If you were subscribed to Netflix late last year you might have come across quite an ironic new addition to the streaming service’s seemingly endless chasm of content. Blockbuster, billed as a workplace comedy a la The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine or my personal favourite Parks & Recreation, follows the adventures of the employees tasked with managing the last ever Blockbuster video-rental store in the United States. When one considers that it was Blockbuster, in an attempt to acquire the then budding startup, that laughed in the face of Netflix’s co-founder Marc Randolph, a weird sense of reality kicks in. As Randolph told the Guardian in a 2019 interview: “Blockbuster laughed at us… now there’s one left.”
If Blockbuster’s poor reviews, overwhelming nostalgia dumps, and ultimate cancellation not even a month after its debut on the streaming service weren’t enough of a weird, meta-slap in the face, certainly the burgeoning entertainment industry, the loss of subscribers and the streaming climate shifting are enough of a wakeup call. Right?
With 223m subscribers as of Q1 2023, Netflix isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Sitting on its streaming chaise the giant lives well, but knocks for concern and cracks beginning to show have recently caused investors and customers to caution against long-term commitments to the service. The lifecycle of a company dictates it ought to go through periods of transition, much like individuals, to build maturity, redress problems and adapt to shifts in their markets, but this market is still relatively new, in the grand scheme of things. What’s shifted is the playing field.
In conquering the video-rental market and dispatching Blockbuster as its main rival, Netflix’s astronomical growth to streaming giant was unprecedented for an entertainment business, but that’s not “impressive” anymore. It is the Disney+, Amazon’s Prime Video, Warner Bros. Discovery’s HBO Max, and Apple’s Apple TV+s of the world that have fragmented a once consolidated viewership base. Truth be told, this list is non-exhaustive and that itself is part of Netflix’s problem.
For the first time in its business lifecycle, Netflix is facing competition on multiple fronts. Its rental war with Blockbuster seems like a poultry squabble when contrasted with the variable array of providers seeking to garner the subscriptions of millions upon millions of potential customers. If you asked me to name as many streaming providers as I could in 1 minute, I could reach about forty, no exaggeration needed. If Disney+, HBO Max, Now TV, Prime Video and Apple TV+ weren’t enough, you have Hulu, Peacock, Paramount+, LionsGate+, AMC+, Crunchyroll, Rakuten, Showtime, HayU and honestly if another provider adds + to their title I may just go insane. This decentralisation of content is meant to combat the monotonous drab often associated with oligarchic network TV, but in reality it might be harming the market’s reputation for providing quality entertainment by demanding quantity in the number of subscriptions you seem to need to own instead.
A distinct complication facing Netflix and its dwindling subscriber base is the psychological phenomenon of recency bias. Extensively documented in investing and behavioural economics, it refers to the preferences of individuals being swayed by those events or phenomena that occur fresh in their minds. HBO, of Game of Thrones fame, have a reputation for offering higher quality programming, yet the culmination of their prized show left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. That was until the media giant began producing award-winning shows made for streaming TV such as Succession, House of the Dragon, The White Lotus and most recently, The Last of Us. It is an investment paying off for both subscribers of its HBO Max service and investors alike. The Internet and the modern entertainment industry is one big search for the newest trend, and streaming is no exception to this contemporary convention.
Adjoined to this problem at the hip are more recent concerns by customers, commentators and investors alike that the streaming giant has, for years, prioritised quantity over quality, choosing to place a placebo-like effect on customers, seducing them into believing each project greenlit by Netflix’s Original studio will get the same level of care, attention and excellence as Stranger Things, Bridgerton or Don’t Look Up. One need only look at the overflowing cornucopia of cancelled shows Netflix has pulled from its proverbial writers room. Adaptations of the Resident Evil Franchise, the famed Anime Cowboy Bebop, and Altered Carbon, billed as Netflix’s answer to Westworld–esque Sci-Fi all met the same grisly fate, despite garnering audiences that would have made regular network TV froth at the mouth. No director or show is exempt from this either. Dark, one of Netflix’s most beloved non-English language shows, was followed up by its creators with 1899, released in November 2022. Taken at face value, the viewership numbers were healthy, totalling 79.2m hours watched in its first week. It didn’t take long before the chopping block(unexpectedly) beckoned, with the genre-blending series getting scrapped at the start of this year. As Forbes recently noted, Netflix is coming across now as more of a, “graveyard of dead series with unfinished conclusions,” than a hallmark staple on Smart TV.
Netflix’s own business and operational decisions are certainly not acting as quite the cushion many at its top level would have hoped. Price hikes in this industry are something of a novelty, with Netflix the only service to have increased their asking price for all three tiers of subscription in recent years. This might seem counterintuitive, and you would be right to question this decision. Despite pouring millions into production of original streaming content, such gambles seemed to not pay off and, like any struggling business, Netflix have shifted the burden to consumers. It does not bode well for the streaming giant that I can subscribe to Prime Video, Disney+ and Apple TV+ for roughly the same price as Netflix’s premium tier subscription.
Amid these price increases, Netflix’s tug in the other direction in an attempt to lessen the blow is a cheaper, ad-supported tier of its service. Now, where have I heard that before?
Network TV. RTE Player. BBC iPlayer. ITV Hub or whatever it’s called now.
In the past decade or so that streaming has burrowed its way into the mainstream and the ordinary home, it has without a shadow of a doubt brought connotations of ad-free entertainment with it. You cannot tell me that the first payment to Prime Video or Netflix came with the hope of advertisements blaring every 15 minutes or so. As a long-time admirer of shows such as Doctor Who and the assortment of comedy series the BBC has produced in recent years, I assure you there is nothing worse than getting halfway through a series finale only to have some marketing rubbish thrown at me about BBC’s other shows, none of which I remember, and for good reason. Netflix is regressing, not just when it comes to the quality of its creations, but in its corporate mindset too.
All this is to say that the future of entertainment and how we consume it looks set for a shaky ride. Gone of course are the days where you physically own a copy of a film or series, and we must now contend with shake-ups that appear to be happening from the top down.