On a recent episode of NBC’s revived sitcom “Will & Grace,” Will (Eric McCormack) sits in agony as Grace (Debra Messing) slowly punches in letters to the Netflix search bar. “D-O-C-T,” she types — presumably because the pair are eager to watch Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” — but when she makes a typo and tries to delete her mistake, she accidentally erases the little progress she’d made.
Will exclaims, “The night is ruined!” just as next-door-neighbor Jack (Sean Hayes) walks in and says, “Aw, look at you two: another night of Netflix and chill-ingly boring.”
Whether you consider the joke funny or painfully outdated, the point is clear: Netflix is a service so engrained in our culture, its competitors don’t even mind highlighting it in their own shows.
It feels like everyone is watching Netflix, even if we’re all watching at a different pace. That viewers feel Netflix programming is accessible is certainly an advantage for the streaming giant in 2018, but that doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing for the network — nor was it easygoing in 2017.
Below, IndieWire continues its series of premium network report cards by looking back on the year in Netflix, and how the year that was will shape the year ahead, breaking down the state of Netflix as the next phase in
global domination its successful global entertainment strategy begins.
With 104 million global subscribers and nearly 53 million in the United States, Netflix is an entertainment behemoth — which is exactly what it wants to be. Offering original series, docu-series, documentaries, feature films, stand-up comedy specials, children’s programming, and so much more, the streaming service isn’t just trying to be an integral part of subscribers’ entertainment experience, but an accepted institution.
If there’s something you want to watch, Netflix wants to fill that need, and it wants to do it with original content. In a third-quarter of 2017 newsletter, the company stated, “Our future largely lies in exclusive original content that drives both excitement around Netflix and enormous viewing satisfaction for our global membership and its wide variety of tastes.”
To meet that all-encompassing goal, the company is increasing its original content budget from $6 billion to as much as $8 billion in 2018. That’s a pretty scary figure for competitors and an exciting number for subscribers. Networks and studios are scrambling to compete with lucrative offers made by Netflix, and they’re often coming up short: Just look at the first-look deal Netflix made with Shonda Rhimes in 2017, effectively stealing the producing powerhouse away from the network (ABC) that debuted “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” and more. The figure Netflix put down is just too high for many others to match.
“In that world, it’s about scale,” FX Networks CEO John Landgraf said during the TCA press tour in July 2017. “It’s about data. It’s about technology, AI algorithms, finance. It’s about being able to bring billions upon billions of dollars — even at loss — to bear on conquering markets. And I think […] that’s a very stiff headwind.”
But subscribers don’t care if Netflix is boxing out other brands. They want the content. They want to keep bingeing. They want a new show, documentary, or movie to watch when the one they’re currently watching ends. And Netflix seems to be offering enough supply to meet that demand. Its brand is quantity. The only question is whether its overall programming quality can keep up.
Overall Hits and Misses
Part of Netflix’s success lies in the fact it’s impossible to accurately critique what works and what doesn’t. As long as ratings are kept behind closed doors — closed, locked, and hidden doors with a 100-bit encryption key not even Ethan Hunt could work around — the service can claim just about anything it wants in terms of successes and failures.
But Netflix did cancel shows in 2018 — kind of. “Gypsy” and “Girlboss” were axed after just one season. Both received mixed to terrible reviews, though neither fared as badly with critics as “Marvel’s Iron Fist,” which will be returning. Technically, “The Get Down” was also cancelled after one season, though its rollout was split into two parts, which made it seem like it lasted longer. There’s also a small amount of buzz out there for a follow-up movie (if Baz Luhrmann makes himself available), which would be in line with what Netflix did after cancelling “Sense8.”
Other high-profile releases that stumbled from a critical perspective include “Marvel’s The Punisher,” Drew Barrymore’s TV debut in “Santa Clarita Diet,” and Kathy Bates’ pot comedy “Disjointed,” and the ensemble comedy “Friends From College.” But all of these shows will be back for more episodes, meaning to label them failures is a bit presumptuous — plenty of critical flops are hits with audiences, after all.
So it’s important to take a look at Netflix series via other measurements. For instance, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was a big-budget adaptation with a big star at its center (Neil Patrick Harris) and an acclaimed director-producer behind it (Barry Sonnenfeld), but it failed to land any significant awards attention, despite great reviews and incredibly high production value.
An even bigger play was “Marvel’s The Defenders.” Netflix has pushed how fast the series’ was consumed and how its characters led viewers to sample other recommended Netflix shows, but outside analytics measurements claim the superhero team-up was seen by less subscribers than any of the heroes’ solo series. It’s also failed to cement any sort of legacy, let alone one comparable to its big screen counterpart, “The Avengers.”
Did either series achieve what it set out to do? It’s hard to say, but at some level there’s certainly a touch of disappointment in each.
The same cannot be said for breakout hits like “Ozark,” “GLOW,” “13 Reasons Why,” and “Mindhunter.” Though the latter has yet to break through at awards shows, all three of the others have exceeded expectations at every turn, including invites to the red carpet — but more on that in a bit.
2017 saw Netflix start a major move to get out of the acquisitions game. As former partners — like Disney — unveiled plans to launch their own over-the-top streaming services, Netflix started waving bye-bye to old acquired TV shows and investing in properties like “Alias Grace” and “Peaky Blinders” that they could exclusively distribute in the United States.
Though Hulu is making a bit of splash by picking up beloved old shows like “Seinfeld,” “Lost,” “The Golden Girls,” and a chunk of series that used to be streaming on Netflix, the streaming giant isn’t sweating the losses. It’s out looking for new content that’s wholly its own, rather than paying licensing fees to anyone else. Sure, there are some subscribers still stinging from the loss of “The X-Files” and “Bob’s Burgers,” but mass cancellations aren’t an issue.
The biggest complaint — or at least the one heard most often — is that Netflix doesn’t highlight its acquired programming properly. The service has so much content, it’s proven difficult to make sure subscribers are aware of their best options. Many film fans, specifically, feel Netflix’s acquisitions — made at popular film festivals like Sundance and Cannes — get slighted in marketing efforts, on the homepage, and in recommendations queues in favor of Netflix originals or TV shows in general, which keep viewers on the service longer (and, if they want to keep up with future seasons, make them more dependent on Netflix long-term).
There doesn’t seem to be an easy fix for this issue, but Netflix officials don’t seem too worried about it. Speaking in October 2017, Sarandos said, “With the exception of ‘Star Wars,’ more people on Netflix watched ‘Beasts of No Nation’ than any other movie in the world.” Netflix regularly emphasizes how many people are watching what they’re putting out as a means to address complaints about their service burying acquisitions, even if ratings remain a secret (and smaller, lower-profile pick-ups won’t get similar commentary from Netflix officials unless they really break out).
We may never know exactly how many people are watching the indie films and various other acquisitions Netflix is picking up, but even if people aren’t happy with how the company is showcasing its content, having additional content — while spending more on producing original programming — isn’t hurting Netflix one iota.
Keep reading for the ups and downs of Netflix’s awards race, what new shows are coming in 2018, and which series will be affected by 2017 scandals.