I’ve been having trouble recently finding something I’d like to watch on Netflix. I go on, surf a while, then leave. So the streamer tried something new. It showed a slate of choices that were like something else that I watched on Netflix to completion, over nine episodes. It was a Spanish melodrama called “The Mess We Leave Behind”. No timeless masterpiece, it was nevertheless a nimble, sexy murder story with enough surprises to hold me all the way, even with the English dubbing (better than the Netflix norm). A few looked promising, so I tried one. Sorry Netflix, unwatchable.
So then I read that Netflix, while still number one, is slowing in growth, and actually losing subscribers in North America. I think this shows a link with my own problem. However Netflix markets its own product, I’m aware of very few shows of interest outside of searching for them on the site itself. But if I don’t get lucky, this only results in frustration and disappointment. And if something on another streaming service looks good, I’m forced to examine why Netflix continues to get my business.
It looks like this is becoming a common problem for it, and the ratings prove that. Still, my own perspective is limited. I’m not Indiewire or Hollywood Reporter, just a lone blogger whose taste seems to be shrinking into an increasingly isolated niche: intelligent, real-world stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. Not much for superheroes or fantasy. It seems to be a small niche, but maybe not. I find that when something good in that niche gets my attention – say, “Mare of Easttown” – it gets significant coverage in the media too. But does this really make a difference to big players like Netflix, who only seem concerned with growing their lists of mega-millions of subscribers?
The laws of the marketplace eventually take over. Netflix can only use its name and endless variety for so long, or the momentum slows. The product must be superior to compete in the international market, and viewers rely on the time-proven stuff to discover them, including awards, festival exposure and bankable star names. Also punchy ad spots on regular TV. When something gets that kind of exposure and respect, and it delivers, the network or streamer gets a boost in audience share. That’s called a “tent pole” because it can be used to support the new audience that came aboard just for that show. Sometimes it’s gigantic, like HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, which became a huge growth machine for it. “The Crown” was probably the biggest one for Netflix.
For a long time, Netflix competed for that kind of market share by producing what it hoped would be its own tent poles. But, for my niche, only one, “The Queen’s Gambit”, proved to be a tent pole. That was over a year ago, and nothing since. I thought another one, “Unorthodox”, was just as good. But how much real promotion did it get? Did the niche of real drama lovers even know it was on?
But, believe me, we’re not waiting for Netflix. HBO, for instance, has been soaking up the kind of talent that delivers good intelligent stories. It was able to cultivate “Big Little Lies”, “The Undoing”, “Mare of Easttown” and, now, Mike White’s “The White Lotus”, his most nuanced work to date. While “Lovecraft Country” was not in my favorite genre, it was superbly produced and exceeded expectations for HBO.
When such stories resolve themselves satisfactorily, they lead audiences to expect that level of quality in the future. In fact, audiences may be more tolerant when a new one misses because, being intelligent themselves, they know you can’t strike gold every time. They figure their patience pays off, eventually. But only up to a point.
Besides, the open-ended blockbusters can disappoint down the line. A “Westworld” for instance makes a big impression at first, but new seasons disappointed. One reason could be that HBO gambled big on a multi-year run. The creators are then encouraged to keep the story going, often to ridiculous extremes. Red herrings are thrown in, then discarded; the rhythm is lost. This leads to disappointment by subscribers, who may get restless and go to another stream.
The same creators can’t be expected to top themselves with each new season, as “Big Little Lies” proved. Another problem is that, with open-ended stories, the talent that was an essential part of the first year or two will go to other networks to start their own shows. That’s why I find it more satisfying to stick with networks that depend more on satisfying limited series, where the stories are completed in one cycle. So far, FX and HBO have the edge in that.