How Netflix and Other Streaming Sites Are Changing the Game in the Entertainment Industry
I have a really good friend of mine who blows up my phone on a regular basis just for the casual chat. We cycle through the usual topics of discussion one would find in your run-of-the-mill conversation -- work, school, romantic interests (or lack thereof), yada yada yada.
However, as the conversation comes to a close, another frequently discussed topic surfaces -- what show we’re currently watching. The latest of her obsessions (besides calling me), include bingeing Netflix’s “Thirteen Reasons Why,” NBC’s “This Is Us,” streaming on Hulu, and the latest season of “Blacklist”, also on Netflix. For me, it was Hulu’s latest original “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and currently “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” available on HBO’s streaming site, HBOGO, which is prettay, prettay, prettay, pretty good.
Truth be told, this is the state of the world today. Binge-watching and streaming sites in general are dominating the entertainment industry today, whether they're original sites, like Netflix or Hulu, or streaming sites for particular networks, like FOX, ABC, or HBO. In fact, it’s almost to the point where DVDs and other, more traditional methods of home entertainment are becoming extinct. The fact of the matter is, these services wield unheralded power; the power to keep your posterior somehow irrevocably immobile, as you steadily lose your concept of what’s going on around you in favor of watching Kevin Spacey ruthlessly insult his underlings in “House of Cards,” or Piper Chapman attempt to not get shivved in “Orange Is the New Black.” How did these services acquire this power? What are they doing with it? And how exactly is it affecting the entertainment industry as a whole? In the words of Robert Plant, all will be revealed. That is, if you can pull yourself away from bingeing for a few minutes to read yet another masterful blog.
Netflix and Chill
Let’s start with the one that started it all -- Netflix. The now media giant began in 1997 as a rival to Blockbuster and other video rental businesses. As you may notice today, Netflix won that battle; spotting a Blockbuster is almost as likely as seeing a Yeti, or hearing Justin Bieber sing like a man. That’s because Netflix didn’t stop there. In 2007, the site began to focus on streaming media, starting small with only about 1,000 movies available to stream. It only grew in popularity as time went on, climaxing with the cultural tectonic shift that was “House of Cards” in 2013.
While not the apex of quality television, “House of Cards” is forever culturally relevant due to the fact that it was the dawn of what’s now a massive movement in streaming services, that being original programming, with the big names attached (Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, director David Fincher) launching the site to super-stardom. Sure, Netflix had distributed films and television in the past and had semi-original content, but “Cards” is what really put it on the map. From there, Netflix has gone on the warpath, as their cup now runneth over with original content, with dramas such as “Orange Is the New Black,” “Stranger Things,” and “Narcos,” as well as comedies like “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Masters of None.” Marvel’s gotten in on the action too, as they now have another mini-universe inside their already gargantuan one, with shows like “Luke Cage,” “Jessica Jones,” and “Daredevil." These originals, combined with the thousands of films and shows available from other studios and networks, are what’s made Netflix an absolute cultural B.A.M.F., with nearly 100 million subscribers in 190 countries.
Other Islands in the Stream
But, of course, Netflix can’t be allowed to have the monopoly. Enter Amazon Studios and Hulu, Netflix’s chief rivals. Hulu, the scrappy up-and-comer, arrived in 2007, actually beginning original content in 2012 with the little known travel series “Up to Speed,” but not really taking off until 2016 with “The Path,” “Casual,” and this year’s hit, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Amazon Studios, a division of Amazon that focuses on developing, producing, and distributing films and television shows, came on the scene in 2010, and launched original programming in 2014, their marquee accomplishment being their dramedy “Transparent,” starring Jeffrey Tambor. Both Amazon Studios and Hulu, like Netflix, also thrive off of streaming non-original content as well, with Hulu at about 12 million subscribers and Amazon Studios at around 50. Naturally, the success of these sites led to networks creating streaming sites as well, such as premium services HBOGO, ShowtimeAnytime, and your standard cable services, like the streaming sites for ABC, CBS, NBC, etc.
