Netflix fatigue is real. In 2018, I’ve heard friends, relatives and Twitter acquaintances alike complain that they can’t keep up with the streamer’s torrent of programming, and here’s the thing: Neither can I, and I’m a TV critic. Side-scrolling through the “Netflix Originals” section of my home screen just now, I spotted plenty of familiar shows. But Cuckoo, Wanted and The Protector each failed to ring a bell. (Turns out they’re all foreign imports.) When even people who write about TV for a living can’t keep up, you have to wonder: What is the endgame here? If Netflix thrives on subscriptions, and it’s the buzz around individual shows and movies—ideally an escalating hum of media coverage, advertising and word-of-mouth endorsements—that drives signups, what’s the point of churning out more programming than you can effectively promote?
Critics have been lamenting the surplus of television for much of the current decade, but this was the year that exhaustion spread to civilian viewers confronted by FOMO every time they logged in to Netflix. Streaming has already changed the way we watch TV: Weekly chatter about All in the Family, then Seinfeld, then The Wire gave way to binge viewings of the streaming show du jour. Now another shift is afoot, as options exponentially expand, each Netflix subscriber’s homepage fills with discrete, data-driven recommendations and we all wind up watching something different. What does this fragmentation mean for the community aspect of TV, which for decades brought friends together on couches, drove vital culture-wide debates and gave queer Californian socialists of color common ground with white Republican retirees in Alabama? Is Netflix trying to create enough content to perfectly satisfy every kind of person? And if so, how will that level of personalization affect a viewing public—which is to say a country and a world—that grows more polarized each day?
In June, a New York magazine story offered some rare insight into the secretive company’s plans. According to reporter Josef Adalian, “Netflix operates by a simple logic, long understood by such tech behemoths as Facebook and Amazon: Growth begets more growth begets more growth.” But even the mastermind of this model, the company’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos, didn’t seem entirely confident in its long game. “The thing that keeps me up at night is scale,” he told Adalian. “It’s a mind-boggling amount of programming that’s being produced here. How do we keep scaling it?” Considering that Netflix is still running on borrowed funds, its future depends on finding a profitable solution to that quandary. Saturday Night Live spoke for all of us who remain confused about how the company intends to ever make money with a recent Netflix parody ad in which a voiceover proclaims, “In 2019, we’ll have even more programming to choose from”—cue used-car commercial bellow—“because we’ve gone crazy!”
At the end of a year packed with long-tail pleasures but short on galvanizing triumphs like Game of Thrones and the debut seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale and American Crime Story, as well as Netflix’s own Stranger Things, more big questions have emerged: Is Netflix’s glut of original content rendering such runaway hits impossible—to the extent that this onslaught is even burying the service’s own flagship shows? This was a year without a single breakout: There were plenty of fantastic shows and seasons but no Game of Thrones, no apparent Netflix sensation, no Atlanta-level series premiere. As programming proliferates, the discussion around any program in particular has felt oddly muted. But if subscriber numbers keep growing, will that even bother a platform that so quickly transformed from prestige haven into volume business? Will Netflix execs ever turn down the water pressure on this TV firehose?
Most importantly—for viewers who value quality over quantity, if not for industry wonks and corporate bean counters—can what’s good for commerce possibly be good for art, too?
It’s worth remembering that Netflix didn’t start this content arms race. Statistics compiled by FX demonstrate that such programming more than quadrupled on basic cable and nearly doubled on pay TV in the decade between 2002 and 2012. That was before streaming services started making their own shows in earnest, a phenomenon that now accounts for almost one-third of all original scripted content. The upshot? FX reports that a record 495 scripted series aired in 2018. And that number actually accounts for a significant drop in basic cable series, from 175 in 2017 to 144 in 2018. For the first time, streaming has surpassed both basic cable and broadcast networks to become the biggest platform for original scripted programming, with 160 shows. Though Amazon and Hulu have slowly grown their offerings, while YouTube Premium and Facebook Watch have recently made strides toward professionalizing their slates, no service has contributed nearly as much to this shift as Netflix.
That’s especially remarkable when you consider how much emphasis the company placed on unscripted programming this year. Without ratings data, it’s notoriously difficult to quantify the popularity of streaming shows, but it seems safe to presume that nonfiction content accounts for a substantial share of Netflix’s recent success. The chilling docuseries Wild Wild Country lingered in the cultural conversation for longer than anything else the service had to offer in 2018. A Queer Eye revival that could’ve been a mess instead made superstars of its ideal cast.
Unscripted TV is fast and cheap to make, and that has surely helped Netflix build out entire programming niches within months. Its menu of food shows expanded in 2018 to include critical favorites from Salt Fat Acid Heat to Ugly Delicious, competitions that rip off (Sugar Rush, The Final Table) or parody (Nailed It!) existing food TV and cult oddities like The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell. Evil Genius, The Innocent Man and The Staircase (formerly on Sundance) continued a true-crime boom Making a Murderer helped start. Amazing Interiors, The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes and Stay Here were its answer to HGTV. The service explored the music space with Westside, Rapture and ReMastered. (In 2019, Cardi B, T.I. and Chance the Rapper will judge a Netflix music competition called Rhythm + Flow.) There are duds among the above-mentioned bounty, but most of it is at least decent.
