Netflix is a very successful business, and I don’t know the first thing about business, so far be it from me to tell them what they should do. (I know so little about business that I can’t understand why owning a company that has never made a profit has made Jeff Bezos, the Amazon guy, the richest person on the planet.) But I do co-run this blog about pop culture, and Netflix has been one of the most important and transformative forces in film and TV (mostly TV) in recent years. The effects of that have been a mixed bag, but it’s hard to deny their sheer scale.
This kind of scares me, because Netflix’s share price does not seem at all proportionate to its profits, and while I don’t know anything about business I have seen Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, so a part of me is convinced that Netflix will suddenly and unceremoniously collapse one day. Which, aside from anything else, means all the art made exclusively for Netflix might just… disappear? The archival implications of the streaming model are pretty terrifying if you think about it for more than a minute, which is why I’m one of the few people my age that spends her money buying second-hand DVDs.
But, like I said, I don’t know the first thing about business, so that might be nonsense, and my DVD collection might be no different from stockpiling tins of food in a bunker in case the Cold War turned nuclear. But I do think I know a small bit about film and TV, and film and TV is Netflix’s business. So, on that basis I would like to make this humble suggestion to Netflix HQ: stop making so much fucking original content.
Netflix is planning on having 700 original productions by the end of 2018. It’s going to spend eight billion dollars on original content this year. I’ve written before about how the proliferation of media could be driving us further apart, but Netflix’s approach has another, much more basic problem: it guarantees that they produce huge, huge amounts of crap.
Netflix’s long-term aim is to move towards predominantly hosting original shows, films and stand-up specials and to massively reduce the amount of other content that it licenses the rights to host. But this means that in order to not drastically reduce the amount of stuff available on their site, they need to produce a huge amount, way more than any of their competitors. It doesn’t matter if no longer licensing as much content reduces the quality of their catalogue, because as long as you are interested in some of the content that Netflix has exclusive rights to, you’ll need to keep re-upping your Netflix subscription to get access to it.
In the early days of Netflix’s pivot to original programming, they produced a handful of high-quality – or at the very least, buzzy as hell – shows: Orange Is The New Black, House of Cards, or even Bojack Horseman. In this period, it seemed like the model Netflix were pursuing was akin to the Golden Age of HBO – concentrating on a smaller number of shows but making sure that they were all among the best on television. In the early 2000s, HBO was producing The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire and Sex and the City at the same time. While HBO had lots of great programming before that, in that era, being a HBO production became a seal of quality, and HBO became a transformative force in how people saw what television could and should be. At the end of the decade, AMC clearly attempted the same trick, when their fourth and fifth scripted series ever were Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which quickly became maybe the two most archetypical “I can’t believe you haven’t seen _____!” shows in the world.
It would be easier for Netflix to pursue this kind of model than for a more traditional TV channel, because TV stations have to produce a certain amount of crap just to fill out their schedules. But Netflix is an on-demand service that doesn’t have a schedule to fill out. It could have as much or as little programming as it wanted.
The problem is that HBO never could have made The Sopranos and The Wire if they were making six hundred and ninety-eight other shows. The problem is that even if they did make The Sopranos and The Wire alongside six hundred and ninety-eight other shows, the chances of someone actually watching them would plummet. The problem is that you can’t have quality control without quantity control, and Netflix is so focused on pumping out as much original content as it can that it can’t possibly focus on making sure it’s good.
It’s well-known that Netflix is very hands-off, and lets writers and directors do pretty much whatever they want (except shoot on film). They apparently give directors final cut on their films, something very few directors get at the major studios. For a lot of creative types, this is a blessing. Film critics and fans have bemoaned studio interference getting in the way of genius for decades, from RKO cutting an hour of footage and adding a new ending to Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons to the reviled theatrical cut of Blade Runner. We idealise the 1970s for being the decade when a bunch of young directors were allowed make whatever the hell they wanted.
“I don’t know how to say this, but truthfully [Netflix] doesn’t give a shit,” Oren Uziel, director of Shimmer Lake, said, “They’re not worried about anything that maybe someone else would. It’s like, ‘Just go for it. Do what you want to do.’”
But there’s a difference between being hands-off when it comes to issuing demands and being hands-off when it comes to help and guidance. The ideal relationship between creator and production company is a creative collaboration between partners – even as this is increasingly rare because the dominance of media by conglomerates means the higher-ups are less and less likely to even care about the creative aspects of filmmaking. Netflix’s total hands-off approach allows some writers and directors to do things that they otherwise couldn’t and to make boundary-pushing masterpieces. But it’s allowed even more writers and directors to make bloated, overlong creations that probably could have been great if somebody was there to say, “Does your season premiere and your season finale really need to be feature-length?”
Because as long as Netflix is pursuing a model centred around owning as much intellectual property as they can, they’re going to have to commission shows and films that aren’t made by experienced master craftsman but by people who need that guiding hand. And as long as they are pursuing a model centred around owning as much intellectual property as they can, they’re not going to have the time and resources to provide that guiding hand. Sometimes the hands-off approach is necessary breathing room. Sometimes it’s enough rope for something to hang itself.
Lady Dynamite, Pam Brady and Mitchell Hurwitz’s show starring and based on the life of Maria Bamford, is an extraordinary piece of television: at its best, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. When it premiered two years ago, I gave it a shot because I liked some of the creative team, even though it had a really shitty trailer, and I adored it. But if it premiered today, I don’t know if I’d ever get round to it. It had a shitty trailer, and Netflix has replaced its five-star rating system that had been a pretty decent indicator of how much I would like something with a thumbs-up/down system that provides me with no information whatsoever. And, you know, six hundred and ninety-nine other Netflix originals lie in wait.
A few months after Lady Dynamite’s second season dropped (with little fanfare on Netflix’s part), it got cancelled. I mourn Lady Dynamite, but I also mourn what Lady Dynamite represents: all the dozens of brilliant Netflix shows that disappear into the overabundance around them, shows who – thanks to Netflix’s hands-off approach – might be the kind of shows that are pushing creative boundaries in the way those early-2000s HBO shows did, but will never get to change television the way those early-2000s HBO shows did. Because ultimately, if Netflix don’t care what anyone does as long as they can pump out content to put the “Netflix original” tag on, they’re not going to care about shows because they push creative boundaries. Netflix wants to transform distribution, but it doesn’t really give a shit about art – not even as a shortcut to making money.
If Netflix want to stop diluting their brand, they should scale back production, and focus on making good stuff, not just much stuff. They should make enough quality content that when I see an ad for a Netflix original I don’t automatically zone out. They should make every original piece of programming as good as it can be and make sure none of it gets lost in the shuffle.
And the only way to do that is to make a lot, lot less of it.