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Has Netflix hit its peak? That might not be a bad thing

Realising that the period of non-stop growth is over might allow Netflix to discover the next stage in streaming entertainment

‘Bridgerton’ has been a standout performer in a difficult time for Netflix
‘Bridgerton’ has been a standout performer in a difficult time for Netflix

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If Netflix stopped adding new shows to its endless lineup, how long would it take for us to notice? A week? A month? Would it actually matter? Would we really care? There is much discussion about the streaming giant possibly having plateaued, now that it’s losing hundreds of thousands of subscribers and unable to make inroads into lucrative, growing markets (like ours), but I firmly believe more content is not the answer.

In fact, I wonder if an answer is needed in the first place.

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The story so far: Netflix has lost over 200,000 subscribers in the first three months of 2022, though one must note this comes with a big red asterisk: the service has disabled 700,000 subscribers from Russia following the conflict with Ukraine, which means it would otherwise have gained 500,000 users. However, Netflix estimates it will lose two million subscribers over the next quarter, and this is admittedly unflattering for a company that has only been on the up and up.

Alarm bells have been sounded. Many upcoming shows have been instantly axed, including several highly anticipated ones, and even an animated series produced by Meghan Markle—the sort of decision that might snidely be mentioned by a sarcastic royal in an episode of Netflix’s The Crown a few seasons down the line. Disney+, HBO MAX and Amazon Prime are steadily adding subscribers, while Apple TV+ is pulling ahead in another category Netflix has long treasured: critical applause and Oscar awards.

The consumer, naturally, need not worry. Netflix is among the most expensive streaming services around the world and the fact that its ubiquity is being challenged is a positive step. No longer does everyone have to subscribe to one platform to keep up with the conversation. In fact, with Netflix potentially hitting critical mass in terms of subscriber numbers, I expect more and more viewers to curate their own pay-as-they-go models for streaming subscriptions: subscribe to Netflix for a specific month to watch a few specific shows, then a month of Disney to catch up on a couple of others, and so on.

It must also be noted that streaming usage had skyrocketed unrealistically and disproportionately in quarantined times, and now the numbers may merely be correcting themselves. Netflix has over 220 million users. That’s nearly a hundred million more than Disney+, and while Amazon Prime is close with around 200 million subscribers, this levelling-off of the graph is a good thing. It’s far better to have several players of a similar size than one behemoth to rule us all, and this should allow different kinds of creative visions to thrive under different umbrellas.

Netflix has rarely focused on having the best shows. That is left to HBO which continues to foster thrilling content, and Apple TV+ is following its lead to keep appointment-viewing alive: if HBO owns the Sunday slot to drop new episodes of Succession/Euphoria, Apple TV+ is cornering Fridays with Severance/WeCrashed/Slow Horses. These companies are backing the shows commonly categorised as ‘Prestige TV,’ featuring big-name creators and actors, and impressively cinematic budgets. Instead, the Netflix focus—as evidenced by how bullishly it bids for classic hits like Seinfeld—has always been to have the most shows. A buffet table with something for everyone has to be good value for money.

Occasionally, something sensational—like Squid Game—will show up. But that’s the bonus, not the plan. The plan is to keep Netflix full of so many options that scrolling through them confuses the casual viewer, even as the user interface—the best and most seamless one out there—makes it easy to stay comfortable. Eventually you must stumble upon something you like. Or, at the very least, like enough.

It’s hard not to be skeptical about Netflix’s own metrics, where a couple of minutes of viewing leads to a hit count for an entire season, and where there is no transparency about numbers of viewers except those released by Netflix. I remain exceedingly sceptical of their Top 10, frequently packed with mediocre content. It reminds me of the Daily Specials section of a restaurant menu: strategically trying to move high-value items that aren’t selling.

Going back to the start of this column, here’s an idea: what if Netflix didn’t release a hundred shows a week? What if a new Netflix release felt like an event, instead of an inevitability?

Also read: Netflix tops subscriber views on strength of Squid Game

Remember how special it felt when Netflix launched Sacred Games, its first Indian original series? Contrast that with how tedious most Netflix India shows feel today. This is only to be expected when the platform’s priority is to outnumber, not outflank its rivals.

Even for Netflix, slowing down might not be an entirely bad thing. Realising that the period of non-stop growth is over might allow them to discover, and then disrupt, the next stage in streaming entertainment. They could streamline their productions and acquisitions. They could be more selective and more strategic. They changed the world once, and they could do it all over again. But first, Netflix must take a word out of its own euphemistic catchphrase: it must chill. Having content is not the same as being content.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of 'The Godfather'.


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