Today I read an interesting and well-researched article on the current Netflix overspend. I should point out that I agree with James article one hundred per cent. The numbers cannot be disputed, and I agree with his conclusion. His wll presented and thought-provoking article asks the question; “Does this spell the end for Netflix”?
This article is my response to James’ report, and drills down into the reasons why Netflix is experiencing the problems that James highlights. It also contains solutions to Netflix’ current predicament. (You are welcome Netflix. Pay me as you feel).
Netflix-A House Of Cards
I remember when the Netflix reboot of House Of Cards came out. I remember because it is all I heard about, every day for months. The buzz surrounding the program was incredible. In hushed tones, friends would be talking about the exploits of Frank and his wife, Claire. They would look aghast as they recounted the dirty deeds carried out by Doug. All of this to the backdrop of “Shhhhhh, I haven’t watched it yet! Don’t spoil it”! Or, as in my case, a sad; “I haven’t got Netflix…
I won’t bore you with the details, but I was in a financial predicament myself. Not on Netflix levels, but I was heavily committed to a massive mortgage and locked into an expensive package with Virgin Media, which I had bought for the use of my tenants. The annoying thing was that even my three tenants were now having animated conversations about Netflix specials! I was stuck with boring old Virgin Media. “500 films at your fingertips”! the irritating strapline would remind me, every time I started the search of doom. What they failed to mention is that 425 of them were complete tosh.
The world of entertainment was changing rapidly. Netflix was leading a new charge against the established corporations, and people loved it. That was seven years ago. So what has changed? Why are people seemingly leaving the Netflix platform as fast as new people are signing up? I don’t want to give any spoilers here, so read James article. Suffice to say that his conclusion is sound. What I want to deal with is why Netflix is experiencing the issues James highlights. There are three reasons why Netflix is failing. They are all fixable, and they are so simple that I cannot believe someone on the board has not picked this up.
The First Reason Netflix Is Failing Is:
Drum roll please; Poor storytelling.
What!? I hear you cry. Now, I will admit that this isn’t the case with every single Netflix original. House Of Cards was genius, although of course, based on a British political drama written in the 1990s. The American reboot was superb. The writing was fantastic. The beats were perfect, and the characters were so engaging. Good storytelling.
I want to take you back to December the 27th, 1977. It was the Christmas holidays. In the UK, excited talk about a new film release was sweeping the country. Star Wars. You could not escape the hype. I don’t just mean at a media level, I mean from school friends. It was the holidays, and yet boastful friends were ringing or calling at my house. “Saw it last night. We had to queue for hours but saw it. Best thing ever.” Shouts across the road would punctuate a walk down to the local village shop; “have you seen Star Wars yet? You have to see it!” When our family finally drove the 24 miles from Frieth to Oxford, the excitement in the car was palpable. The queue for the film went all the way around the vast building. We didn’t get in. Bitterly disappointed, my father ran to a phone box, (imagine that), and fumbling for coins, rang the High Wycombe cinema. There was a later showing. We dashed another twenty-six miles. At High Wycombe, we got in by the skin of our teeth. Spellbound from that opening scene to the closing credits, we joined the ranks of the smug. “Yeah, saw it last night. Best thing ever”.
Star Wars was not just a groundbreaking film in the visual sense. Sure, that helped. Maybe, at the time, that’s what people focused on because we hadn’t seen anything like it. I maintain that the film wasn’t a success purely based on its visual elements. You can watch that film today, even if you are not a fan of Sci-Fi, and still be enchanted. Why? Storytelling. Star Wars is a perfect example of a strong storyline, with well-timed beats and incredible character development. Even the robots have character! Good storytelling is timeless. Good storytelling has little to do with CGI, special effects and 4K production.
I mentioned earlier how the buzz surrounding House Of Cards extended beyond the adverts and the media coverage. For context, I never read a newspaper, I am not on Facebook, and I rarely watch the TV. My only way of catching the buzz of the latest thing is through organic conversation or twitter hashtags. I have, by design, reduced my exposure to advertising as much as is possible. For me, there is a clear indicator as to when a product is successful. It is when people are talking about it, and I can’t get away from it. Netflix had this right with House Of Cards. Yes, the production was slick. The key, however, was the writing. That writing balanced with impeccable on-screen performances, and a good beat structure transcends production values. That is why you can watch the 1990s version and enjoy it almost as much.
