passion.
Netflix is on the path to Ridiculousness-style content taking over in the long run if it doesn’t foster fandoms of its own. And the way to fandoms is to build additional value within the subgenres.
Convince them to pay an extra buck a month for more value, rather than just charging extra money just because you need to hit a financial goal. If the value is there, they will pay it.
Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes
Time left on clock ⏲: 1 minute, 39 seconds