The Netflix Machine


Labelling Netflix’s output as “prolific” is not an inventive, or particularly perceptive observation. If anything, it’s a clichéd descriptor that fails to capture the sheer scale of their production rates. For a company with a content budget that has tripled in 5 years to $17.5 billion and that released the equivalent of over one new original program for every day of 2019, “obsessive”, “excessive”, or even “unjustifiable” would be better placed adjectives. 

Nowadays, the film and TV industry is concentrated on a game of definitions. As pop-culture news sites list the “best” Netflix shows in double or even triple figure lists, the idea of quality is being decentred by an increasingly commercial sway in indicators of the lexicographer’s nemesis: success. Firstly, stating that there can be “100 best” of anything is completely antithetical. More importantly, so is correlating viewing figures with genuine merit. Whatever happened to artistic integrity?   

The production approach that Netflix is taking is undeniably problematic for the film industry and viewers alike. The over-saturation of the market is threatening content fatigue on a global level, as audiences become overwhelmed by the hundreds, if not thousands, of options available at the moment of log in. There’s only so much longer that they can be anaesthetised with mediocre fodder and the echo chamber of the recommendation algorithm when instant gratification is the mode du jour.

Netflix has irreversibly altered the way in which we consume and value films and television programmes

Netflix has a particular reputation for producing what has been politely termed “ambient TV”. This sobriquet for “actually quite rubbish” (harsher phrasing is available) is applied to the kind of series where it’s acceptable to spend a significant proportion of its watch time looking at the phone in your hand whilst the sickly formula of empty dialogue, superficial plots and various disturbingly good-looking people filters across the screen. Cough, Emily in Paris, Bridgerton, After, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Selling Sunset

Admittedly, Netflix has been responsible for some impressive releases which have been recognised as such on the international awards circuit – there’s Roma, Marriage Story, Orange Is The New Black to name but a few. To what extent should we proffer these achievements as exceptional though? Isn’t it to be expected that a company with such an extortionate amount of financial resource will, at some point, manage to make something good? 

We shouldn’t be quick to forgive or forget. Netflix has irreversibly altered the way in which we consume and value films and television programmes. Rather than building audiences through reputation, the trajectory of watchability is now determined by how quickly a production can gain traction on social media, as memes, merchandise, or references to controversial casts – hello, Armie Hammer – circulate. Quality is now somewhat of a Mandela effect, as the outer lives of productions on social media override any real criticism. 

The balance between the commercial and the creative needs to be restored

It’s also threatening the existence of the most precious of genres, most concerningly the cult classic. Where cinemas’ small-hours screenings would promote a resurgence in a film’s popularity, or late-night repeats a television show’s following, there’s now an unforgiving flop-or-fly environment that doesn’t offer the opportunity for resurrection that The Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange and company were afforded. Somewhat apocalyptically, we’re losing much more than we’re gaining. 

There is hope, however. Despite budgets which dwindle into insignificance against Netflix’s, the BBC and Channel 4 have both proven themselves as valid contenders for audiences’ attention. I May Destroy You, Normal People, and It’s A Sin are all thoughtful, carefully developed productions that reflect fresh programming. They have deserved and enjoyed both public and critical success. Do note, however, I May Destroy You’s omission in recent nominations for the Golden Globes. 

Were Netflix to take a more considered approach, diverting its funds to fostering new waves of talent through investing in film education, establishing funding pots for independent filmmakers, and taking the time to finetune productions, it would only yield them more power. Surely that’s what they’re after? Regardless, the balance between the commercial and the creative needs to be restored. Most audiences are driven to film and TV because of its ability to move, inform, or transport them, not for background noise. If it doesn’t change, soon enough Netflix will suffer the same fate as most of its own shows as an outdated trend, lost in the haystack. 

For readers who are finding that Netflix isn’t cutting it, Mubi and Kanopy (the latter of which is free for Durham students) are great alternatives. 

Image Credits: via Flickr

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