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What is the Incentive for Netflix to Offer Quality Entertainment?

Netflix might be fine delivering middling content now, but the company needs to think about the subscribers of the future.
By  · Published on September 7th, 2017

Netflix might be fine delivering middling content now, but the company needs to think about the subscribers of the future.

Despite what their own billboards claim, Netflix is not a joke. The streaming service continues to overcome criticisms about both their original programming and their back catalog film and TV offerings, maintaining their dominance over the world’s viewing interests. That’s some serious business. But how long can it last?

Netflix has been a juggernaut this year in terms of original content releases. Every week, we can expect a new full-season of an original series or two (maybe something returning and something debuting), plus something for the kids, an original movie, an original documentary, and on Tuesdays a stand-up comedy special. It’s actually kind of overwhelming.

But a lot of it is really great and shines through. The second season of Master of None is one of the best things in any medium this year. Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is totally and fabulously fantastic. The Crown returning this fall should top everyone’s list of most anticipated viewing of the season. David Fincher’s Mindhunter will likely be essential view, as well.

Of course, Mindhunter could also be disappointing. The Crown Season 2 could be not as good as Season 1. How many series have already been bummers from the start or gone downhill after a debuting strong? That’s true of any television outlet, but it doesn’t seem to be as big a deal at Netflix. Subscribers will watch almost anything because it’s so accessible to just turn on the app and click. And once you start, it’s difficult to stop.

Netflix’s lump-release strategy has worked twofold. There’s the binging, of course, though people seem to be doing that less than before. Then there’s the ease of picking up something where you left off, either mid-episode or mid-season. Even if you weren’t into the last episode, when you go back to Netflix to watch something, just continuing that mediocre show involves little thinking or care. With regular TV, you’d just stop tuning in and forget about a series you don’t love. At Netflix, it’s in our face ’til the end.

Who cares if the Wet Hot American Summer shows aren’t funny. They’re there, they’re familiar, they’re passive nonsense. Why do they have so much plot compared to the anarchic comedy they’re based on? Probably to drive viewers more forward, but I’m not even sure that much thought was put into the new Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later.

Is there any incentive to put more thought into the series, especially if Netflix keeps ordering them and subscribers keep on clicking on them? Is it any coincidence that we keep getting the worst possible efforts from other talents, such as Christopher Guest, Amy Schumer, Adam Wingard, and even Adam Sandler? They got paid, Netflix got paid, where’s the pressure to make it any good?

Yes, there are certain obvious incentives. If a series or movie is truly awful, that could be reflected in poor viewership. Netflix is cancelling stuff now, like the poorly reviewed Gypsy. Is it because subscribers didn’t watch? Well, we have no idea because Netflix doesn’t release such data. But that’s likely. It’s not because of the reviews, as the similarly rated Friends From College has been renewed.

If something does happen to perform badly, even with Netflix pushing its ease and access and star appeal and everything else on its front page, then maybe that show doesn’t come back or maybe that filmmaker doesn’t get another deal. It’s just very plausible that enough fans watch a new Guest movie or Wingard’s controversial and critically panned Death Note or more, decreasing-in-quality Marvel series and that be all that matters in the end, business-wise.

Netflix is a very passive model for entertainment that is as much old-school broadcast as it is early days of HBO: it’s a dominant part of our lives and we watch what’s available more than we seek out what’s best. There’s not likely a lot of review reading done before clicking. And user reviews are tucked away. Unlike many other spots online for movie fans, there is no prominent Rotten Tomatoes score or audience rating.

In the end, there’s little that’s downright terrible on Netflix, at least among their originals, but there’s also little that’s amazing. There is, instead, a lot of middling offerings. If that becomes the norm, then outside of stuff we can get from people like Bong Joon-ho, who doesn’t seem capable of being lazy even if he can be, and maybe Martin Scorsese, whose upcoming The Irishman will be on Netflix, we continue to get more passable, sometimes ok product.

And Netflix doesn’t have to worry, because who is cancelling Netflix at this point? Regardless of the content, it’s part of the pop culture conversation. The company got us in early when it was truly great and manages to keep us on board for the little things (and sometimes big things like a Scorsese movie) and the facility, just like it did with our parents and HBO and AOL. Maybe it’ll take a generation for Netflix to ever start to see waning interest.

I am definitely no Netflix hater. Especially as a documentary fan. They always have at least 100 must-see nonfiction films worth recommending, and niche VP Lisa Nishimura keeps greenlighting and acquiring essential, doc content, including Oscar-caliber features and shorts, for the service, as well as driving the constant flux of comedy specials from big names and fresh talents.

And as a parent, I’m happy with the wide array of children’s programming, especially while Disney movies have a home there through the end of 2018. Honestly, it’s my kids who watch Netflix the most and for whom I primarily pay the monthly fee. They’re easy to please, but Netflix does seem to try to give them what they want and enough quality in the mix. They probably look at the kids as the subscribers of the future and need to build them up as such.

But it’s not like Netflix is ever going to actually corner the market, even if it looms so large that it sometimes feels like it’s all that content consumers know anymore. As more and more distributors (like Disney) hope to compete with Netflix with their own subscription streaming services, there could be an incentive to improve overall quality.

There’s also the company’s hunger for awards, even though outside of the attention on its docs they don’t need Emmys or Oscars for any reason but repute. That can come through exceptional minority of acquisitions, of course, and through weakening voter tastes (Stranger Things is good, but it’s not that good). And it can help Netflix remain a big deal forever.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.