Circa 2009. A co-worker and I had indulged ourselves in an Arrested Development quote-off. “I love Netflix,” I gushed – a reference to the fact that, though I’d heard a lot about the aforementioned cult comedy series, it was only due to the not-then-what-it-is-now streaming service that I’d been able to enjoy the show’s three seasons of impeccable zaniness for myself. Repeatedly.
“Who doesn’t?” My colleague replied. She was right. Netflix was poised to become (if it hadn’t quite already by that point) the next big thing.
Super quick history lesson: I’d been a Netflix fan for a while before that. Back in the UK (I moved to the US in ’07) I’d been an avid early adopter of Netflix, even before it was a streaming service. As a burgeoning cinephile, their primary business model back then was DVD rental by mail. And what a service it was – suddenly the world of film and TV was at my beck-and-call! You want an obscure Godard? I can get you an obscure Godard. Hell, I can get you an obscure Godard by three o’clock this afternoon.
By 2009, Netflix was streaming. And it was revolutionary. I was new to the States, new to the largely unquestioned expectation that everyone would willingly pay $100+ per month for a cable package, and I was instantly and resolutely against it. Netflix was the easy and obvious solution. I was at the crest of the cord-cutting wave, before it even became a thing (so fetch!) and it was obvious to me that one the masses came to their senses, cable would be done. Netflix was the future!
So now it’s the future, and, as predicted, Netflix is a behemoth is in its own right. But not all is rosy.
Streaming has caught on. Big time. So has cord cutting. And not-so-much-cord-cutting-really-when-you-think-about-it. Now everyone is jumping on the streaming service bandwagon. In addition to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc. CBS has launched their own service on the back of their latest incarnation of Star Trek and umpteen interchangeable procedurals, and everyone’s currently bracing themselves for Disney getting in on the game too – a move broadcast by their decision to let their current VOD deal with Netflix expire at the end of 2018. Similarly, HBO and Showtime have finally launched their own standalone services, meaning you can watch Game of Thrones without needed to commit yourself to a pesky cable package you really don’t want.
In short, the marketplace is choked. And there’s a ton of other problems that could send me down different tangents for hours. (Best example: Net Neutrality.) So let’s keep the focus on Netflix and its copycat cronies. Netflix has shrewdly refocused on creating original films and TV shows, with $6 billion spent on such content in 2017 alone. Why shrewdly? Because as Netflix has exploded in popularity, everyone else followed suit. Studios who owned the content in the first place have let their agreements with Netflix lapse in the hope of making more money through launching their own version of Netflix. That’s exactly what Disney has planned. And it has made “cord cutting” frustratingly literal. No longer does the movement have the appeal of greater freedom, more choice, and lower costs – now it’s everything we hated about cable but in the cloud. All we’ve lost are the actual cords. And we’ve gained nothing except an abundance of Adam Sandler flicks.
Where is this defeatist view of Netflix coming from? Truthfully, it’s been a gradual thing. For one, I feel like I rarely watch films any more. I have Netflix, there’s loads of movies on there, so why aren’t I watching? I check the “what’s new” lists each month, but it increasingly feels underwhelming. Sure, there’s an occasional Pete’s Dragon or Clouds of Sils Maria, but they’re far too few, and increasingly far between. No, what I typically use Netflix for these days is the mindless binging of TV shows, many of which I admit are guilty pleasures. It was only within the past week, reading Newsweek’s scathing critique of Netflix’s lack of classic film that I realized what the bigger issue was here.
Netflix is no longer the Netflix I fell in love with.
Back in the day, it was not just a brave new alternative to traditional cable, it was a door to all sorts of film and TV that history and the world has on offer. Not anymore. Not that it’s all Netflix’s fault. Rights holders have come to recognize Netflix for the golden goose for that it potentially is. Sure, Netflix could pay more for existing content, but then they’d have to raise their subscriber fees. Yes, I’m thankful that they haven’t, but at the same time I’m questioning whether instead spending money on the disappointingly bland and unoriginal Little Evil (as opposed to licensing worthwhile existing content – an argument that’s bizarre to make as a creator myself) is a better business strategy in the long term.
I understand Netflix’s logic. I do. If rights owners won’t sell to them, or won’t sell for a reasonable price, then investing in your own stable of content makes a certain degree of sense. You want to have something new for people who plop themselves down on the couch on a Friday night and search Netflix for something to watch. But what is there to watch, really? It’s the old joke about there being hundreds of channels and nothing on, but now it’s neatly packaged into a single app. At least the future’s efficient.
Where do we go from here? We’ve already reached a point where the streaming market is incredibly fractured. Cord cutting is far from the money saving idyll it once promised to be. It’s now essentially a bunch of premium à la carte cable channels – all have content exclusive to them.
For me, personally, I think it’s time to rethink my relationship with Netflix. It’s my default option for entertainment – as it is for my entire family – but maybe it’s time we took a break. We already have and vastly underutilize Amazon Prime’s streaming video service, so maybe dropping Netflix for a while wouldn’t be the shock to the system I fear it might be. For the handful of shows (Netflix originals or others not available through Amazon) maybe we simply subscribe for a month at a time and binge the heck out of them, as we already do with HBO’s Game of Thrones and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The money saved on Netflix could then be put towards two newer services that offer what Netflix once did for me – engrossing, artistic, and thought-provoking films from around the world or decades before: Mubi (a curated and rolling library of titles, formerly named The Auteurs to give you an idea of its film snob pedigree) and Filmstruck (self-proclaimed home of the world’s most important films and current exclusive streaming home of the Criterion Collection). I think such a move would make me happier. It might still cost me a couple of dollars more each month than I’m currently paying, but I’d be getting better value from my Prime membership, and I’d be watching more films – and not just that, but really good films.
Regardless, the streaming environment will continue to change and evolve, new services will crowd the marketplace, plenty of services will be found wanting and will fall to the wayside. Maybe Netflix will regain its sense of streaming entertainment utopia it once was. But whether it could do so without becoming cable – something (yet nothing) for everyone, and all at an exorbitant monthly fee. We’ll see. But one thing’s for certain: times, they are a-changing. It’ll be interesting to see the state of Netflix and the streaming market as a whole in another decade.