I watched two Netflix originals last night while researching for my novel. I was looking for beat structure and character development tips for one of my narratives. (Don’t be surprised. We all do that, right)? Both films that I watched had incredible production values. Neither had much in the way of story development, character development or beats. One chugged along at an ambient pace and then just finished. It contained dire performances and was ultimately unfulfilling. The other had a brilliant premise but failed to develop the protagonist and antagonist to a sufficient level. Their story arcs were too flat. When the ending happened, which is the only way I can describe the end, it just happened; the premise flopped. The writers had the perfect resolution, but because the characters arcs were too flat, there was no pay-off. It is all very well making these comments as a writer, but how is this failing reflected in Netflix’s performance? People leave. They don’t spread the word about new series, or the film they saw last night, because ultimately they are unfulfilled. Netflix should continue spending the money it does on new content, but it needs to up its game with the writers it chooses. Don’t believe me? Sit and list all of the binge-worthy series’ that you have ever watched. Jot down all the films that you can watch again and again. I guarantee you, every one of them will have award-winning writers, unforgettable and relatable storylines, and will follow one of the seven archetype storylines. Star Wars is “The Quest” with a little love story thrown in for good measure. It hits the beats of those archetypes perfectly. Star Wars was a book first. The story was it’s strength.
So Netflix. Stop commissioning high production level films and series which have weak storylines or lousy character development. Quality production is not enough. People will talk about the story, not that smart shot, or the fantastic CGI.
The second reason Netflix is failing is:
Too much new content. “Come on, Sean, you have just said they need more content. Now you are contradicting yourself.”
No, I am not. (If anything, right now I am talking to myself, not contradicting myself. Ok this is getting too meta for me).
Where was I. Content?
Netflix has too much of it. More to the point, it has too much content which is challenging to navigate because of the algorithm they use. Have you ever logged into someone’s Netflix profile and wondered why they are getting a completely different set of options to you? The algorithm decides what it thinks you might want to see. Then it only gives you those options. You can turn the AI off, and view everything in alphabetical order. When you do that, you have too much choice. We are back to “500 films at your fingertips”, levels of doom.
I accept we have to have the algorithm. I also understand enough about the design of algorithms to know that Netflix is now stuck with the one that they have for the foreseeable future. The answer to the content issue is again, simple; only this time, it is two-fold.
Better writing. I know, I know, but hear me out. If the script is better, then the viewing public is getting excited about the story. The algorithm is defunct. Heroes, Lost, Breaking Bad, Peaky Blinders, House Of Cards, Orange Is The New Black and of course Sopranos; regardless of your personal opinion of them, all had their moments. By that I mean they were regularly the subject of public discussion. We need LESS content, of a much higher quality. Here is a little test for you. Grab a pen and see how many binge-worthy series you can name, regardless of who made them. You can even use the ones I just listed. Can you reach 55? When you have done that, compare it to this list of 55 binge-worthy series you must watch on Netflix. We will come back to this later on.
Expert opinion. We have lost the experts. With google reviews and open access to rating products, everyone is an “expert”. There is nothing wrong with that. That is how I have the privilege and platform to state my opinions here. The truth is, though, having an idea about something does not make you right. It is excellent for us to be able to rate films and box sets. Even better; we can create meaningless listicles which primarily exist to drive google traffic to our websites. But this manipulation of SEO and Keyword Optimised phrases for marketing purposes, or the flood of personal opinion is not a critical review. To provide critical analysis, you need to know what you are talking about, and like it or not, the average Netflix user does not. All Netflix has to do to solve this, is create it’s own branded critical review series. Invite experts on to the show, and have them critique box sets and films, new and old. They can even review Amazon Prime, HBO, Cinema releases. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they include Netflix products and that the reviews have integrity. A panel of industry experts, including producers, directors, actors and writers, that tell the truth about what they are seeing. That share their favourite moments. (By the way Netflix, I have the pitch for the format here. Just saying). A lot of the Netflix original content I have watched would not stand up to this kind of critique, and that is my point. That said, the viewing public need guidance beyond an algorithm. I want to hear what Quentin Tarrantino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Steve Coogan, Ryan Cooglar, Mary Harron, or anyone of a hundred other experts think. Not what Dazza and Chelsea from the pub think. Dazza and Chelsea are essential, but not as my main goto.
Netflix, I implore you; Start using your industry contacts to build an honest and engaging critical analysis of current content. Help us help you by feeding us the information in an open and entertaining format, and not purely by some dystopian algorithm that thinks it knows best and often doesn’t.
You have the data Netflix. What does it say? How long do people watch for, and do they complete a series? What are the opening weekend numbers? How many have re-watched a given series? Etc. If you are too scared to share these numbers publicly, if the numbers are not good, then get better writers.
The final reason Netflix is failing, (yes-in my opinion, I know); is:
The content they have is too readily available. Also, it is not accessible enough.
The chorus of FFS is already audible. I will break it down for you.
