A daily newsletter guide to what is happening on your screens - TV, streaming, movies, games, VR, AR
Dan Barrett is an industry commentator & TV critic. He does radio - 4BC & ABC GC and co-hosts the Screen Watching podcast. He's a former Mediaweek deputy editor and content creator for SBS.
Netflix is at risk being the next Blockbuster Video.
Netflix has a curation problem that it needs to fix. Fast.
Netflix has a curation problem.
It doesn’t matter how good the content on Netflix might be - right now it’s just a large bucket of content that does nothing to distinguish the true stand-out shows and movies on platform.
As other competing streaming services launch and start actually competing with Netflix (which, let’s be honest, is really the only game in town right now), it is suddenly going to start looking very creaky in its current form with very little to distinguish itself.
Netflix doesn’t have 80+ years of IP creation behind it, like most movie studios. It doesn’t have multiple platforms creating new IP that can be vertically integrated, like Disney has with Marvel Comics, or WarnerMedia with DC Comics. But, for a company that has been producing its own original productions for just 6 years now, it has already amassed a strong library of some of TV’s best shows.
Orange is the New Black, GLOW, Mindhunter, Russian Doll, Dark, Bojack Horseman, Stranger Things, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Love, Master of None, Making a Murderer, Chef’s Table, When They See Us…
These are among the very best shows on TV. But, right now they are just titles sitting on general categorized shelves in the Netflix library.
Netflix does itself a great disservice by not casting a spotlight on its best titles - both its acquired titles and the Netflix Originals that it has invested serious $$$ into.
Netflix is in danger of being Blockbuster Video
In a lot of ways, Netflix is the digital recreation of a traditional video store. The distribution of content might be different, but there’s very little that is different between accessing a title on Netflix to the days of old of getting a title from Blockbuster Video. Enter the store/website - initially you’re presented with new titles, then after that it is about trawling through titles in categories until you find something you might want to watch.
Like Blockbuster Video, Netflix adds nothing into the consumption experience beyond simply serving titles. There’s no editorial voice. There’s no brand identity.
Yes, it has its originals. But, beyond the Netflix ident at the start of them, there is little about them that has a flavour that is quintessentially Netflix.
Ultimately, Netflix, like Blockbuster Video, is just a place viewers go to watch general stuff.
Their content. Their algorithm. Your cluster.
When you, average Netflix subscriber, log in to watch your Netflix shows, the platform serves up shows the Netflix algorithm has determined suits your viewing tastes. After using the product for a while, it will determine your viewing interests and position you into one of hundreds of viewing clusters. Then, everyone in the same taste cluster as you are shown the same shows and movies on the screen.
But, it’s not just one big collection of movies/shows to scroll left/right/up/down through: Individual rows are broken up into different categories to make sorting through the content easier.
First, it’s the shows it is suggesting you continue watching. Then, it is shows that are popular on Netflix, then those that are trending now (I’ve never quite understood the distinction between these two). But then after that, it delivers you specific categories based on genres you like. Funny movies, dark sci-fi, animated family, movies starring a handsome man named Brad, etc.
And this is where Netflix’s curation problem exists: There are no qualifiers based on quality.
The Netflix viewing experience is based on the idea that all content is created equally.
If you are interested in one type of movie or show, you will similarly be interested in other similar shows. And that is generally true.
If you’re the sort of person who is into Family Guy, you’re probably more likely to be interested in watching Bojack Horseman than a viewer who is interested in Downton Abbey. That isn’t to say that there aren’t Downton fans who’d be into watching Bojack, but broadly, it is a safer bet that a Downton Abbey fan would be more likely to watch The Crown than the smart and funny cartoon about the self-hating sitcom star horse.
But, our viewing consumption and knowledge of shows is more sophisticated than that. We tend to favor certain types of shows, certainly. But we are also often open to stepping outside our comfort zones/general interest areas if told that a show/movie is good.
Not all shows are born equal.
Consider science fiction as a TV genre. There are some great sci-fi TV shows. But there are some that are a bit middling, and also a bunch that are terrible. Some of the terrible shows may be pleasurable to watch for whatever reason, but they’re more a guilty pleasure than a show you’d advocate friends to watch.
