It’s a terrible time to be Netflix. That’s likely a new feeling for the streamer, which has enjoyed castle-on-a-hill status, comfortably dominating the entertainment industry, for years.
Recent reports revealed losses of 200,000 subscribers in Q1 with two million more predicted to bounce in Q2. Shares fell by 35 percent, which equates to wiping $50 billion off its value in the aftermath of that news, and have continued to slide. A crackdown on password-sharing, subscription fee increases, and an overly saturated market (aka the Too Much TV Apocalypse) have all been offered as reasons for this stumble. There is no doubt that, still, with over 220 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix’s crown is still in place, but is it going to have to start sharing the pieces like a scene out of Mean Girls?
The television landscape is always shifting in response to technological updates and the streaming revolution is another chapter in this medium’s long story. While there are many variables impacting the Netflix numbers—including pandemic habits and the suspension of services in Russia—there is also a question of the titles it offers.
Netflix used to be a major prestige player, especially when it comes to TV. But lately it seems to be banking on the cheesy rom-coms, middling sci-fi, and action flicks that dominate its Top 10, while the TV side seems overrun by the trashy reality shows that tip into hate-watch territory. It’s in stark contrast to what’s going on with Apple TV+, Hulu, and HBO Max, which seem to be churning out buzzy critical hits that are getting the kinds of accolades that Netflix used to monopolize.
The industry drama going on now—the subscriber losses, the password drama, the insinuation that it will start incorporating ads—has sparked a State of the Union of sorts for other aspects of the service. Namely: When did its content get so bad?
Maybe that’s not entirely fair, but when you’re a streaming service that creates TV and viewers are running away in droves, it does prompt the question. Or is it that its shows are more mediocre than they are excellent? Or has nothing changed except for the fact that the streaming competitors have caught up and are merely stealing some of the spotlight away from Netflix, which used to have it all to itself?
Whenever I log on there is certainly still an array of new shows jostling for my attention. So many of them. Yet I can’t say that many have blown me away. Has the streaming giant gone too far in picking quantity over quality?
The one Netflix show that is definitely going to make my Best of 2022 list arrived on the platform this month, and yet Russian Doll now resembles an outlier on a platform that has been ditching its twisty (even buzzworthy) and idiosyncratic programming habits. It’s not long ago that best-of lists were overrun with Netflix titles. It’s shocking that a critic would have to rack their brains to come up with, aside from Russian Doll, the last show they thought was truly, really great.
Recently, Archive 81 got the boot despite picking up positive reviews and having a compelling central conceit. It featured in the No. 1 spot on the Netflix Top 10 list, but it should be noted this ranking system is not the new Nielsen ratings. Rather, its metrics are on the fuzzier end and definitely cannot guarantee a renewal—as many showrunners have discovered.
It seems a good place to bring up another recent cancellation while I am on the subject of the mythical-sounding algorithm and its impact on renewals. The Baby-Sitters Club showrunner Rachel Shukert discussed her experiences with Vulture, in which she noted, “As far as I can tell, everything Netflix does is based on how it’s driving subscriber growth.”
This could be taken as a gimme, but it is something Shukert says later about her experiences working with the streamer in 2016 that is incredibly revealing. “Initially at Netflix, it was OK to have a smaller audience and be quirkier or more particular,” is her assessment of the creative freedom of the early GLOW days. Yes, the same GLOW that was renewed then canceled, even though production of Season 4 had already begun in 2020. Of course, the pandemic contributed to this decision but it does also mark a shift.
Another title that fell foul to cancellation after renewal was I Am Not Okay With This, which also happens to land in the niche box. There has also been a pattern of ditching YA-focused shows that are LGBTQ-inclusive (see also The Society), and while they are still making investments in this genre—such as Heartstopper—it is one area Netflix has dropped the ball on.
A third-season pick-up for a scripted series is becoming quite the unicorn in these parts. Getting burned by cancellations is part of being a TV viewer, however, if this pattern continues it might drive audiences away, or at least stop them from investing in shows in order to avoid the heartache that comes from a story stopped short.
