By now, we are all aware that Netflix is doing everything it can to completely take over the television industry, and to some extent, it’s succeeding. The billions of dollars it’s spending on content shows up on the streaming service pretty much weekly, with new series premiering, and new seasons of existing shows dropping at such regular intervals, it’s genuinely hard to keep up with it all. Nigh on impossible, in fact.
But that isn’t Netflix’s concern. It has over 100 million subscribers now, having reached the magic number it had set out to achieve, and in spite of the billions of dollars it brings in through those subscriptions — soon to be even more, as it has announced an increase in the subscription price to an extra dollar a month, which will provide more than a billion dollars annually — it continues to borrow billions more to keep churning out that content. It’s an odd business model that has more than one industry expert curious as to how the company expects to be able to keep it up without some kind of dip, and yet that habit doesn’t show any sign of abating.
Netflix has become a bit less cavalier in renewing its shows that don’t perform as well, as evidenced by the ending of Marco Polo, Bloodline, The Get Down, Girlboss, and Gypsy, the last three of those all after just a single season. Sense8 is also on that list, though Netflix reversed its hard cancellation a few days after it was announced this summer by declaring that the series would get a two-hour film to wrap up the storyline that had ended season two with a cliffhanger. Either way, the decision to stop throwing good money after bad is somewhat new here, and might actually be the first chink in an armor that most people had previously thought impregnable.
Still, the thing about Netflix that people seem to keep forgetting is that it has an infinite number of hours to fill with its programming. That isn’t an exaggeration, either. As a refresher, think of this: the broadcast networks have between 10 and 22 hours of prime time television to fill each week. A cable network needs to fill a bit more than that, usually with movies and syndicated shows, but with some paid programming and a smattering of original content to help fill it in. Pay cable nets like HBO and Showtime, to name two, have to pack 168 hours per week, most of them with movies, with a few hours of original stuff and random bits of filler here and there. All of these jobs, by the way, are challenging, and require a team of people to get it all done.
Consider Netflix, though, and that job becomes exponentially harder because every show it has must be accessible at any time of day for any consumer with a subscription. Whereas you would need to set your DVR on Monday nights at 8:00 to see The Big Bang Theory, you can dial up Netflix whenever you want to watch any episode you’d like of Grace and Frankie, or Real Rob, or any CW show ever aired. With that kind of demand from that many subscribers, there’s no wonder the company continues to spend like drunken sailors on holiday. While it’s true that any one person could never really wade their way through the entire Netflix catalog, with more and more people cutting the cord and relying on streaming television, the simple reality is that a service like Netflix can’t be caught unprepared for any demographic in any part of its viewership.
We don’t know what Netflix’s viewing metrics are, because the company doesn’t release them, but there have been some independent studies that have been able to suss out some of those numbers. The second season of Daredevil, for instance, was something of a sensation, while pretty much no one watched The Get Down, which now takes its place in infamy as one of the most expensive flops in the history of the medium. It’s a shame, too, because the show was actually a lot of fun and had its share of moments, but for whatever reason, audiences weren’t all that keen on watching Baz Luhrmann’s story about the birth of hip-hop and rap in 1970s New York City.
At the same time, though, a show like The Get Down represents something that Netflix can do which few others can, so that even when it fails, it’s still not a total loss. There is the sense of experimentation here, a willingness to produce shows that others might not have, simply because they can. For a good example of that, we can take another look at Grace and Frankie, a show I mentioned as part of a larger column I wrote a few weeks ago, regarding the way TV disregards its seniors, both on camera and on the couch at home. There simply aren’t any shows being made anymore about senior citizens, which is why something like Grace and Frankie so stands out. Recall, please, that the final episode of The Golden Girls aired 25 years ago, and there has been very little in the way of replacement since. Whereas broadcast networks might be skittish about attracting viewers that don’t fit what they perceive to be a valued demographic, Netflix only needs to focus on its subscribers.
Remember, too, that unlike anything on either broadcast or cable, Netflix — as well as Amazon and Hulu, to whom we will get over the next couple weeks — has exact and precise information on who its subscribers are and what they’re watching. It will know if you watched a whole season of a show, or couldn’t get through the first episode. It will keep track of what you like and don’t like, and suggest things to you based on your viewing habits, sometimes to comedic effect. Armed with that kind of information, there’s no wonder so few shows are actually canceled. That list of shows above is pretty short, and it’s almost certainly fair to take Bloodline off of it, simply because that show’s story seemed to fit perfectly into its three seasons, which makes it even shorter.
Something else Netflix has that very few others do is the power of bingeing, which can turn a show into a sensation literally overnight. If you doubt it, look no further than Stranger Things, which sees its much-ballyhooed second season dropping in a couple weeks, on Halloween. The eight-episode first season was short enough for people to watch in one sitting, and word spread like wildfire. Within a month, it was everywhere, verily setting the interwebs on fire in a way that, say, an HBO show never could. Yes, millions of people watch Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, but Netflix’s ability to give its audience everything at once provides an invaluable trump card that continues to play itself over and over again. Another example of a show benefiting greatly from this is The Crown.
Controversy helps, too. 13 Reasons Why is a show that probably no one else would have had the guts to do, and if they had, they might have pulled the show after an episode or two had run, but Netflix stuck with it, and the resulting uproar about glorifying teen suicide (which it most certainly did not do) only drew more viewers to the series.
All this, by the way, and we haven’t even mentioned the network’s two flagship series and Emmy magnets, House of Cards, and Orange Is the New Black, each of which has now completed five seasons and is on its way to more. The depth of Netflix’s roster is so deep, that its two most important shows — as in, things wouldn’t be where they were without their success, much like The CW and Arrow — barely warrant a mention in this kind of analysis. More interesting, in fact, are deals like the one the company pulled off earlier this summer, when it bought the catalog of characters from comics creator Mark Millar’s Millarworld for between $50 million and $100 million. That purchase allows Netflix to have its own stable of superheroes and villains, to accompany those that it already airs thanks to its deal with Marvel. Even as the quality of the Marvel shows gets a bit spotty (and, in the case of Iron Fist, non-existent), those series are still among the most popular the service provides, and Millarworld’s addition could potentially add on to that.
There are questions, of course. The above-mentioned concerns about profitability, for instance, is a major one. Netflix is going to have to start making money at some point, which is hard with such tremendous overhead. There’s also the film division, which we covered previously as part of our Studio Series. That part of the operation is still in its nascent stage and is struggling to find its footing. The TV division, however, is as secure as it can be, as long as the money continues to flow.