As Netflix continues to expand their original programing, why is it getting harder and harder to find anything good?
A few months ago, I got a text from my brother. “Netflix is raising their price again. Should we even keep it?” (Note: like most hard working Americans, I do not have my own Netflix account, I simply mooch off of someone else’s) A few years ago, I would have thought that this was crazy. Cancel my Netflix account? Where else was I going to rewatch 30 Rock for the 15th time? But times have changed, as has Netflix’s business structure. We have reached a point where Netflix’s price continues to rise, but the amount of good content that they have has decreased. This is starting to effect their subscribers as well, with Netflix losing 130,000 US subscribers in the last quarter alone. With more and more networks removing content from Netflix in favor of their own streaming services, Netflix has continued to produce their own content to populate their service. In 2019 alone, Netflix has produced 37 new movies and 25 new television shows, and that’s not including their shows that have been renewed from previous years, stand up programs, documentaries, or mini-series. The amount of original content that Netflix is producing makes up a majority of their library. However, most of the content they make is derivative, forgetful, and just plain old bad.
Now before we start, I do want to say, Netflix does produce some content that is unique and interesting. I Think You Should Leave, Russian Doll, and High Flying Bird are some of Netflix’s new properties that have really stood out from the rest of the pack. But between those gems, you’ll find dregs like Secret Obsession, which better belongs on the Lifetime network. What about the vastly promoted Murder Mystery, a movie, which, according to Netflix, was viewed by 30.9 million households on opening weekend? That movie received a generous 45% on Rotten Tomatoes. Netflix produces original content at a rate quicker than most networks and other streaming services. In doing this, Netflix is trying to move itself away from being just a streaming platform to being its own major studio. The difference between Netflix and other studios, however, is that they are also their own distributors and, in a sense, their own movie theater. Netflix is attempting to cut out the middleman to control all of the aspects of movie watching. Compare that to another streaming giant, Amazon, who has produced movies such as The Big Sick, Cold War, and, most recently, Late Night. Each of those movies, while produced by Amazon, received a major theatrical release before being placed on Amazon Prime months later. Netflix, however, keeps their content on their service in lieu of a wide theatrical release. This created controversy at last years Oscars, when the Netflix Original Movie, Roma, only received a brief, 3-week stint in theaters in order to qualify for an Academy Award. Many people, including Steven Spielberg, criticized the streaming giant, saying that movies “that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should [not] qualify for the Academy Award nomination”. Despite this criticism, Netflix is still planning on releasing the films that they feel are Oscar-worthy for a short theatrical run in 2019, including Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.
By becoming judge, jury, and executioner, Netflix is not necessarily under the same amount of scrutiny as a major studio would be. Netflix does not need to worry about ratings or box offices. Netflix has always been incredibly secretive about their viewership ratings, which makes the number that they gave for Murder Mystery a little suspect. Another thing that Netflix has going for them is the amount of data they have on their customers. This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but Netflix collects a lot of data on you! What you watch, how long you watch, what shows you hover over in the menu screen, how long you hover. With this data, they build a profile on you and try to help you decide what kind of programming you would like. Long gone are the days of user reviews. Now, instead it’s how much the content matches your viewing patterns. Netflix uses data to try to create a perfectly curated experience just for you. How far does this go? Well, Netflix will even change the artwork on their thumbnails in order to try to attract different types of viewers based off of their data. Netflix’s entire business strategy is based off of algorithms and data collection, and this is 100% true with the creation of their original content.
This is not just a conspiracy theory. Take it from Cary Fukunaga, the creator of the hit Netflix miniseries, Maniac, who has said he took writing advice directly from Netflix’s algorithms. Netflix uses their user data to create content that will generate the most buzz, the most attraction, the most views. While this may seem smart in terms of generating clicks, what it ends up doing is creating incredibly mediocre, unoriginal content. Did you like Breaking Bad? Well, here’s another show starring a normally comedic actor who has been put in an unlikely situation and is now forced with the Mexican Drug Cartel. How about A Quiet Place? Well, here’s a movie about a family that cannot use one of their senses because of a monster hunting them down. By relying on algorithms to make creative decisions, Netflix ends up with watered down, forgetful content that doesn’t say or do anything, and that’s often times repetitive. They constantly play it safe with their decisions. Netflix goes for quantity over quality, mass producing content on a scale that hasn’t been seen before.
But Netflix wasn’t always this way. When they first started making original content, Netflix was praised for their originality and creativity. House of Cards, Netflix’s first original show, was lauded by critics and fans alike. Orange is the New Black was able to give starring roles to women and people of color. In their first couple years, Netflix was being selective in their choices of content, outsourcing content from other production companies in order to bring unique and new voices the forefront. However, those days have changed, as Netflix continues to build their production empire. They have shifted their focus to vertical integration — producing content that comes from in-house as opposed to outside production companies. Not only that, but Netflix has started to cancel many of their successful shows that were originally outsourced. While Netflix isn’t getting rid of outside production companies completely, their increase focus in producing in house has caused for their quality to dip in recent years.
Netflix’s business model — subscription based content — isn’t new. In fact, HBO has been doing this for years, but the difference is that HBO is more selective in their content. In the 20 plus years that HBO has been creating television programming, they have only created roughly 75 original programs, excluding mini-series and sketch comedies. While HBO may be changing their ways, their quality first programming has made them one of the premiere networks, revolutionizing television along the way. Netflix will never be HBO. They certainly had the chance, but with their most popular shows leaving the service within the next 2 years, they’ll try to fill their void with their own original programs.
Netflix is what happens when you combine Silicon Valley with Hollywood. You try to get the most Daily Active Users on your website, so you create enough content to make people want to continuously come back. Instead of people making decisions, algorithms do. And what you end up with is a lot of forgetful content. Netflix had the chance to revolutionize television and film for the better. But they choose quantity over quality. So, in summation, no, I haven’t canceled my Netflix account. There is still enough content that is worth it to keep me stringing along. For now. But in today’s day and age where everyone is making their own content, maybe Netflix could benefit from a little more quality control.