Chris Har­vey

The stream­ing gi­ant has pro­foundly af­fected our view­ing habits — but not nec­es­sar­ily in a pos­i­tive or even a per­ma­nent way, sug­gests

The New Zealand Herald - - NEWS - — Tele­graph Group Ltd

Last year, there was one TV show that every­one was talk­ing about. The premise sounded a lit­tle odd: an eight-part drama about a 12-year-old girl with psy­choki­netic pow­ers, who es­capes from a top-secret lab­o­ra­tory into the pro­tec­tion of a gang of nerdy boys. And with four un­known child leads, and a pair of un­known broth­ers at its helm, there was lit­tle buzz around it in the run-up to its launch.

But Stranger Things was a phe­nom­e­non — loved for its homage to 1980s hor­ror and sci-fi films, it was watched by eight mil­lion peo­ple in its first 16 days.

Mil­lie Bobby Brown, 13, who played Eleven, the mys­te­ri­ous es­capee, be­came a break­out star.

Sea­son two, re­leased in New Zealand on Fri­day, is the TV event of the year.

The success of Stranger Things — not to men­tion other hits, from po­lit­i­cal drama House of Cards to royal fam­ily saga The Crown, its first Bri­tish pro­duc­tion — has put Netflix firmly on the map as the en­ter­tain­ment com­pany of the mo­ment.

Since launch­ing as an on­line stream­ing ser­vice in 2007 (af­ter a pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tion as a DVD-by­mail busi­ness) the com­pany has gone from strength to strength — it now reaches more than 100 mil­lion sub­scribers and pro­duces an in­creas­ing num­ber of orig­i­nal TV shows and films.

A key fac­tor in its success is its use of al­go­rithms — where once, film and tele­vi­sion com­pa­nies re­lied on test screen­ings and fo­cus groups to gauge au­di­ence re­ac­tion, Netflix feeds off vast amounts of data on the view­ing habits and tastes of its sub­scribers; it clas­si­fies its shows and films us­ing about 77,000 in­di­vid­ual “mi­cro­gen­res” — and com­mis­sions more pro­grammes that fit into the most pop­u­lar ones ac­cord­ingly.

Ted Saran­dos, Netflix’s chief con­tent of­fi­cer, has sug­gested that 70 per cent of its com­mis­sion­ing de­ci­sions are based on data, and 30 per cent on hu­man judg­ment.

It there­fore had deep in­sider knowl­edge of the po­ten­tial ap­peal of Stranger Things be­fore it was com­mis­sioned, just as it did when, in 2013, it re­leased its first orig­i­nal se­ries, House of Cards.

The show’s star, Kevin Spacey, has said that the com­pany came to him and said: “We’ve run our data and it tells us that our au­di­ence would watch this se­ries. We don’t need you to do a pi­lot. How many do you wanna do?” Not only was Netflix right — as five sea­sons and nu­mer­ous awards at­test — but this com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage is now Sub­head­ing turn­ing the film and TV in­dus­try up­side down.

The com­pany also has a rep­u­ta­tion for grant­ing artis­tic free­dom, some­thing that ar­guably serves creators and view­ers well. Film di­rec­tor David Ayer re­cently sug­gested that his dis­ap­point­ing 2016 block­buster, Sui­cide Squad, had been marred by stu­dio med­dling, so it’s un­der­stand­able he has trans­ferred to Netflix for his next film, Bright, a fantasy thriller whose star, Will Smith, has also been singing the praises of the com­pany’s rel­a­tively hands-off ap­proach:

“[They] will just give you the money and let you go make the movie you want to make,” he said in July.

While this may may lead to self-in­dul­gence, it has also led to a lot of in­no­va­tion, whether that’s mix­ing up episode lengths or rep­re­sent­ing those who have been pre­vi­ously un­der-rep­re­sented on screen.

Take an­other of its flag­ship shows, women’s pri­son drama Or­ange Is the New Black, for ex­am­ple; when it was launched in 2013, it was seen as pi­o­neer­ing for putting a racially di­verse en­sem­ble of women cen­tre stage.

If you think Netflix is big now, it’s only set to get more pow­er­ful. The com­pany is spend­ing US$8 bil­lion to make its li­brary 50 per cent orig­i­nal by the end of 2018, in­clud­ing plans to make 80 films (Warner Bros made 25 in 2016).