Four Reasons Why
So why so successful? A few reasons. First, price. All three come in at roughly ten dollars a month, more towards twelve if you get the fancy-shmancy premium packages. That’s a hundo fifty a year to stream seemingly endless content. Don’t mind if I do.
Second, convenience. Whether it’s Hulu or FXNOW, you are the master of your domain, to quote a Mr. Jerry Seinfeld. You can pretty much watch whatever you want, whenever you want. Netflix alone has -- and I swear, this isn’t a joke or a number I pulled out of my hiney -- 76,897 micro-genres. If you assembled 76, 897 people and assigned them all a micro-genre and attempted to seat them in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium here in Atlanta, some people wouldn’t have a seat. That is such a preposterously accommodating move by Netflix for their customers that a butler from the Victorian age would feel downright ashamed of himself.
Third, commercials. Or, more specifically, their absence. Netflix and Amazon are the most popular forms for a reason; in no way do you have to deal with commercials or advertisements of any kind. Why watch a rerun of “Parks and Recreation” on television when you can watch it without commercials on Netflix? Even streaming sites that do have commercials, like the network streaming sites and Hulu, are actually bending advertising to their will and promoting major shifts in advertising methods. One method that’s been around forever but is growing particularly popular due to streaming is targeted advertising, where various methods, whether it’s looking at your browsing history, gender, past views, or even location, are employed to get right down to the nitty-gritty and snare that particular viewer’s attention while they watch whatever they’re streaming on their device. Another, newer method is interactive advertising. I was watching “Fargo” on FXNOW a few months ago and was given a choice; watch a full trailer for “Alien: Covenant,” or “interact” with an “Alien: Covenant” ad by simply clicking a link. I chose the latter, and returned to “Fargo” seconds later. If you’re offering viewers an alternate mode of dealing with ads that not only is shorter than dealing with an actual ad but also one where they get to interact with your product, chances are they’re going to bite. And streaming sites are the perfect place to practice such innovations.
Finally, the last reason these sites are so successful is, to put it simply, that they know what you as a viewer want. Netflix has a legitimate mathematical algorithm where they can figure out what exactly will appeal to an audience, and they use that to both create original content and to recommend new content. Netflix sees that millions of users love streaming “Parks and Recreation,” so they pounce on “Masters of None,” the brainchild of one of the stars of “Parks,” Aziz Ansari. Netflix’s microgenre “80’s Science Fiction Classics” is getting a lot of action, so they pick up “Stranger Things,” a series-long homage to that decade. “Arrested Development” and “Breaking Bad” are highly streamed, so Netflix snags “Bojack Horseman,” a series starring Will Arnett and Aaron Paul, major stars from those respective shows. You get the picture. And once they see you’ve watched “Arrested Development” and “Bojack Horseman,” what do you know; now they’ve recommended “Flaked” to you, another Netflix original starring, you guessed it, Will Arnett. Hulu and Amazon employ similar tactics, and it’s been a smashing success for all three sites.
Mad With Power
So what now? Well, power begets the desire for more power (I just made that up, damn I’m good). All three sites are pretty much overwhelming television at this point, even beginning to clean up on the awards circuit, with all three beginning to notch regular wins and nominations at the Emmys and other major award ceremonies. Just this last Sunday, “The Handmaid’s Tale” became the first streaming service original to win Outstanding Drama Series, the creme de la creme of Emmy wins. Kind of a big deal.
When you’ve conquered television, the next logical course of action has got to be film, of course. Now all three sites have begun to both produce and distribute original films, some being more successful than others. But the movement is there, especially with Amazon Studios and Netflix, who went on a rampage at Sundance film festival. They were the biggest spenders there, buying fifteen movies between the two of them. Amazon Studios became the first streaming site to win an Oscar last year, as they co-produced “Manchester by the Sea,” winner of two Oscars and the cause of the first time I’ve sobbed uncontrollably in a movie theater (and a plane). These sites are now casting a wider net to include prestige film making, and they’re not that far off.
So while you lay there, rendered useless to society and your peers, at the mercy of what’s next on your Hulu queue, or lying to yourself and saying you’ll watch just one more episode and then do something productive, know this; you are not alone. And with all the streaming fervor Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have created, this may just be the tip of the iceberg.
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