A gradually uncool empire: How to fix Netflix
A series of ideas that will definitely happen.
Reading this edition of VFD will make you innovative, handsome, and rich!
It was Wednesday afternoon in the office, and the rain was coming down hard, when a colleague told me Netflix had lost almost a millions subscribers. This happened during a brief handful of chaotic months, and while you and I might fall down at this sort of number and believe it to be something negative, the freshly-pressed public relations team from The Earth’s Finest Streaming Service rushed to tell the world that, actually, this was good.
Let me tell you something about bad news: Most of us can identify it like a plague. From the way your boss looks at you before weakly muttering about a restructure to the way the Love of Your Life pleads that it’s not you, it’s them. Bad news is bad news. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise should be treated with care and caution, like an alleycat purring on a fencepost. The starving and the weak will do dangerous things to keep on living, and there is nothing more starving and desperate than a living, breathing, corporation. It could have been worse, they’ll tell you, and you’d be a fool to listen. This is the game: content. And if people don’t care about it, you’re losing.
I abandoned all hope of Netflix being revolutionary about the same time the first competitor entered the field. What followed was a blink: an opportunity to reshape the entertainment industry, made off instead as a land grab for content. The “unbundling” of cable television was exactly that: a brief moment of repackaging innovation that would make Don Draper cry. All that is left is more to pay for, more to download, and more barriers to entry. I can hear the feint and dull rhythm of the PirateBay on the horizon. It has been this way from the start.
Now, I am no prophet. It will come as no surprise to hear that. But media is a game best played from the far reaches of the field. It is easier to make predictions than to actually spin the wheel. Without the knowledge of a company’s pain, or an idea of the infrastructure that delays rapid change, it is powerful and wonderful to stand in the corner pointing at things, asking why certain decisions haven’t been made by certain people. You are not making the plays or doing the work. You are just there to finish the job.
And so here is what I would do with Netflix. A broken and, let’s say it, gradually uncool empire. Very little of this could be possible, or all of it could be essential. But I will be there saying I Told You So at the end.
Bring back TV
If the tech boom has taught us anything it is that innovation is only necessary as a last resort or a freak chance. Only the foolish and the greedy try to change things – the smart money is in looking at history. What people really want is what they’ve already had before – just made better and with smarter marketing. The rise of streaming has seen millions give up on television, while millions more have done the opposite, strapped centre-stage and desperate, hoping Breakfast Television and Fox News will make them feel alive.
Netflix prospered as the standout platform to promise real, unfiltered choice. No ads, no programming, no one standing in your way. This was the Wild West of content and the cowboys were running the show. And sometime in the middle of all the cattle herding and whiskey drinking, the folks at Netflix took a break and began promoting a new version of their service, Now With Commercials. Why not take it the whole way? Television’s back, baby. We’re just not messing with an antenna anymore.
Create multiple channels designed to be flicked through with no user customisation outside of broad genre. Yes, just recreate the original TV experience. Animal Planet can become Animal World™, National Geographic is Continental Earth™. Call Cartoon Network the Animated Distributor™. I don’t care. They have plenty of content, good and bad, and Netflix has prospered by pushing itself as a tech platform built around content. While that content has gotten worse, fewer people have been inclined to hang out. Why not give them an actual, real reason to stick around, outside of the latest In-Studio reality show about baking cakes, so inane and so repetitive that (if you’re lucky) Twitter will talk about it for a week. Remember Adult Swim? Consistent schedules, consistent vibes. Somewhere stoners and anyone living into the night could go to feel like home. You could program these channels monthly, and go so far as to release a guide or schedule alongside it, too. Maybe after a hard day of work in a job you’re required to do to pay rent, the best form of content is still sitting on the couch, turning on the TV, and letting it all wash over you.
People are lazy. Nothing wrong with that. As we speak I am sitting on the couch with my feet up, and there is a list of To-Do’s that only gets longer with each passing weekend.
Maybe the solution isn’t more content and more choice. Maybe the answer is structure. For the younger generation, this would almost be a new experience. Something unheard of and retro and authentic.
Sitting at a bar and mumbling about how much better the internet has gotten might not win you any friends. There was a time when that may have been a conversation starter, but few people have the glitter still resting in their hair that came with Myspace and AIM and early
The Facebook. Which is why, when a friend tells me “Letterboxd is like Twitter without the racist freaks… a website that’s actually good” I pay more than the usual amount of attention.
I am no Letterboxd shill and I am truthfully no regular user, either. But I know network effects when I see them. People will always be interested in what others think, and integrating Letterboxd into Netflix would give the platform that longheld, venture-capital desire of truly being social. Yes, you’d have to admit that some of your content is shit, but if you’re not willing to admit that then you’re not long for this game.
Alongside reviews, subscribers could also create curated playlists. Imagine the depth of Spotify’s buggy but somewhat endless User-Generated public playlists as a rough model. Hell, maybe I would subscribe to Shohei Ohtani’s Netflix playlist. And maybe I’d make one for my mother, too.
Invest in a 24 hr news service
Many have tried to play in the news game and many have failed. Most of them deserved it. Unfortunately for the public, reality doesn’t sell many tickets. News needs to be more. Keeping people within the Netflix ecosystem should, if it’s not already, be the gold standard of success. Letterboxd, TV channels, and a livestreaming 24 hr news service would all add value. Which then comes to the problem of making it good.