Netflix had critical hits out of the streaming gate with Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards. While there are still some impressive scripted titles on its roster, it is hard to ignore the shift toward reality fare like Love is Blind and Selling Sunset and the endless stream of true-crime documentaries. Even those have long stopped attempting to hit the popular heights of Making a Murderer.
Family-friendly competition content has also made a mark with Is It Cake? being the latest success story. Yes, I ate up (pun very much intended) the eight-part series with glee, and while I am on the subject, I would also like to know when The Floor is Lava will be back. Netflix has become my self-care streamer of choice when I want to disengage my brain, and there is nothing wrong with offering up a wide range of genres. But the window for “striking hot” is getting smaller and smaller.
Take the onslaught of scam shows vying for our attention. Sure, Inventing Anna got a lot of traction thanks to its Emmy Award-winning lead actress, Shondaland credentials, and the New York magazine article it was adapted from. But it paled in comparison to the critical winner of the current con-artist wars, Hulu’s The Dropout, which served up a strong lead performance from Amanda Seyfried and didn’t suffer from the same narrative bloat. There is no need for any Inventing Anna episode to surpass the 60-minute mark and yet it somehow leaned into the Girlboss bloat.
In the crowded limited series field, it isn’t inconceivable that Inventing Anna could slip into awards competition, but this will likely be boosted by Julia Garner’s name recognition—and previous Emmy win. One thing Netflix does have going for it is the creatives they have attracted, and the Shondaland mega-hit Bridgerton continues to dominate. Unfortunately, the news of its monster ratings didn’t distract from the subscription crisis.
Reviews were slightly more tepid for the second season, although not drastically lukewarm. This juggernaut continues. So there’s an argument to be made that, yes, Netflix continues to make popular and buzzy series. But the quality does seem to have dipped. One repeat triumph is not enough and it is noticeably lagging in the list of streaming critical darlings in comparison with Hulu, HBO Max, and Apple TV+.
“Netflix continues to make popular and buzzy series. But the quality does seem to have dipped.”
Whereas Netflix’s Q1 report sent shockwaves, HBO Max saw huge gains.
These three rivals are churning out critical hit after critical hit. It is also impossible to ignore that Netflix’s other prolific TV producer hire, Ryan Murphy, has struggled to bring the same caliber of material as even his most middling FX output. Certainly, nothing that hits the dizzying heights of American Crime Story—yes, even Impeachment.
Keeping with another TV melodrama maestro and David E. Kelley’s latest contribution with Anatomy of a Scandal makes the most bonkers moments of Nine Perfect Strangers look sedate. And this is coming from someone who has only seen one clip. Yes, you know the one. Kelley is behind memorable TV moments such as Ally McBeal’s dancing baby and the entire first season of Big Little Lies (Season 2, who?). Now, his name is connected to the silliest moment on TV this year. All press is good press, but maybe this isn’t the dream promo beyond getting hate-watchers to tune in.
Even with the return of Stranger Things on the horizon, it doesn’t seem like enough. Not to mention that the highly anticipated Obi-Wan Kenobi is debuting the same day, which shows how confident Disney is that the show will draw eyeballs. The ’80s sci-fi monster hit is also not long for this world. Its fifth and final season lands next year. Considering that “according to people close to the show” the cost of one episode is estimated to be $30 million (that sound you heard is my jaw hitting the floor), it is probably a good thing for Netflix’s purse strings that it is ending. Elsewhere, one of its other remaining critical hits, Ozark, concludes on April 29.
Ozark is one of the scripted 2022 Emmy hopefuls, alongside limited series like Maid and Inventing Anna, the juggernaut that is Squid Game—a slow-burn success story—and previous nominees Russian Doll, Stranger Things, and Bridgerton. That lineup is not too shabby, but without awards titan The Crown on hand to gobble up the drama acting nominations, Netflix could have a smaller bounty than last year. Of its six highest-nominated shows, only two are eligible this year.
Netflix is at a crossroads as it tries to balance the business and creative scales. The headline-making subscription cancellations (and subsequent share slump) further fuel a narrative that the streamer is losing its way. And with so many other buzz-worthy options in this current Too Much TV Apocalypse, it is hardly surprising the other streamers are already wearing pieces of the Netflix crown.
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