Netflix is trying to tell us something—and we know it’s serious because, for once, the notoriously tight-lipped company is saying it with numbers. But that’s not to say the message is any clearer than usual. Last week, the service released its earnings for the final quarter of 2018, packaged with audience data on some of its most popular original content since the fall. Alongside what Netflix framed as actual statistics—20 million accounts tuned in to the Spanish-language soap Élite in its first four weeks on the site, for example—were projections that two new shows, Sex Education and You (which Netflix picked up for season 2 after it was canceled by Lifetime), were both on track to reach 40 million subscribers within that same four-week interval. Estimates aren’t facts, of course; they are, in fact, extremely weird figures to release when you’ve historically provided very little in the way of hard data. But assuming the service’s projections are correct, that’s roughly the same number of viewers who watched the series finale of All in the Family in 1979.
You can draw plenty of conclusions from this strategic info dump, which also included the news that thriller-turned-ill-advised-meme Bird Box was on pace to reach 80 million accounts. At the end of 2018, critics (like me—hi) lamented the current lack of one Game of Thrones-level show that everyone pays attention to. But even in a year without new episodes of a phenomenon like Stranger Things, Netflix wasn’t hurting for hits. If 40 million people are watching anything within 28 days of its release, reports of monoculture’s death must be greatly exaggerated.
But what strikes me most—not just because of the stats themselves, but also because it was these stats that Netflix chose to release—is the simplest thing Élite, Sex Education and You share: They all center characters in their teens or early 20s. Élite tackles class strife and murder at a private high school. A gentler show about the same age group, Sex Education infuses the teen sex comedy genre with fresh values. And You satirizes contemporary dating by throwing an attention-hungry aspiring writer (Elizabeth Lail) into the path of a psycho (Penn Badgley) who uses social media to stalk her.
It isn’t just young people who are watching these shows, of course. But when you consider how big a hit You has become on Netflix vs. how big a flop it was on Lifetime, it’s hard to overstate the synergy between the service and the seven-to-22-year-olds who comprise Generation Z. As the youth-oriented CW, which delivers full seasons of its series on the platform just eight days after their finales air, has learned—particularly in the case of Riverdale, which shares a co-creator with You in teen whisperer Greg Berlanti—the best place to court a teen audience is on Netflix. All of this raises a question that’s crucial for the future of TV: Is Netflix as dependent on Gen Z as Gen Z is on Netflix?
The service clearly realizes it has a captive audience of young viewers. “We really felt this hit a sweet spot for our audience, and we felt that our members would love the show,” Bela Bajaria, the Netflix exec who scored the streaming rights for You, explained to the Times. And a recent survey of nearly 8500 Gen Z-ers found that Netflix was their fourth favorite brand. No conventional TV network—not the CW, MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central or Freeform—made the top 100. Last year, Business Insider interviewed 104 teens and learned that 62% used an online streaming service—usually Netflix—as their primary video source, compared to an astonishingly low 2% who preferred cable. (About a third relied on YouTube.) In 2017, Hulu and ad tech company Tremor Video discovered that 43% of Gen Z had watched a show “just to talk about it with peers,” leading researchers to conclude that the demographic was “driven by a need to be ‘in the know’ about TV in order to be part of the social conversation.”
That last tidbit doesn’t exactly distinguish “kids today” from adolescents of generations past. Yet it does bear a striking resemblance to a comment Netflix content boss Ted Sarandos made following last week’s announcements. Urging the media to consider the viewership stats the company released as “less financial metrics [than] cultural metrics,” he explained, “What’s important is that, for part of your Netflix subscription, you’re in the zeitgeist. You’re watching the programming that the rest of the world is loving at the same time.” Might this be a way of saying that the service is catering to trend-conscious youth at the expense of the older crowd that flocks to CBS and the History channel—or, why not, anyone advanced enough in years to pay for their own subscription?
There’s some evidence to support the worry that Netflix will abandon us geezers over 30. Though it built its streaming dominance by boosting viewership for prestige cable dramas like Breaking Bad and established its original programming pedigree with similarly sophisticated shows like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Narcos and The Crown, the platform is now equally known for teen titles, from 13 Reasons Why to The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (reportedly the service’s second-most-streamed series in November). When Netflix published a ranking of its 10 most-binged series of 2018, On My Block, a dramedy about high schoolers in a rough LA neighborhood, topped the list. The service’s recent foray into music content—including a Taylor Swift concert film—also reads as an investment in youthful eyeballs. And it’s well known that the fanbase Netflix bent over backward to satisfy by paying $100 million to license Friends through 2019 leans young. Come to think of it, despite its de facto audience of everyone this side of the Upside Down, even Stranger Things is basically a teen drama.
It’s not that Netflix has stopped making shows for adults. Among its 2018 offerings were grown-up sex drama Wanderlust, philosophical Cary Joji Fukunaga epic Maniac and Samin Nosrat’s urbane food show Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Golden Globe-winning Chuck Lorre comedy The Kominsky Method, in which Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin ruminate on mortality and gripe about millennials, will be back for a second season. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin’s fluffy sitcom Grace and Frankie just got renewed, too. (When it comes to original films, Netflix offered such ambitious indie and foreign titles as the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Shirkers, Happy as Lazzaro and Best Picture nominee Roma in 2018, alongside Gen Z juggernauts To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Kissing Booth.) In fact, it seems like a safe bet that the service will always make room for a few flagship series with enough Hollywood star power and appeal to older viewers to earn awards attention.
As Kominsky proves, not all of these prestige-courting shows are better than Netflix’s teen fare—some of which, like Sex Education and the darkly comic road-trip romance The End of the F***ing World, ranks among the best TV of the past few years for any age group. The good news is that the service’s average Gen Z offering is leaps and bounds ahead of the “TGIF” treacle and Beverly Hills, 90210 I was watching in the mid-’90s. Still, what makes me anxious is the possibility that a platform that wields more influence over the TV landscape than any other single company, and one that may have to start focusing its spending on its most profitable niches to make ends meet, could conclude that it’s good business to marginalize or ignore all but one generation of subscribers.
Because Netflix is presumably highlighting teen shows’ viewership numbers in its Q4 earnings report for a reason. Here’s what else it’s telling shareholders in that document: “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO. When YouTube was down for a few minutes in October, our viewing and signups spiked for that time.” At the risk of sounding like a 34-year-old fossil: when Netflix enters a battle royale with a gaming fad and an overgrown social media portal for the attention of one narrow demographic, everyone who’s invested in the future of television loses.