My early suggestion would be to pay for big personalities from current, left and right-wing news orgs. You’re losing money already – now is not the time to be objective. Square them off 50/50. Pitch yourselves as the long-form, constant, Web3 version of Crossfire for all I care. Give people a reason to associate Netflix with more than entertainment.
Entertainment, after all, should be the easiest thing you do. There’s plenty of other bells and whistles out there. Stop lying to yourself: Disney and Paramount and HBO are beating you because they should be beating you. Maybe if you offered something even slightly different you could point to the stars.
I am aware that this approach will stem controversy. But all good ideas do. Like Spotify’s endless pursuit to give millions of dollars to Joe Rogan and weapons manufacturers, people will Not Be Into the idea of Netflix giving, say, Tucker Carlson’s grifter understudy a $20 million contract. But here’s the thing about people: there’s lots of them. You don’t need to convince them all.
Try and tell me this would somehow be worse than spending another $200 million on The Gray Man 2. There is plenty of money in media – as the Top Dogs at Netflix will know. You can get a lot for a little if you try.
Compete for the livestreaming crown
I have been deeply engrossed in live-streaming from the moment I first saw the plasticine face of Tom Green, stumbling through his house across a treacherous pit of electrical cables, all of it snaking around the corridors and rooms of his home, all of it in the pursuit of some kind of new way of making something. Livestreaming in the early 2000s. What is that, 20 years ago? Good god.
YouTube and Twitch and (God, they wish) Spotify have all thrown their chips into the livestreaming pile, but Twitch remains the only platform still pitched as an outright livestream service, with no bend or break to the contrary. Here is a moment and opportunity Netflix already has a captive audience for, as well as an area for growth.
There is clear appetite for this form of content, and it is currently being monetised by the most ham-fisted among us: a series of deliberately irritating pre-roll advertisements and an occasional pop-up, too. YouTube hates itself but is honest enough to capitalise on where the money is. I am not sure how many more toy reviews and “recently pivoting” alt-media grifters the world needs, though.
But Netflix does not need to worry itself with that mess: the money is already in, and at a monthly rate no less. It is time to create something bigger than yourself. It is time to give others access to the servers. Every would-be comedian and group of friends who insists that their in-jokes are somehow Better is starting a podcast. Many of these go out live. Most are terrible, unlistenable, just plain wasteful.
If using the internet’s resources had more of an obvious tax on us all, we’d punish these people for their contribution to Online’s Floating Trash Island. And yet. Just like swinging a bat with your shoulders unhinged and loose, eventually you’ll hit a fly ball.
Collect a few possible winners, and maybe a few sure things, too. Suddenly, every Netflix subscriber has access to live television shows. Maybe even coverage of major news events. At the very least, you’re giving them something they can’t get on those Other platforms.
What are you doing instead? Making more terrible content yourself?
Let regular people create things
And now we are here, folks. I am certainly interested in this endeavour. You do not have to be high up on the rungs of Hollywood’s endless ladder to know how much Talent goes wasted. Is there a particular reason why the barrier to Netflix or Prime or what we can now call Premium streaming services is so high? Does it need to be anymore? Take a look around. Read the room. The fastest growing, generation-defining, oligopoly-obstructing Story of the Summer is TikTok, and they don’t make a damn thing. And no, I am not talking about a Creator Fund.
The truth is that most people will make things for free, and even more of them will contribute if you can guarantee an audience. Plenty of modern, 21st century media brands have confronted the idea of Funding The Arts and they do so at a corporatised, mentorship level – in a way that is likely admirable but rarely significant. And that is not to say these things should not happen, but I am not talking about Netflix moving in those waters. In reality, they probably already do.
No. Netflix can retake the browser, a shadow opportunity left behind by streaming services and platforms. Create a section of the Netflix platform that is curated and edited and contributed to by regular people. I’d check it out. Set records, have dates, make deals based on things going viral on your own platform. Put $100,000 on the line and watch just how many people want to be noticed.
Don’t be a fool
Tempo is everything in life, I think. Too fast and you’re well beyond the point of saving; too slow and the only ones left caring for you are either blood-related or full of pity. Both options can kill a good idea, quick. Musicians have known this for a long time, and while both seem different on approach they are ultimately the same. Getting the tempo to swing can mean big things. “It just happens,” they’ll say. “We get in a room, we press the buttons, and it all just happens. We used to think we were cursed, and then one day it all locked into place.”
Finding the groove is what matters, and few media or tech companies are willing (or able) to try. And I mean try. It will take losing money, it will take striking out, and it will mean taking chances on people who might not deserve it. But it will all be worth it in the end. Consider how the money is already being spent and allocate it differently. How many grand movements could Netflix make with the carefully spent costs from a single one of their movies? How much change and depth could they bring to their platform – an invitation to the subscriber to stick around. They will Keep On Paying.
People need more reasons to stick around than sub-par Home Grown Content. Netflix’s strength has always been in the endless amount of things they licensed and contracted and signed up to multi-year publishing deals, which is why the influx of competitors taking those deals away has left such a hole. Look, I liked The Irishman, but my God do I cringe when thinking about what else could have been done.
And so my final suggestion is to put your money where your mouth is. Not in a Make More Movies way or Sign New Deals way. Take a few pieces that are already out there and make them yours.
It’s not about innovation, after all. Just find a new home for what people want.