In 1997, Netflix wasn’t formed to disrupt our TV habits, it was formed to support them.
It launched with a library of 925 DVDs. The main thing that separated it from something like Blockbuster (and what eventually ended up allowing Netflix to trump them) is the monthly subscription. All-you-can-eat content, with a much wider selection than traditional TV or cinema.
By 2000, Netflix had already declined an acquisition offer of $50 million from a terrified Blockbuster, and then went on to make DVD rentals obsolete with a revolutionary on-demand platform and a discovery algorithm within the space of 6 years.
Using similar tactics to YouTube, and emerging within the same year, Netflix represents the YouTube-ization of television. And, while I’m hesitant to consider YouTube the new TV (because of its snack-sized content), it is the kind of model that’s dictating what we view. Not just because of the filter bubble, but because no one will be physically leaving their house to get a DVD, or waiting for 9pm so they can catch the next episode of whatever they’re watching. And who can blame them?
Honestly, I wouldn’t be arsed either. The last time I bought a DVD was out of pure frustration for my terrible internet because I lived in the middle of nowhere.
As a marketer by day, this trend is no surprise. As far as content discovery goes, people would prefer things that fit with their cataloged interest over something totally random. As far as technological leaps go, people prefer to have their content now, not 9pm next Wednesday. It’s no surprise that Netflix killed TV for everyone apart from your grandmother.
And so, in the reality that exists for most of us, Netflix is TV. It’s what’s on our TVs. It’s what we watch instead of TV. It’s behaving like TV by creating original content. The disruption has been a long time coming. I’m sure that those born a few generations down the line will find hilarious it that we used to get our pre-prescribed dosage of television through rudimentary metal poles poking above the rooftops.
People aged under 35 watch half the amount of live TV than 35+ year olds, and it’s predicted that by 2025 half of people aged under 32 will have cut the cord on their TVs. See the sources for these facts and more TV-damning stats here.
The decline of traditional TV can be tracked directly against ad spend by companies:
We’re in a blip right now; the middle stages of a full overhaul that will affect the way we consume content from now until the next gradual disruption gets into full swing.
I’ve buried the lede here, but what I’m interested in getting at is what the rapidly growing sector of on-demand video leaves out: organic discovery.
When I was growing up, I didn’t watch more of what I decided to watch (the only things I had access to were my mum’s unwatchable VHS comedies from the 80s), but I did watch more. More TV, more movies, more documentaries. The climate of content that I grew up on was unique because whatever I managed to catch on TV came from random chance. I sat up way past my bedtime, trying to be as quiet as possible so I wouldn’t wake my parents, just to watch something I wouldn’t normally see. It drove me to carve out time to watch TV. Right now, I watch less TV than I used to because it isn’t constantly broadcast. It’s analysis paralysis; the more things I have to choose from, the more likely I am to choose none. For traditional TV, there’s much less choice. You either turn the TV on or you don’t. You either switch to the next channel or you don’t.
Imagine if Netflix constantly broadcast its shows on rotation. You’d turn on Netflix the exact same way you used to turn on TV, and you might find something you’d not otherwise watch. In fact, the asynchronicity of today’s TV habits has got me craving live experiences so I can feel united with every other viewer, wherever they are, watching the exact same thing as I am and reacting simultaneously.
Netflix is a fully necessary evolution of TV, but from the perspective of TV’s cultural impact, the filter bubble is getting tighter. Netflix — as a platform with millions of engaged users — would be insane not to use that leverage to promote its Netflix Originals content. However, when the whole concept of TV can be condensed down to one corporation’s idea of TV, it’s misguided to think that tastes won’t narrow down to a handful of shows targeted at you. And by ‘you’ I mean ‘you‘ as a demographic data point on a marketing analytics dashboard somewhere in California.
So far I’ve been talking about Netflix as the single replacement for TV, but ignoring YouTube. While Netflix has a tight monopoly on our long-form viewing habits, when it comes to content in the form of easily-digestible snacks, YouTube (and recently Facebook) reign supreme.
An interesting divide appears as soon as you start thinking about the differences between YouTube and Netflix:
TV used to be our single source of video content. Whether it was short-form or long-form, it didn’t matter. You stuck with it. Now, the division exists because video in the context of the internet is an entirely different beast.
Again, the simple explanation is that we’re in a blip. It’s combination of two things: YouTube/Netflix being (relatively) in their formative years, and the demographic data on TV stats for the 65+ group is explained because this is the demographic who were working adults in the ’80s — cable TV’s glory days. Now, retired (and out of the loop with internet video services) and with more time, the 65+ demographic is, of course, watching more TV.
We’re inside a blip now because there is a huge generation gap. The internet is one of the most significant modern inventions, and has had far more of an impact on entertainment than anything — at least since the television disrupted radio in the late ’40s.
The fragmentation of how we get information, how we spend our time and what we choose to watch is the result of unprecedented interconnectivity and the empowerment of industry outsiders like independent YouTubers to become their own media companies. With less restrictions on what we can watch, and more power to creatives to get their work seen, the production and consumption of media is becoming democratized.
And, while the popularity of long-form content is falling and attention is split between more ways and places to consume media, it just shows that Netflix (with its dominant popularity) is another symptom of that reality.
Whether Netlfix is or isn’t the new TV isn’t something that matters very much to anyone apart from advertisers and corporations, but, in a sense, TV was so popular because it was the only entertainment of its kind (cinema included). Now, with hundreds of different sources of available, the choice is no longer about deciding if you’re either going outside or sitting in on the couch — it’s about which chunk of the world’s information you want to see right now.
After all, with so many alternatives out there now, the definition of TV is so diluted that it’s essentially a metaphor for ‘how we spend our time’.