There wasn’t much to sug­gest this star­tling fu­ture back in 1997 when Netflix’s founders, a pair of latethir­tysome­thing Sil­i­con Val­ley en­trepreneurs, be­gan talk­ing about start­ing a new in­ter­net­based busi­ness to­gether. Reed Hast­ings — whose soft­ware com­pany had just been swal­lowed up in a US$585 mil­lion merger that sig­nalled to ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists that he was a safe bet — and Marc Ran­dolph saw an op­por­tu­nity in a for­mat that was still be­ing tested — DVDs. They were small, light, cheap to post and easy to pro­tect from dam­age in the mail. The video rental busi­ness had long been a ma­jor earner, but re­lied on cus­tomers go­ing into shops to col­lect bulky VHS tapes — and so, in April 1998, af­ter six months of care­ful prepa­ra­tion, the duo launched Netflix, an on­line DVD store. The re­sponse was in­stant: their servers crashed and their laser printer couldn’t han­dle the 100 or­ders that came in.

From the start, though, Hast­ings had the idea that the 4.7 gi­ga­bytes of data that could be stored on a DVD could one day be de­liv­ered over the in­ter­net. Less than 10 years later, in 2007, with video rental gi­ant Block­buster head­ing to­wards bank­ruptcy, Netflix launched its on­line stream­ing ser­vice. In 2012, with sub­scriber num­bers grow­ing, the com­pany be­gan to ex­pand in­ter­na­tion­ally. By 2016, in less than 20 years, Netflix had be­come a global power, ex­ist­ing in 130 coun­tries.

How­ever, not ev­ery­thing about the rise of Netflix is welcome — cer­tainly not to the film and TV in­dus­try as we know it. Fed by Netflix’s re­lease for­mat, when all episodes of a se­ries are re­leased at once, au­di­ences are be­com­ing ad­dicted to binge-watch­ing — mak­ing them in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient with the old, once-a-week for­mat for TV drama — and less likely to head to the cin­ema.

Ma­jor fig­ures in the in­dus­try are start­ing to speak out against the “Netflix-isa­tion” of cul­ture: Dunkirk di­rec­tor Christo­pher Nolan said re­cently that he wouldn’t make films for the com­pany, which he be­lieved was help­ing to kill off cinemas, while rev­ered Bri­tish di­rec­tor Michael Win­ter­bot­tom re­cently told me Netflix would de­stroy Bri­tish tele­vi­sion, be­cause of the way it de­manded sto­ries with global ap­peal.

For all that it presents it­self as a brave new world for en­ter­tain­ment, it’s also up to some old tricks. As re­vealed re­cently, it doesn’t ap­pear to be pay­ing its way in Bri­tain, where it is thought to have about 6.5m sub­scribers, gen­er­at­ing an an­nual rev­enue es­ti­mated at about £400m, which it in­stead re­ports in the Nether­lands — its re­ported prof­its in Bri­tain last year were less than £1m, and it paid about £270,000 in tax.

Then there is the fact that its out­put is be­com­ing ever more hit and miss. While it presents it­self as a cre­ative pi­o­neer, it is also propped up by some low­est-com­mon­de­nom­i­na­tor con­tent, such as sit­coms The Ranch and Fuller House and its on­go­ing se­ries of Adam San­dler films. And it is start­ing to be­have more like a tra­di­tional TV net­work in its ruth­less can­celling of fail­ing shows, in­clud­ing the Naomi Watts psy­chodrama Gypsy and Baz Lurhmann’s hip-hop mu­si­cal The Get Down. It also hasn’t man­aged a sig­nif­i­cant break­out film success yet.

So where does it go from here? Will Netflix truly get a stran­gle­hold on view­ing habits, for bet­ter or worse — or is its bub­ble likely to burst?

Fi­nan­cially, ques­tions have been raised about whether, if in­ter­est rates rise, the com­pany can con­tinue to spend such mind-boggling sums on its pro­duc­tions (the first sea­son of The Crown cost US$130m; and The Get Down cost US$120m), which it fi­nanced through bor­row­ing.

But above and beyond that, there is the ques­tion of whether this will con­tinue to be the way we want to watch TV. Yes, we may have dis­pensed with the old for­mula of ek­ing out the plea­sure of a se­ries week by week, in favour of a glut­tonous all-in-one-sitting binge. But does this re­ally in­crease our view­ing plea­sure? Or are we be­com­ing jaded by the can’tstop ex­pe­ri­ence, forc­ing our­selves to down an­other se­ries in or­der to make room for the next must-watch?

Time will tell whether there will be a back­lash. In the mean­time, don’t ex­pect to see much of Stranger Things fans. Netflix’s run cer­tainly hasn’t ended yet.

Se­ries two of Stranger Things is avail­able on Netflix now.

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