Netflix: To Make a Long Story Short

BY TAYLOR BALL

There are very few things I love more than a good Netflix Original Series and I will openly profess my undying love for Netflix to anyone and everyone who will listen. This year alone, I’ve watched over a dozen “Originals” and my favourites include Santa Clarita Diet, Dear White People, Altered Carbon, and Unabomber. I realize this much TV is a little Atypical and perhaps mildly concerning but I am a Big Mouth who brags about it nonetheless. After all, the occasional binge-watch is not The End of the F***ing World.

Jokes and references aside, I am impressed by the array of high-quality content Netflix has released over the past few years. But, this has not been an easy (or cheap) feat. In 2017, Netflix spent roughly $6 billion on content, and this year, they have an $8 billion content budget with an additional $2 billion allocated for marketing. For comparison, in 2017, Amazon spent $4.5 billion on content while Hulu and HBO each spent $2.5 billion. In previous years, about a quarter of Netflix’s exorbitant budget has gone towards their original content but in 2018, Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos stated that 85% of their budget will go towards their Originals.

Last year, Netflix gained over 24 million new subscribers worldwide and now have over 118 million global users. See? Clearly, I am not the only person a little Netflix obsessed. On top of this, Netflix earned some serious street cred last year and by that, I mean Emmy nominations. The streaming service came home with 91 Emmy nominations, the second largest win for a network following close behind HBO who received 111 nominations.

According to a data analysis from 7Park Data, 20% of Netflix viewership in the US is thanks to their original shows. Whereas only 3% of Hulu’s viewership comes from their original content. Netflix is notorious for keeping a tight lip on their data and we cannot be sure of the accuracy of these statistics given they are estimates from an outsider’s perspective and both Netflix and Hulu have refused to comment.

It’s no surprise Netflix is so secretive. After all, if their data reveals that horror comedies like Santa Clarita Diet and The End of The F***ing World are popular, they can gain a competitive advantage over their content-creating rivals. Without publicized viewership data, there are no “bad” Netflix shows as a show’s popularity can only be speculative. If Netflix misses the mark, they can adjust their algorithm and remarket it later. If worse comes to worse, they can sell the show to another network.

Netflix’s main competitor is not other streaming services but rather, other ways of spending one’s time. According to their annual report, their main objective is to “win moments of truth.” Whenever you have a bit of free time, Netflix wants you to watch their shows rather than read a book, go for a run or watch another network. Their definition of a win is the public’s definition of a couch potato.

Unlike linear TV (traditional, scheduled television), Netflix isn’t competing against itself or its competitors for scarce prime-time slots. They can create quality content without worrying about cannibalizing their shows. So far, they have done just that. In the last 5 years, Netflix has created close to 700 Originals, 80 of which include non-English productions. This year has been a content-creating mayhem and by the end of 2018, Netflix will have over 1,000 Originals. Their website explains the benefits of this: “a show that is taking a long time to find its audience is one we can keep nurturing. This allows us to prudently commit to a whole season, rather than just a pilot episode.” 

You may have noticed that Netflix seasons are often quite short. I did a quick calculation and the average number of episodes per season has been around 9.9, 9.5 and 10.5 in 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively. This is significantly less than the industry average which typically has 22 episodes per season. Rather than creating pilot episodes, Netflix chooses to release pilot seasons, further capitalizing off of the binge-watching mentality.

These shorter seasons are better suited to binge-watching, something that almost 90% of millennials do every week. Knowing that the shows are likely to be binge-watched, Netflix writers can be more nuanced in their storytelling. As Bill Kennedy, a writer on House of Cards, stated: “it changes the way we can be subtle, the way we can lay in things quietly and pay them off later.” There is no need for week-to-week recaps or obvious foreshadowing. Netflix has been known to poke fun at itself and its binge-watching viewers, one notable example is in the adult cartoon, Big Mouth

 

By opting to produce shorter seasons, Netflix is not only creating binge-worthy series but also providing countless opportunities for different stories to be shared. Netflix Originals are shining a light on stories and people previously unseen on television.

On My Block is a coming-of-age story about four street-savvy teenagers living in the predominantly black and Hispanic neighbourhoods of South Central Los Angeles. The story touches on the impact of gang warfare and the everyday challenges of growing up.

Atypical follows Sam, a teenager with autism, on his quest to find a girlfriend.

Dear White People depicts the subtle and overt racism present at Ivy League schools.

Everything Sucks! showcases a group of misfit high schoolers and their attempt to create a movie. The story also follows Kate, the principal’s daughter, and a closeted lesbian, on her search for love.

In addition to creating diverse content, Netflix is incorporating diversity into their corporate policies as well. In 2017, Netflix updated their manifesto and added “inclusion” as one of their core values and also offered unlimited parental leave in the year after the birth or adoption of a child. Although there is still a long way to go (their board of directors is entirely white and predominantly male), the company is taking steps in the right direction.

The shorter Netflix seasons have allowed for greater diversity on screen. This has created a ripple effect that has encouraged diversity throughout the organization. As Netflix continues to grow its user base and invest in high-quality content, I expect we will continue to see more original, authentic and inclusive stories on the big (or little) screen. But, for now, we have no shortage of content so, if you need me, I’ll be in front of the TV.