Netflix is also getting a lot of attention for the international shows it co-produces in some cases and exclusively licenses in others. While a hit British thriller like BBC One’s Bodyguard is obvious binge bait, the stateside embrace of Germany’s Weimar crime epic Babylon Berlin, Spanish teen soap Élite and Japanese reality hangout franchise Terrace House—all novel shows in their own ways—is more surprising. To the extent that other countries’ cultural exports can expand our perspectives, Netflix is broadening the horizons of viewers around the world. In that sense, and in the cases of Wild Wild Country, Salt Fat Acid Heat and some other unscripted shows, the content-hoarding model it’s pursuing for the sake of business has benefited art.
What’s worrisome is how difficult the constant barrage of new series and seasons (not to mention straight-to-streaming movies) has made it for any one show, be it on Netflix or Showtime or AMC or Fox, to establish a foothold in the popular consciousness. It was only a few years ago that people from all walks of life swarmed Twitter every week to process Breaking Bad or Empire together, live; now, the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul is TV’s most time-shifted show. Remember the IRL viewing parties that used to convene, before Netflix started deploying full seasons on a daily basis, to watch Sunday-night HBO or NBC’s Thursday comedies or Shonda Rhimes’ #TGIT? I don’t want to romanticize those days too much—never forget how much cultural oxygen we let Girls suck up in 2012—but it’s hard to deny how quickly the streaming revolution has decimated any sense of community among viewers.
This year’s Netflix release schedule made television feel overwhelming in the same way that the 24/7 digital news cycle has been since the advent of social media, and a similar trade-off applies: It’s wonderful that the medium is making space for a broader range of voices, ideas and approaches to storytelling than ever, but those hyper-specific programming lanes isolate every kind of viewer (or, to use Netflix jargon, “taste cluster”) in their own bubble. “We have a saying,” Olivia De Carlo, who works on product launch strategy at the company, told New York. “Your Netflix is not my Netflix.” That level of customization sounds tantalizing, but in practice, a world where everyone has their own Netflix looks a lot like a world where everyone watches TV alone.
If you believe, as I do, that a robust public discourse is good for art—that communicating across gulfs in identity, experience and values is as vital to the health of our culture as it is to the health of our democracy—this fragmentation is cause for concern. Why did the conversation around Maniac, a heady, beautifully executed, well-promoted, big-budget Netflix sci-fi epic directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, die down so quickly after its September premiere? And if the idea is to rapidly replace the crowd pleasers of eras past with something for every niche, why did the service feel obligated to spend a sum The New York Times reported as $100 million for the non-exclusive right to stream Friends throughout 2019?
These are both ways of asking whether we can really trust that Netflix knows what it’s doing—and the answer is important, because the company is poised to affect television as profoundly in this decade as it affected the home video industry, for better and worse, in the early 2000s. New or future streaming ventures from CBS, Disney, Warner Media, Apple and DC Comics all come across as measures to keep Netflix from eating the other corporations’ lunch.
So, assuming it won’t just keep expanding its original offerings without taking in enough revenue to support them until it goes bankrupt, what is Netflix going to do? It could be overspending in the short term in order to jack up subscription prices once it’s attracted a critical mass of customers more loyal to Netflix than they are to cable. You can imagine that strategy, which depends on subscribers loving its output enough to spend more on it, supporting art along with commerce. Netflix did, after all, debut some very good English-language scripted series besides Maniac and Bodyguard in 2018: The End of the F***ing World, On My Block, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Haunting of Hill House, Wanderlust.
The resources the company has allotted to bringing in three of TV’s most forward-thinking creators—Rhimes, Kenya Barris and Ryan Murphy—along with the Obamas and, this month, former ABC entertainment head Channing Dungey further suggest they haven’t given up on quality. Shows by most of these boldface names, along with new seasons of Stranger Things and The Crown (both of which were on hiatus in 2018), are due to start appearing next year. By the end of 2019, we should have a better idea of whether it’s still possible for a Maniac-size show to make a Grey’s Anatomy-level impact on viewers.
Then again, Netflix could be planning on experimenting with every possible kind of programming for just a few years, in hopes of efficiently identifying its most profitable niches and abandoning its least profitable ones. (Sarandos did suggest to New York that the content firehose won’t be operating at full blast forever.) In that case, get ready for a lot more reality TV.
No matter what decisions the service makes in 2019 and beyond, this year felt like a point of no return for the medium it increasingly dominates: The future of television as an art form is inextricably tied to the future of Netflix as a business. Let’s hope it hasn’t actually gone crazy.