Is Netflix Still Worth a Damn?
The streaming giant used to be a viewer’s best friend. Now, it seems content to give us the finger
If Netflix wasN’t the only streaming video service of the 2010s, it often felt as if it was. It had a remarkable library of classic TV shows that at one point included The Office, Friends, and Lost, to name a few. Beginning in 2013 with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, and continuing through Daredevil, Stranger Things, and more, it had a wave of original series that viewers couldn’t stop talking about. And its method of releasing every episode of a new season at once transformed the very way we all consumed and talked about television. While other streamers like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video struggled to keep up, Netflix just kept spending, apparently determined to destroy as much of the competition as possible while convincing viewers they would never need another source for TV and movies.
The plan worked — sort of. The volume of Netflix’s output encouraged millions of consumers to cut the cable cord and stick with a handful of streamers, burning traditional broadcast and cable ratings almost down to ash. But where Netflix should feel triumphant as the 10th anniversary of the Cards premiere approaches next year, instead it’s playing defense. Sure, its subscriber base still vastly outnumbers any of its competitors, but it’s a tech company whose business model is predicated on constant growth, and that growth of late has slowed to a crawl. In some markets, it’s even gone down, which has sent the value of Netflix’s stock plummeting. (The price dropped 35 percent on one day alone in mid-April.) The service that once prided itself on providing a clean, ad-free alternative to traditional television is now planning a lower-priced, ad-supported subscription tier later this year to stop the bleeding.
How did a company that once wiped Blockbuster off the map with its maverick ingenuity become another potential business-school cautionary tale? It’s the shows, stupid.
While Netflix had a huge head start on the competition, the rest of the industry was not blind to what was happening throughout the 2010s. Every other conglomerate quickly understood both that streaming was the future and that they had to beef up their own digital platforms right away. As Netflix’s library deals lapsed, those titles went back home: Friends to HBO Max, The Office to Peacock, and so on.
And if Netflix’s competitors couldn’t compete in quantity of original programming, they could in quality. Netflix has made a few masterpieces over the past decade — see our list at right — but for the most part, its executives seemed to aim for shows that were just good enough. The suits trusted that the superior caliber of their user interface, the power of their recommendation algorithm, and a heavy emphasis on serialization and cliffhangers would make people want to keep watching more and more Netflix, no matter what.
But that approach has proved to be unsustainable now that customers have so many
other options. Netflix finally won a couple of major Emmys last year, for The Crown and
The Queen’s Gambit, and still manages the odd breakout hit, like Bridgerton or Squid Game. More often than not, though, the shows people are talking about these days come from non-Netflix sources, like The Mandalorian on Disney+, Ted Lasso on Apple TV+, or The Flight Attendant on HBO Max.
Not coincidentally, all of those shows are either released on a traditional one-episodeper-week schedule or some kind of hybrid model that’s still well short of Netflix’s binge-release approach. Where binges once felt exciting, there’s now so much television that it can feel like homework to have an entire season dumped on you on a Friday. The binge model has also encouraged the worst instincts in many Netflix creators, who too often refer to their shows as “a 10-hour movie.” This is meant to sound prestigious, but it mostly turns a season into an amorphous bag of plot with an inescapable sense that things have been dragging on for much too long.
Netflix’s early image was as a friend to the viewer, rescuing shows canceled by other networks. It seemed to have an unspoken agreement with audiences that series would be allowed to run as long as creators wanted — or, at least, that creators would be given ample warning if they had to write a finale. Those days are long gone. Now, the Netflix algorithm has determined that all but the most popular shows are better off ending within two to three seasons, because viewers would rather have constantly new viewing options than keep watching their favorites for years on end. And in many cases, shows like the charming women’s pro-wrestling dramedy GLOW have been abruptly canceled without any kind of storytelling closure for their audiences.
A big part of the problem is that so many Netflix originals lately seem to have been developed solely to satisfy the “if you liked that, you’ll enjoy this” aspect of the algorithm, and come across as pale imitations of the real thing. Ozark clearly scratched an itch for viewers who missed Breaking Bad, Justified, and the like, but even its fans seemed more excited for the type of show it was than for Ozark itself.
All along, there’s been a complacent and at times arrogant attitude at Netflix that its way is the only way; its algorithm is smarter than the most astute TV veterans, and anyone suggesting otherwise is just living in the past. That same posture has been palpable in recent Netflix PR disasters like its steadfast defense of Dave Chappelle’s anti-trans rhetoric in his Netflix specials, and in the company’s aggressive but so far largely unsuccessful pursuit of Academy Awards for its movie division.
For all the talk over the years by Netflix execs about the ways they are transforming the television industry, the core idea remains the same as it was in the days of I Love Lucy: Make shows that people really want to watch. With its tentacles reaching in so many directions, Netflix hasn’t been doing enough of that for quite a while. Whether it can find its way back to the future remains to be seen.