Netflix Turns Up the Heat

Netflix’s recent free agent signing of Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy sure caught the attention of those who buy, make and comment on television content.  By spiriting away two of the most prolific TV producers of our time, the streaming service not only secures more content for itself, but also denies its network rivals access to two content factories.

The broadcast and cable networks must be looking at Netfilx’s open checkbook and wondering how they can compete for talent.  They see tentpole shows like “The Crown,” “Stranger Things” and the Dave Chappelle specials — which don’t come cheap, but which have become the closest thing we have to must-see TV now that “Game of Thrones” is off the air for a year.

Essential to Netflix’s strategy: not just those massive hits, but also aggressively micro-targeting a vast spectrum of the television audience.  Some Netflix shows are aimed at my mother and others at my son.  There are gay shows, Hispanic shows, African-American shows, rural shows and sophisticated urban shows.  And most of them are probably not that expensive to produce.



This micro-targeting ends the tyranny of the 18-49 demographic, thank God.  As far as Netflix is concerned, an 85-year-old subscriber on Social Security is as valuable as a 33-year-old investment banker.  That’s how we get hit shows like “Grace and Frankie.”  

Micro-targeting also makes everyone feel they have a place in the television universe. Because Netflix holds up a mirror to all but the tiniest identity groups, no young members of a minority community will be able to complain in the future that when they were growing up they never saw anyone like themselves on TV.

If I were a TV executive, I wouldn’t be worried about Netflix’s hit shows, but about the “good enough” shows that emerge from this micro-targeting.  The high-quality, appointment TV shows on network and cable can hold their own against Netflix.  It’s mediocre TV that seems most threatened in the long run.

Even in this era of peak TV, some people just turn on the TV to see what’s on and work that remote until they find something that catches their eye.  But channel surfing is what Netflix is all about.  The company doesn’t advertise specific shows, relying instead on its algorithm to promote a show specifically chosen for you on its home screen. If that show doesn’t appeal to you, then you can just start scrolling down the program list to see what they have to offer — a list designed specifically for you, with many “Because you watched XX, we think you might like YY” suggestions.    

I’m not crazy about this system of content discovery, which creates a closed loop of viewing.  I recently watched the terrific British show “Lovesick,” about a group of single friends in London trying to sort out their romantic problems — and now I’m bombarded with recommendations for shows about other 30somethings who can’t find their way.  Watching one great series on a particular theme doesn’t mean I want to watch a half dozen so-so shows on the same theme.

What I would really like is an easy-to-scan directory so I can find what I want on my own.  Netflix is such a bottomless pit of content that I don’t know what I don’t know.   And it’s only going to get worse. The new content keeps coming so fast that I feel like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory trying to keep up.

Having said all that, genre searching on Netflix is much more satisfying that channel-surfing on a traditional cable television service. Clicking up and down channels is mind-numbing, and chances are you’ll be joining a program that’s already in progress — fine if you’re catching an episode of “Seinfeld” that you’ve watched a dozen times, but not so great for a show you’ve never seen.

So congratulations to Netflix for creating two disruptive businesses: first, the mail order DVD company that put Blockbuster out of business, and then the streaming video enterprise that could well shut down some marginal broadcast and cable networks.  Keep it coming — but just find a better way to tell me how to find it.

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