As we all know by now, Netflix is in trouble. Initial reactions to last week’s news that Netflix lost 200.000 subscribers, the first loss of subscribers reported in a decade, included a drop in share values of 35% in one day. The reasons are complex, as, perhaps, best outlined by Josef Adalion in Vulture. After the gains made in pandemic lockdowns, Netflix lost subscribers once people started to go out again. Further, the price rises for subscriptions hurt Netflix, especially considering the, for some people, massive rises in cost of living. Netflix pulled out of Russia as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, which cost 700.000 accounts. In the overall tally, the company cancelled more accounts in Russia than it lost overall, so things may not be that grim, after all. And yet, the cancelling of various projects still in development, as well as the laying off of much of the companies’ animation department and predictions of further subscriber losses, suggests differently. There are many reasons for Netflix’s troubles right now. Yet, no matter how we – or the stock market – interpret this news, what struck me is that it somehow ‘felt’ right that Netflix is losing subscribers. Netflix is ‘normal’, ‘neutral’, ‘boring’. This feeling may actually have also fuelled a lot of the Twitter debates and Schadenfreude more than any facts. Who still watches Netflix after all?
And yet, maybe nobody watches Netflix (which is different from cancelling the account) in the same way that nobody watches linear TV, meaning: a lot of people watch Netflix all the time, but it feels so ‘normal’, we barely register it. This is also visible in the cultural niche Netflix has aimed to fit itself into for at least five years. Though it’s in-house productions still include a sleugh of ‘quality’ TV, like Maid, the company has also turned towards more middle-brow televisual productions: cheaply made true crime documentaries and documentary series that add little to widely discussed cases (Madeline McCann, Jimmy Saville or Britney Spears, for example); mediocre sitcoms, complete with laugh-track; teen series that may start out catching the eyes of reviewers, but devolve in quality in later seasons; blockbuster series like Stranger Things, where new seasons are announced with trailers that promise a cinematic experience; Reality TV of varying quality, including hit shows like Tiger King, Selling Sunset and Queer Eye. In other words: TV (or, at least, scripted TV). Perhaps this is why, facing stalling subscriber growth, Netflix is looking towards the financing models of US linear TV by exploring ad buys to make individual programmes pay off, rather than the service overall.
In the almost decade I have researched Netflix and binge-watching, the streamer has rarely felt so much like TV than it does now: mostly unremarkable, surrounded by predictions of its imminent demise and, maybe most importantly, a habit, and therefore invisible. A few years ago, Netflix deliberately sought this. As Lisa Gitelman points out, new media need to build up continuities with previous, already existing media forms and habits (2006) and, at the time, Netflix aimed to establish itself as TV. Now, compared to its fellow streamers, Netflix looks positively ‘old’ and more recent features, like a national and international Top 10, have not necessarily made it look or feel less familiar. As Roger Silverstone (1994) points out, television becomes familiar as it is integrated into the rituals of everyday life. Those already subscribed to Netflix have made it fit into these systems and as the success of Friends on Netflix shows, have increasingly sought to combine the platform with familiar content. And the streamers’ efforts towards the middlebrow are certainly testament to its efforts to ‘replace’ broadcast TV by investing in similar content. Of course, this carries a certain misunderstanding of how streaming was poised to develop, even in the early 2010s when Netflix’s only ‘real’ rivals were Hulu in the US market and Amazon’s streaming service transnationally: Netflix can function akin to a channel within streaming, but is, itself not TV. Derek Johnson, in his edited collection From Networks to Netflix (2018), highlights this by treating Netflix as one channel among others, even pre-streaming wars.
In my research, I have often highlighted the continuities with linear television, but the current moment allows us re-think exactly how streaming functions and what its relationship with linear television is. What Netflix’s current crisis shows is how it is different: Netflix is a company. More than that, it’s a public company with shareholders it is accountable to. Netflix may be akin to a channel but does not have different channels. Because of this, Netflix relies on subscriber growth in a way the medium of TV, or individual channels, do not. Further, this dependence means that individual programmes are not rewarded for attracting large audiences, only for attracting new subscribers (who, then, often stay as the programme that originally attracted them is continued). In many ways, the familiarity of Netflix ultimately sets it up well in the streaming wars: rather than the shiny new toy, Netflix remains the ‘normal’ of streaming platforms. This hardly signals subscriber growth but may stave off potential losses.
Overall, Netflix’s current crisis especially highlights streaming’s difference from linear TV, as it shows a vulnerability to the market and a dependence on subscriber growth television, as medium, simply does not have.
Mareike Jenner is a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Anglia Ruskin University. Her research is focused on contemporary television, television genre and streaming. Her edited collection Binge-Watching and Contemporary Television Studies was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021. Her previous work includes the monographs Netflix and the Re-Invention of Television (Palgrave, 2018) and American Detective Dramas (Palgrave, 2015).
Gitelman, L., 2006. Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Johnson, D., 2018. From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels. 1st ed. Milton: Routledge.
Silverstone, R., 1994. Television and Everyday Life. London: Routledge.
Friends (1994-2004), USA: NBC
Maid (2021), USA: Netflix
Queer Eye (2018- ), USA: Netflix
Selling Sunset (2019- ), USA: Netflix
Stranger Things (2016- ), USA: Netflix
Tiger King (2020), USA: Netflix