Deliberately or otherwise, Netflix’s recent public statements show they do not understand their customers. Part of me feels sorry for them, as they predicted the future trends of media consumption with clarity and adapted with alacrity. Their original business of mailing out DVDs by post is a dim memory as they recognised the importance of streaming early enough that they became the de facto streaming platform worldwide, reaching 222 million subscriptions. They also correctly realised the biggest threat to their dominance would be the greed of studios not wanting to share profits with a delivery platform, meaning that original content would be key to a viable future. Despite this, in chasing capitalism’s dragon of endless growth, Netflix’s price has been escalating rapidly and after their latest hike in June — having been a subscriber ever since they revived Arrested Development in 2013 — I’m out, at least for a while. As they warn their shareholders of tumbling subscriber numbers, it seems I am not alone.
Are you not content?
There was a time when “Netflix Original” was a badge of quality — two of their first three shows were Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. As they grew the library, there was a clear shift toward quantity over quality, particularly with the desire to expand to a mainstream audience who may be less attracted by high quality drama. The plus side for creatives is that Netflix was willing to greenlight a lot of projects with very little oversight. But the money for this untargeted spending had to come from somewhere and it has meant repeated price hikes without any clear increase in the value proposition to subscribers. Why would I want to pay more year on year for service when: (a) I have the same finite time to spend watching TV; and (b) I have no interested in huge swathes of the programming they were now funding?
As recently as 2018 Netflix acquired distribution rights for Alfonso Cuáron’s beautiful Roma, which won three Oscars. Yet it is Apple TV+ that procured the first Best Picture win for a streaming service’s film with CODA. Netflix’s metrics-driven approach appears to reward films with big name actors regardless of quality, since those are most likely to attract viewers’ attention. Indeed, it’s easy for excellent films to get lost entirely through Netflix’s algorithm-driven promotion.
Now Apple Originals bear the distinction of quality that Netflix Originals once had, with a small but highly curated set of shows like Ted Lasso, Mythic Quest, and Severance. Meanwhile Disney’s well-timed acquisition of 20th Century Studios has granted them a deep library of content beyond their family fare, even as the desire to push new content to Disney+ has arguably undermined Phase 4 of the MCU.
It all ends in tiers
There is more to it than just increased competition. I have tried subscriptions to NowTV, Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney+ and Dropout, so I have a broad view of the market. A “standard” Netflix subscription is priced at around double what its competitors costs and, unlike several of them, it doesn’t include 4K UHD video at that price.
As Netflix takes steps to prevent account sharing, it highlights my biggest problem with the company’s subscription tiers: tying together quality and simultaneous streams. As someone who lives alone, I have no need ever to stream to multiple devices at once. Yet, to receive the best image quality, I am required to pay for the option to stream to four devices simultaneously. That might be good value for a family but it’s terrible for an individual. No wonder, then, that some people are inclined to share accounts in order to make use of the multiple streams that they are obliged to pay for.
I receive increasingly bizarre emails from Netflix asking me to rejoin: “We’re ready when you are.” / “Let’s reunite.” / “Spend on experiences not things. Make time for rest, relaxation and some Netflix.” Their latest puts £6.99 in the subject line, again entirely misunderstanding the reason I left if they are pitching me the price for a below-HD quality stream. For the same reason, I don’t think a reduced price ad-supported tier is going to resolve their current woes (a free ad-supported tier might attract those who just want to watch a few Netflix shows, but I doubt that is sustainable).
I would like to see Netflix remain competitive but to do that their starting point has to be consumer needs rather than investor expectations. Having a great technology back-end means nothing if you are pricing users away from making use of its higher quality. Attacking users for making use of the multi-stream packages you are forcing them to buy is even worse.
There remains plenty of good content on Netflix and I will certainly subscribe at some point to catch up on The Witcher, Stranger Things, Arcane, Better Call Saul, and The Umbrella Academy. However, it is no longer the essential subscription it once was and, for now, it falls into the tumble of subscriptions that I’ll shift between every few months.