From binge-viewing to the death of the bundle, here’s how Netflix changed everything
Ten years is a long time. When this decade began, Barack Obama was midway through his first term as president, while Donald Trump was still a reality TV star.
It’s almost impossible to distill 10 years worth of change into one single through-line. But we’re here to try anyway. And perhaps there was no greater, singular, development in Hollywood during the 2010s then the impact that Netflix has had on the entire industry. The company that once out-muscled Blockbuster by sending DVDs through the mail, ended up turning the entire industry on its head, pulling everyone (sometimes kicking and screaming) into the streaming era.
“We realized that we could change the perception of premium content online and the reality with [‘House of Cards’],” Cindy Holland, VP of original series, told TheWrap. “We knew we had something special, but you could never predict the impact that ‘House of Cards‘ and, then in the same year, ‘Orange Is the New Black’ would have on Netflix and television overall.”
Netflix’s meteoric rise was arguably the most substantial lesson that Hollywood can take from the 2010s as we head into the 2020s. Below, we look at the 10 biggest ways that Netflix changed the game.
1. An all-you-can eat episode buffet
We may take it for granted now, but Netflix did something revolutionary when it premiered “House of Cards” back in 2013. The streaming service made the entire 13-episode first season available to watch, all at once. Viewers could now watch TV shows when they wanted to, not when the TV schedule mandated it.
“Before we offered original series, Netflix members already had access to full seasons of library content and enjoyed watching shows at their own pace,” Holland said. “It was how we were already launching seasons in second run, so it was intuitive to us.”
It gave TV fans a new way to watch their favorite shows, and it gave creators a new way to make them. “It allows creators to spend less time recapping and let the story run,” Holland said.
It also, as much as anything, lead to the downfall of talking about the previous night’s episode at the office water cooler because everyone was, instead, watching as much as they wanted on their own time. The binge-viewing wave has swelled so big that Netflix’s new streaming competitors, including legacy media companies like Disney and WarnerMedia, are the ones seen as the contrarians by choosing the former, one-episode-a-week model.
2. What is a season, anyway?
The length of TV seasons over the years has dwindled. What was once a 35-episode season, was cut to 25. Then cable came in, and sliced that number down to 13. Netflix has taken a hammer to the idea that seasons need to have any kind of uniform length. Some shows are 13 episodes long, others are 10, while some will run for only 6-8 episodes.
Netflix will let creators do whatever they want, for however long they want, as long it brings them subscribers or accolades. It’s part of the reason (the other is lots of cold, hard cash) the streamer has been able to convince major producers like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and “Game of Thrones” duo David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to take their overall deals away from TV in favor of Netflix.
3. Theaters hate them
Netflix has ruffled many feathers on its way to streaming dominance and industry disruption (kind of comes with the territory), but one of its biggest tiffs has been with cinema chains.
It’s all over the traditional theatrical release windows — how long films play exclusively in theaters before they’re available on streaming or home video. Theatrical windows are the life blood of movie theaters, which have fought tooth and nail to hold the system in place. Releasing films in theaters — especially before they’re available on Netflix — however, is antithetical to the streaming giant’s business model. Netflix in recent years has loosened its method of releasing films, mainly as it relates to awards possibility.
But because the streamer insists on sticking to a day and date approach to release the majority of its films — putting them in theaters the same day they debut on Netflix — the company has been at odds with movie theaters for much of its film endeavor.
4. Streaming is now the future
Netflix made streaming en vogue. It’s perhaps the biggest reason the pay TV industry has been decimated in recent years, with cable and satellite customers ditching their service at a record clip.
Meanwhile, it took deep-pocked competitors like Disney years to catch on, releasing its Disney+ streaming service only months before the decade closed. The same goes for Apple, which has belatedly looked to cash in on the streaming zeitgeist by launching its own service, as well. They have a long way to go before seriously challenging Netflix, though, which has more than 158 million global customers. And now, entering 2020, Netflix will face more competition than ever, with HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi all launching.
“We’re in a really exciting time for creators and audiences,” Holland added. “Streaming has helped open up more opportunities for variety and diversity in storytelling and also gives people all around the world access to great stories.”
5. So much content; so little time
Nobody has done more to give us our current “Peak TV” era more than Netflix. The streamer has put out a seemingly endless supply of shows, docu-series, documentaries and movies each week, so much so, it’s hard to keep up. It led FX Networks chief John Landgraf to decry that there was “too much television.” Netflix’s arrival of being an original content player in 2013 has led to others following suit, including Amazon, Hulu, CBS, Apple and Disney to get into creating content specifically for streaming audiences.
And unlike linear television, streaming has unlimited shelf space. In 2014, there were 33 shows on streaming services. By 2018, that number exploded by 385% to 160, accounting for 32% of all scripted TV shows. It was the first time that streaming eclipsed every other delivery method.
As we head into the next decade, the content overdrive only figures to continue, and it will be even more tiled towards streaming. Next spring will see both WarnerMedia (with HBO Max) and Comcast (with Peacock) jump into the streaming era. The “Peak TV” era may have only just begun.
7. The cable bundle becomes undone
Before Netflix got into original programming, the streaming service was built on the backs of other people’s content. At the time, it made perfect sense. Having past seasons available meant that luring new viewers would be easier than ever before. Legacy TV networks even used Netflix as part of their marketing strategy, timing the debuts of most recent seasons right before a new one premiered.
And then consumers, fed up with rising cable costs and poor customer service, did something unthinkable: they dropped their pay-TV service. It turns out that a lot of consumers had no problem waiting extra months to watch the latest season of their favorite shows. That sent the legacy media bundle reeling, with some cable channels getting shuttered and every media company pooling its shows (for a very high price tag in some cases) for their own streaming services.
As it stands, live sports remain the last pillar propping up the decades-old business model. But for how long?
Disney streaming chief Kevin Mayer hinted that, by the time we’re all writing our next end of decade stories, bundles could be gone for good.
“At some point, we very well could make the a la carte option available over-the-top for ESPN. We’re not at that point now, and I don’t think we’re very close to that point,” he said during an industry conference in November. “People are still well-served in the bundle that are sports fans. But we’re always monitoring the situation.”
8. Netflix makes standup comedy a priority
Netflix looked to usurp more established players like HBO this decade by taking a page out of their own book and becoming the go-to service for standup comedy. HBO had long held the crown, dating back to its George Carlin specials in the ’70s. Now, Netflix has looked to make its name the first one millennials and Gen Z’ers think about when it comes to standup.
It’s done this, in part, by simply producing more specials than anyone else. Netflix has about 45 standup specials that will air by the end of 2019 — a year after it churned out nearly 60 specials. But it’s also taken a major investment for Netflix to make itself the benchmark for standup heading into the ’20s, with the company shelling out a reported $20 million per special for heavyweights like Dave Chappelle, Amy Schumer and Jerry Seinfeld.