Netflix, which started as the scrappy little video rental that could and evolved into a media giant, might be getting too big for its own britches. The explosion of original programming—a new show rolls out approximately every two weeks—designed to attract more viewers might be doing just the opposite. In its haste to build subscriber and viewer numbers, Netflix has abandoned a fundamental precept of media: Quality is more important than quantity. A bored viewership is one that will quickly drift away.
“Netflix,” pleads Eric Thurm at Wired, “stop spamming us with crappy shows.” He’s thinking of the dubious Scrotal Recall, one of a slew of Netflix Originals that came out this month. Technically, it’s what’s known as an “exclusive”—the show was originally developed and produced for BBC4, but Americans who want to (legally) watch it will have to do so on Netflix, because it has an exclusive license. But it’s not just this questionable British rom-com that’s the problem.
The company’s history of sharp, tight original shows—perhaps best exemplified by House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black—is a big draw for viewers frustrated with the limited, commercial-clogged offerings of broadcast networks, as well as the poor options in U.S. theaters. Netflix has done an outstanding job of bringing a huge range of content, including international programming, to its streaming service, capitalizing on the market for foreign film and television, previous seasons of hit U.S. television, and more. With a constantly cycling repertoire, Netflix has also established a reason for viewers to keep renewing their subscription fees, since anything might come up next.
Quality is more important than quantity. A bored viewership is one that will quickly drift away.
In terms of development, the energy that goes into Netflix Originals is impressive, with a reliance on incredibly complicated and savvy uses of user data. With every login, notes Ken Auletta at the New Yorker, viewers contribute data that helps the company determine their taste in order to offer personal recommendations, but more than that, user data helps the company perfect the site’s formula. Netflix knows what people are watching, it knows whether people are finishing films and individual television episodes, it knows which tags people are using, and it knows which shows people are marathoning.
“Netflix is commissioning original content because it knows what people want before they do,” wrote David Carr for the New York Times in 2013. That user data is vital to developing the special sauce that makes shows big hits, as in the case of House of Cards, he explained:
Netflix, which has 27 million subscribers in the nation and 33 million worldwide, ran the numbers. It already knew that a healthy share had streamed the work of Mr. Fincher, the director of The Social Network, from beginning to end. And films featuring Mr. Spacey had always done well, as had the British version of House of Cards. With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.
The company is notoriously tight-lipped about its ratings, although outside firms have had a stab at estimating them. At Variety, Andrew Wallenstein reported on the results of a recent survey of Netflix users, designed to determine audience numbers for some of the service’s most popular shows. Daredevil and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are both performing extremely well, edging out House of Cards in viewership.
“Because Netflix does not carry any advertising,” Wallenstein notes, “the company professes not to care when a subscriber watches content.” This is clearly not the case—Netflix is very invested in teasing releases and encouraging viewers to marathon shows as soon as they’re unlocked to the public. It needs high subscriber numbers to pay for costly development deals, and it knows that highly engaging programming keeps those numbers up and gives people a reason to come back.
— Netflix US (@netflix) April 28, 2015
— Netflix US (@netflix) April 26, 2015
Netflix, however, is running into trouble. The formula for developing the next great original hit—whether it be truly original programming, a revival of a once-dead series, or an exclusive deal on a foreign show—is just that: a formula. Even with extremely intelligent algorithms backed by experienced and savvy producers, viewers grow weary of formulaic television, whether it’s on broadcast or on Netflix, and they’re beginning to smell a rat.