The content is too readily available:
Netflix and chill, binge, box sets. Netflix has changed the way we consume. The new culture of watching on-demand is convenient and enjoyable. We love a good binge! I do. I am already planning a re-watch of The American Office, Sopranos and I hear that the new series of Brooklyn 99 is imminent. So when am I going to find the time to binge all of these? I suppose I could watch them individually, or even two episodes at a time. Maybe I could build anticipation for the next chapter, and give myself something to look forward too?
Yes. I could do all of these things. But I probably won’t, because when it comes to excellent viewing, I am a goldfish. I will gorge myself until I fall asleep, waking up with my headphones wrapped around my neck. (Don’t even dare mention Bluetooth). How many times have you had to re-watch an episode because you missed a significant plotline when you fell asleep? How many times have you woken up with a start when your partner has dug you in the ribs, or a particularly intense scene has startled you? How many times have you been late for work, or even phoned in sick because of your late-night binge session? I have experienced all of these things. I refuse to believe I am the only one. So, how is being too available harming Netflix and affecting customer retention? Again, the answer is two-fold:
By releasing the entire series in one go, Netflix loses the momentum and sustained value of real-world word of mouth. If they were to release NEW box sets an episode at a time, then the energy and buzz would be far more effective in switching people on to the product. Just like the old days of Lost and The Sopranos! Release an eight-part series in one go, and even if your audience is restrained and watch two a night, the momentum for word of mouth is just four days. For many, two nights or less. Release an episode a week, and the active marketing time for word of mouth is increased by 1300%. That is a considerable number in marketing terms. Netflix is not teasing us enough. The results are a massive loss in word of mouth.
I have to plan in a binge now. I have lost so much time to hours of binge’ing that it has affected my productivity. I use box sets like an opiate. I use them to escape the real world and responsibility. I use them as a distraction from writing work, calling it “research”. As a society, we are becoming aware that binge’ing isn’t good for us. As with all fads, there comes a tipping point when you have to start controlling what you do. For many, this might even mean ending a subscription to a streaming service. I am not suggesting everyone who leaves Netflix has a binge’ing problem, (although it would be interesting to see the data). I am saying that feeding us in a more controlled manner would help all parties. Maybe we have had enough of endless box sets, and need some mystery in our relationship with you Netflix. Perhaps you have a social responsibility to control the flow of new products to your audience.
Which makes my final point sound ridiculous:
The content is not available enough
Territory licensing is not just a problem with Netflix. This issue affects all types of content. It is my pet hate, and it is the reason our new digital world is stifled. Money and power corrupt. Many decades ago, a few pioneers invented the internet. The vision was for a World Wide Web. Then some dicks in suits came along and started chopping the World Wide Web up into pieces. There is only one reason I didn’t pay my subscription to Netflix for three months last year. I was travelling Southeast Asia, and every time I tried to log in, Netflix duly informed me that my UK subscription did not allow me to watch content in Indonesia.
Restricting content due to Geo-location makes my blood boil. If I am paying for a subscription, in whatever currency, and from whatever country, I expect to be able to watch it, wherever I am. This one point alone had me cancel my subscription for three months.
All streaming and digital content services take note, (yes and you Spotify, hiding there at the back of the class); QUIT WITH THE BORDERS! After a hard drive failure, I recently had a need to re-download around four hundred music tracks that I had purchased in the past. Beatport informed me that sixty-eight of those tracks were now not available to me because I lived in the UK. The fact that I had previously owned them, and paid for them meant nothing. My license did not entitle me to ownership, and the changes in the license now precluded me from using those tracks in my territory.
What is this world coming to? It is bad enough living in a world of borders and restrictions in our everyday lives. Telling me, I cannot listen to a song, or watch a film based on where my ass is, just makes no sense. I know this has to do with money and licensing. I, for one, am over being told I can’t consume content that I have paid for because the suits want power over where the material is allowed. Rant over. Netflix, be the first to obliterate borders in digital domains. You used to be an innovative platform. Now you are one of the rest. Dare to be different. We will thank you for it.
So there you have it Netflix. Set a board meeting, and implement all of these changes and watch how your engagement changes. If I am right, then you can pay me what you feel is right. (20 per cent of annual increase is a suggested guideline).
If I am wrong? Ah. I hadn’t thought about that. My dear reader, If Netflix goes through with this, and it all goes tits up, then you haven’t seen me. Deal? As you for you. I would love to know how you feel. Use the comments section below.
Sean Holland is Creative Director at Joined Up Think. He is also an award-winning playwright and poet who is passionate about storytelling.
In addition to his creative work, Sean has twenty years plus years of experience in going into companies and finding problems. Unfortunately, he was not always engaged as a business consultant when he did so, and very often ended up getting fired as a result.
Sean is going to stop writing about himself in the third person, and leave you alone now.
Thanks for reading.