Top Tier Battlestar Galactica (2004)
Mid Tier Battlestar Galactica (1978)
Low Tier Battlestar Galactica 1980
On Netflix each of these shows would be grouped together - despite the fact that the 2004 remake of Battlestar Galactica is considered one of the greatest shows of all time. When it aired through the back half of the 00s, it built a large audience of people who came to it not because it was a sci-fi drama, but because they’d been told it was a great show that transcended its genre trappings. But on Netflix, it would be grouped alongside the absolute turd of a TV show Battlestar Galactica 1980 - a show universally agreed upon to be terrible (with the exception of an actually very good final episode in its short 10-episode run).
Now, it’s fine that these shows find themselves in the same categories most of the time. If you’ve got a category of dark sci-fi shows, it would make sense to have all of these Battlestar Galactica shows grouped together with shows like Fringe, Quantum Leap, and Andromeda. That’s fine and how categories work.
But wouldn’t it be great to have an additional way on platform to highlight 2004’s Battlestar as a show of exceptional quality?
Consider the David Fincher procedural crime drama Mindhunter. Here we have a TV series that is directed by one of cinemas biggest directors. His name attached to any film will turn the heads of most film fans. When Netflix were first getting involved with creating original series, Fincher’s work on the first season of House of Cards was a selling point.
David Fincher is a big deal. A David Fincher show attracts interest. But you wouldn’t know that as a Netflix subscriber. With the show sitting in the catalogue, it is given the same stature as any other show.
Manhunt Unabomber isn’t a terrible show. It’s mid tier. Same with The Sinner, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, The Alienist, and Ozark. And that’s fine. They all have enthusiastic viewers and each of those shows make great additions to the Netflix library.
But they’re not David Fincher’s Mindhunter.
A viewer who isn’t into true crime or dark police procedural dramas might not watch Mindhunter, but if they see that it is in a curated category that suggests it is a Must Watch alongside other titles they know are considered to be the best of the best, it might attract a viewership who is willing to step outside of their genre interests to give it a look.
Why Netflix need to fix this… Fast.
You might be thinking to yourself that Netflix seem to be doing just fine with the way they present viewing options to audiences now. It may not a big problem today in July 2019, but one year from now… two years from now… it’s going to be evident.
Consider this: It’s 2022….
You have subscriptions to HBO Max, Disney+ (with Hulu bundled in), Netflix, and you’re watching a bit from ad-supported services like NBC Universal, Pluto TV, and you also get Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ shows bundled in because of your home delivery service and you bought a new iPhone last month.
That’s a lot of TV. It’s probably too much.
And it’s time to re-evaluate what you’re getting value from.
Do you lose the service that is giving you new Star Wars and Marvel shows? Could you afford to lose the HBO Max service that gives you all those classic films you’re watching along with those great new HBO dramas? All the other services are free, so they’re not going to go. But what about Netflix? There were probably some really good shows on there that you watched. But, can you afford to keep it so you can watch the latest season of Manhunt Unabomber and whatever other shows Netflix have?
Netflix has a secret sauce Blockbuster never had
On the face of it, Netflix actually looks and feels a lot like a Blockbuster Video store. But, it has two key aspects that differentiate it in important ways:
The Netflix algorithm
Netflix customers don’t come to the service and wander the shelves for an hour before finding something to watch. The algorithm pushes titles the audience are interested in, cutting down on the selection process considerably.
Also, in producing its own movies and TV shows, Netflix has a strong value proposition that Blockbuster never really had. You could walk into a Blockbuster and find the same titles you’d also find at the video store up the street. Netflix has exclusive titles that you’ll never find anywhere else. And some of those shows are GREAT.
But, if a subscriber doesn’t feel like they’re getting value from Netflix content… if Netflix doesn’t remind us that it has genuinely great titles in its library… if Netflix just feels like a library of general entertainment stuff to watch… subscribers are going to start looking elsewhere for their TV needs.
Looking at it now, Netflix is curating itself towards viewer apathy.
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