Quantity overtakes quality in Netflix’s new expansion plan

Netflix doesn’t just want to dominate TV. The popular streaming platform hopes to take over the world.

In the next two years, the company hopes to expand to 200 countries, planning to launch in territories like New Zealand and Australia next March. If that’s an exacting goal, Netflix’s other plan is equally ambitious: To meet the demands of a growing international consumer base, the service is more than doubling its planned output of original content. Whereas Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos previously promised that the platform would launch a show “every couple weeks,” Sarandos recently announced that Netflix will be airing 31 shows in 2016, nearly twice the 16 that aired this year. That’s a new show every 1.6 weeks.

This will be a mix of returning programs and freshman debuts, and the slate is nothing if not promising: Judd Apatow will launch his first TV show in a decade, the Gillian Jacobs starrer Love; Baz Luhrmann’s long-awaited hip-hop drama, The Get Down, will hope to have what Empire is having. But for every Orange Is the New Black or Jessica Jones the streaming service debuts, there seem to be just as many utter misfires. While Master of None became appointment viewing, Netflix gave Adam Sandler minion Rob Schneider yet another TV show, for reasons that are apparent to no one.

Just because Netflix is so ubiquitous that the act of watching it has spawned its own meme (and accompanying Halloween costume) doesn’t mean that the company always knows what it’s doing—and that remains clear. Shows like Hemlock Grove, Between, and Marco Polo proved disasters—and were you even aware that Netflix launched a Richie Rich reboot? On network, a show as poorly received by audiences and critics as Hemlock Grove would have barely survived a season (remember Viva Laughlin or Canterbury’s Law?), but it somehow survived for three on Netflix.

If Netflix’s “throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” model is leading to higher highs and lower lows for the service, it’s not alone. Amazon Studios has found success with shows like Transparent and The Man in the High Castle, but it was also behind the religious drama Hand of God, one of the worst-reviewed serious shows in many a moon. Earlier this year, the A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston panned the freshman show, saying that it would “test your faith in television,” while the Guardian’s Bryan Moylan was even more damning: “This might be the worst show I’ve ever seen.”

While these might seem like outliers in brands known for producing quality television, Moylan hits the nail on the head: These awful, awful shows are actually a product of that corporate model. “[P]laces like Amazon try to be hands-off with creators, but that isn’t necessarily making better television,” he argued. The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan agreed—saying that strategy is affecting even acclaimed streaming shows, like Bloodline and Sense8. “I’ve often had occasion to wonder is they’re giving them too much rope,” Ryan said. “It’s common for their dramas to get tangled up and slow down, even at the pilot stage, and in the middle of seasons, Netflix dramas often sag and meander, and… they take a long time to work up a head of steam.”

Netflix’s “throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” model is leading to higher highs and lower lows for the service.

But if streaming services are greenlighting a lot of shows with little oversight (and that creative control is why noted auteurs like Apatow and Luhrmann are seeking them out), Netflix can’t get off the conveyor belt now. As Fortune notes, one of the drawbacks of Netflix’s distribution model—of releasing its shows all at once—is that shows don’t stay in the public eye nearly as long. Broadcast dramas like Fargo and Game of Thrones can count on months of buzz throughout the duration of their seasons. “By contrast, House of Cards vanished almost completely from the news shortly after its release,” Fortune’s S. Kumar wrote.

That’s important to note, because it shows that Netflix doesn’t just need to keep making new shows to attract a global audience but to keep people talking about it. Although an acclaimed, zeitgeist-defining show like Master of None might keep people talking for months, that is the exception as much as it is the rule. Netflix’s Arrested Development was a major television event until it actually premiered in May 2013, but following mixed-to-negative reviews from fans (who criticized the show’s new format, which focused on individual characters), the buzz quickly faded.

Netflix doesn’t publish its streaming numbers, which makes it difficult to speculate about the success or failure of any of its individual shows. But it’s continuing to play a dangerous game of darts at a time when the company is putting more of its focus on original content than ever, as it moves away from being primarily a streaming platform to be the Internet’s own HBO. As Kumar notes, the results of that experiment have thus far been mixed, even while Netflix seems bigger than ever. Netflix’s stocks plummeted in the third quarter after the company fell short of expansion goals in the United States.

While Kumar believes that it’s time to abandon binge-watching for a more traditional TV viewing experience, the best thing Netflix can do to keep viewers interested should be a no-brainer: Focus on quality over quantity. Netflix’s shift toward niche programming means that it’s banking on the fact that while I might not want to watch 31 of their new shows, I will definitely want to watch two or three of them. But that’s not a sustainable model if a considerable chunk of that slate gets left behind because absolutely no one wants to watch them.

World domination is nice, but consistent, quality TV is even better.

Illustration by Jason Reed

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.