No wonder Netflix is bleeding subscribers – it’s become the new cable

The company has blamed password-sharing and the war in Ukraine for its plight. But the real problem might be its programming

After years of exponential growth, Netflix reported on Tuesday that it had lost subscribers for the first time in more than a decade. The announcement spooked Wall Street and sent shares plummeting more than 35%, erasing more than $50bn in market capitalization from a company whose stock was already down more than 40% on the year.

To explain the downturn, Netflix posited everything from the war in Ukraine to people sharing passwords. But what if the reason is much simpler – that Netflix just isn’t really making much people want to see any more?

It’s been a long time since Netflix was the total package: the home of cherished sitcoms like The Office, buzzy dramas like House of Cards, the exclusive venue for cinematic events like Bird Box and all for less than 10 bucks a month. Now, as the streaming service’s value nosedives, the big question is: are you still watching? And if so, what exactly?

I’m certainly finding it harder to answer that question. The other night, while spending 10 minutes scrolling around for a show to help me to sleep – Ozark (oof), the Ultimatum (hard pass), Serial Killer with Piers Morgan (yikes!) – I felt like a 90s cable TV viewer, aimlessly flipping around for something, anything, to watch.

Since NBC took back The Office and HBO Max did the same with Friends, well, it can’t exactly be said that the emperor has no content. It’s just that Netflix’s whole approach favors quantity over quality.

Critical hits like The Crown, Black Mirror and Russian Doll all began a while ago and new seasons can’t capture the watercooler excitement of earlier episodes. Netflix’s attempts at reclaiming the buzz have been patchy: Space Force promised big stars (Steve Carell, John Malkovich) sending up a risible Trump-era program, but it fizzled in the end. Sex/Life is softcore porn with not much storyline, an eight-hour Red Shoe Diaries episode. Bridgerton, for all its creative remixing, is still working from a stale archetype, the period drama. Netflix’s films, too, are barely worth recommending. Netflix’s Oscar-nominated, star-studded centerpiece Don’t Look Up, equally heavy handed in its environmentalism and Adam McKay directorial tics, is a hard sell.

Even when the company has tried to play it safe with huge name talent poached from other networks, Netflix hasn’t necessarily stoked fears of missing out. Dave Chappelle, Netflix’s $60m man, caused the streamer more trouble than he was worth with a 2021 comedy special that gaslit the trans community. Meanwhile, all expensive supposed streaming-record-breakers like the 2017 Will Smith sci-fi drama Bright (which cost a reported $90m) or the overhyped dramas spun out of Ryan Murphy’s $300m deal prove is that subscribers will watch anything with a big star attached simply because it’s available on Netflix; never mind if they’re any good.

Netflix isn’t just a media company. It’s right up there with electricity and the telephone on the list of inventions that changed humanity, a cure for boredom and laziness. When going to the video rental store became too tedious, it delivered DVDs straight to our mailboxes. When the mailbox became too much of a schlep, it delivered the same content right to our televisions and laptops. It didn’t just make favorite movies and TV reruns available to us at all hours while making high caliber original programs. It did all of this consistently enough for us to ditch terrestrial television in droves.

But ever since Netflix changed home entertainment for ever, rival media companies have raced to develop their own streaming apps, many of them debatably a better value than Netflix. HBO Max not only has exquisitely crafted TV (Euphoria, Last Week Tonight) and the entire Warner Bros library at its disposal; it has The Batman and other blockbuster films six weeks after their theatrical releases. Disney+ doggedly repurposes the Star Wars and Marvel universes, the kind of IP Netflix could only dream of. Paramount+ includes the NFL, March Madness and the Champions League. Prime Video comes free with signups for continued expedited shipping. With every new studio subscription app, Netflix becomes more of a victim of its own success.

It took many fits and starts and starts before Netflix finally earned its first major award for original programming, the pilot episode of House of Cards taking home a 2013 Emmy for outstanding directing. Apple TV+ has been a thing for barely five minutes, and yet Ted Lasso and Coda cleaned up this awards season. Overall, Apple seems to have the whole Netflix ratio flipped, doing more with less.

This isn’t to say that the competition has completely overtaken Netflix. As someone who was once unashamed to buy DVDs from subway platform vendors, I love that Netflix scoops up Nollywood bangers like How to Ruin Christmas and that they’ve revived One on One, Half & Half and other treasured Black sitcoms of my teenhood. Even some of the original programming deserves props. The Upshaws is a laugh-out-loud sitcom that could do with more critical attention.

Netflix is also riding a bit of a hot streak in the reality TV department with Love Is Blind, Is It Cake? and other variations on the genre. Formula 1: Drive to Survive belongs in Netflix’s win column, too; the sport owes much of its resurgent popularity to the behind-the-scenes series. And yet Netflix still has nothing on Bravo, VH1, Lifetime and other cable stalwarts in the drinks-throwing, wig-snatching department.

Beyond a handful of titles, there isn’t much keeping viewers tuned into Netflix besides habit – which is pretty much where many of them were with cable before they cut the cord and downloaded the app. Netflix used to be cool, a true disrupter. But success has made it fat and dull, with an outsized appetite for increasingly low-calorie content. It’s become the very thing it once disdained – just another expensive TV package. That’s not to say people won’t be watching. But surely more must be thinking about it.


Andrew Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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