When Netflix launched its streaming service in 2007, the refrain from analysts was that the upstart company built on mail-order DVD subscriptions would be the arbiter of our “cordless” future, where traditional TV networks wielded little power in the face of digital-first enterprises. Of course, Netflix had an early advantage. By licensing cerebral, hour-long network shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, the service managed to tap into viewing habits unique to the internet. Binge-watching, as it was called, became a central part of the company’s business model. Now, with an expanding slate of original programming, as well as more than 70 million subscribers, Netflix, and services like it, has started to look a lot like the TV networks it hoped to replace.
The mad dash for original content from providers like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu has created a programming selection that feels more like a bizarro world version of cable television than any sort of revolutionary take on entertainment. In 2016, Netflix spent $5 billion on original programming, almost double what it spent in 2015. During the company’s earnings call in October, CEO Reed Hastings announced that in 2017 it plans to spend a staggering $6 billion to produce more than 1,000 hours of original content. It’s a lot like the model for many online publishers: push out as much content as possible and hope something sticks. Hulu and Amazon have followed suit, bolstering their own original content by investing $1.5 billion and $3 billion, respectively, in 2016. The principle advantage of these services, it seems, isn’t their innovative spirits or cutting-edge technology; it’s the fact that, thanks to having not existed since the dawn of media, these services aren’t beholden to corporate bloat and bureaucracy. This means they can spend a lot more on shows than traditional networks, but it doesn’t guarantee the shows will be any good. In fact, in the four years since Netflix premiered its first slate of original shows with House of Cards and the reboot of Arrested Development, a discernible trend has emerged of shows that are simply exaggerated versions of already existing network programs.
The Netflix original Pacific Heat, for example, is nothing more than an Australian version of FX’s series Archer, and a bad one at that. The show has an average rating of 27 percent on Metacritic, which compiles reviews of shows from all over the internet. Fuller House, a reboot of the sitcom Full House that no one asked for, is now on its third season despite being almost universally abhorred. The show has an average 35 percent rating on Metacritic. There are dozens of these originals on Netflix and other streaming services, shows that amount to little more than filler on the platform. In 2016, Netflix released a whopping 126 original series or films, more than any traditional network. Of those, there were the breakout hits like Stranger Things and Narcos, but also a number of duds, like the reboot of the teen drama Degrassi, called Degrassi: Next Class. And while Netflix remains notoriously mum when it comes to releasing any data on the viewership for its programming, at least one metric suggests that originals like the Will Arnett series Flaked live in relative obscurity.
Of course, for a company like Netflix, how many people watch each show is less important than how many people subscribe to the service. This is a fundamentally different paradigm than what exists for traditional networks. Thanks to a model based purely on advertising, traditional TV shows compete for attention in a cutthroat circus that usually involves great shows getting canceled before they have enough time to develop. As such, streaming is seen not only as the future of TV in so far as it is “digital-first” but also in that it gives shows a chance to develop in ways cable networks can’t.
Last summer, FX Networks president John Landgraf spoke at the gathering of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills. He warned that “it would be bad for storytellers in general if one company was able to seize a 40, 50, 60 percent share in storytelling,” alluding to Netflix’s aggressive content buying strategy. The service pays up front for shows and generally guarantees two seasons. Landgraf’s comments echo what many in the industry fear: an all-powerful Netflix that stamps out the competition entirely. Some fans might see this as a positive, since the prevailing narrative is that Netflix offers creative freedoms unmatched by traditional networks. But the tight-lipped company might be less magnanimous than it seems. Insiders told The Hollywood Reporter that there is little insight given into how a particular show will be marketed, or whether or not it is even successful, after it is purchased. Trevor Pryce, who sold the animated series Kulipari: An Army of Frogs to Netflix, described it like the movie Fight Club. “The first rule of Netflix: You do not talk about Netflix.”
The originals that are successful on streaming services seldom stay that way. House of Cards, Netflix’s hit political drama, seemed like a game changer when it premiered in 2013. The show portrayed a dark, almost surreally corrupt Washington that provided an irresistible political fantasy to increasingly cynical American viewers. It was even nominated for nine Emmys in 2013. The show’s latest season, however, is a major departure. The binge-viewing ethos that made Season 1 so enthralling has turned the series into a farce, where absurd plotlines like the president almost dying but coming back to life at the last second to win an argument with the leader of Russia isn’t the silliest thing that happens all season. Similarly, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle captured viewers’ attention with a truly imaginative and provocative look at what would happen if fascism made its way to the US (lol). After Amazon ditched the idea of having a showrunner for Season 2, things got a lot more campy. Now, instead of moral quandaries about the effects of an imbalance of power, the show relies on kitschy Nazi tropes with virtually no complexity.
A discernible trend has emerged of shows that are simply exaggerated versions of already existing network programs.
House of Cards producer Dana Brunetti told The Hollywood Reporter that “There’s nothing special about Netflix anymore. They had the first-mover advantage with digital streaming and giving artists more power, but now they’ve become like any traditional network or studio.”
Brunetti, it should be noted, has publicly said he thinks Netflix is overvalued.
All over the internet, there has been a concerted effort to invest heavily in original video content. Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce site that might be Amazon’s only competitor, recently announced a $4.2 billion investment in original programming. Facebook, despite its claim that it is not a media company, recently announced that it was looking to buy original content for its burgeoning video platform, this after the company spent more than $1 million on paying media companies to stream live content. Just about everywhere you look online, video has crept up as the dominant method of filling up space, either for advertisers or subscribers. Thanks to the new media barons gobbling up all of the video content they can find, we have endless options of shows to watch virtually anywhere, at any time, and there’s still hardly anything good on.