When Netflix planned a live reunion special for the fourth season of its megahit reality series Love Is Blind, the streamer was surely hoping to break the internet with more he-said-she-said drama in the vein of season 3’s Zainab-Cole Cuties controversy. Instead, the internet apparently broke Netflix. As fans settled in to watch the reunion, scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, they were greeted with a series of messages—if they could get the player to load at all. “It’s almost time! The live event will start soon,” an optimistic early note read. Later, reality crept in: “There’s an issue with the livestream. Hang tight! We’re trying to fix it as soon as possible.”
The broadcast did eventually happen—but not before 9:00, when many viewers shifted focus to Succession or Yellowjackets. Having clicked over to HBO myself, I was able to watch the (mostly uneventful) reunion around 10 p.m. by reloading Netflix, opening the live episode, and fast-forwarding to roughly the 70-minute mark. (For those who could not access the show Sunday night, Netflix says it will post the episode at 3 p.m. ET on Monday.) “We are no longer live, but we are now finally here,” co-host Vanessa Lachey greeted viewers. “All of you at home, you haven’t missed a thing. We’ve been sitting on these couches not talking to each other so we can save all the tea for you.” By then, memes had circulated and competitors had piled on and even AOC was cracking jokes. The damage was done. But the delay was more than just an inconvenience for subscribers and an embarrassment for Netflix, which has a lot riding on its ability to execute live events. Sunday’s fiasco could be very bad for the streamer going forward.
To risk stating the obvious: linear television manages to pull off live broadcasts on a daily basis. News, sports, some talk shows, special events like awards ceremonies, the occasional gimmicky live episode of a primetime sitcom—almost all of it comes off without a hitch, give or take the odd unbleeped f-word. In fact, there’s evidence that sports and other live events are the last things keeping many potential cord-cutters from switching to streaming. So, if they want to further accelerate the transition away from traditional TV and toward their own services, platforms need to accommodate live streams. As Brett Sappington, the vice president of market research firm Interpret, told the L.A. Times in March: “Live is able to draw consumers in a way that on-demand just doesn’t in volume… If you can only see it on Netflix, then everyone who saw it has to go to Netflix to make sure that they are part of it. They don’t want to miss out.”
But this presents a particular challenge for Netflix, which doesn’t have the linear counterparts that competitors Disney+/Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, and Paramount+ do. The latter services’ parent companies are already balancing, albeit with mixed results, traditional and streaming coverage of events like the Olympics and the Grammys. Amazon kicked off an 11-year deal to stream Thursday Night Football in 2022. Netflix, however, just hosted its first big live event—Chris Rock’s standup special Selective Outrage—in March. It went smoothly enough that Rock’s jabs at Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, rather than any technical issue, dominated overnight headlines. Love Is Blind: The Live Reunion was only its second attempt. Netflix already has a deal to stream next year’s SAG Awards, but if Sunday’s catastrophe repeats itself, the streamer could struggle to attract the live-content partners it needs to stay competitive.
Not that any of this will necessarily be top of mind for individual subscribers deciding whether the service remains a good value for their household. It seems more likely that the wasted evening will become just another grievance to add to many viewers’ existing pile—whether they’re mad at Netflix for prematurely canceling their favorite show or they think its overall content mix is declining in quality. Netflix audiences have, thus far, been spoiled by a platform that, from a technological standpoint, works incredibly well, especially considering that it still has more subscribers than any of its competitors. As streaming analyst Dan Rayburn explained in a fascinating deep dive into Netflix’s sophisticated server network, Open Connect, from The Verge: “You only get that number of subs if you can deliver good, quality consumer experience at scale. Nobody’s ever had the scale to the degree Netflix has. Nobody has that expertise.”
Whatever happened to undermine the live element of Love Is Blind: The Live Reunion, it constituted a user-experience crisis that might well have made a greater impact than, for example, HBO Max’s House of the Dragon premiere crash, precisely because such missteps are rare for Netflix. Bloomberg reported Monday morning that the company’s stock had fallen 2% in pre-market trading. But the real indicator of how much Sunday’s screw-up ends up hurting Netflix will be the success or failure of its next live program—and the next one, and the one after that, and so on. There’s no longer any room for error. Because, like the newly minted spouses of Love Is Blind, a streaming service can never stop working to justify its subscribers’ love. Now, Netflix has a lot of broken trust to rebuild.
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