Critic's Notebook: Are There Cracks in the Netflix Facade?

Everyone talks, or complains, about Netflix. Now that's coming from inside.
Dan Steinberg/Netflix
Jerry Seinfeld and Netflix's Ted Sarandos talk about Seinfeld's new work.

If you're thinking that the word "Netflix" is everywhere — coming from the mouths of others, visible in the words you read on a screen or a magazine — that's because it's true. It was all over the place in The Hollywood Reporter's story this week on "the most powerful showrunners of 2017," in the form of envy, jokes and some mild dismissals. Everyone in TV either talks about or seems to be thinking about (or more likely, worrying about) Netflix. There is love from those with fantastic deals, there's dissing from those who have to compete with television's latest Death Star, and there's even some interesting bitching from within (more on that below), but there's never disinterest or silence.

Well, there's always silence from Netflix itself. Maybe that's just the angle, now. Maybe that's the perception it wants to keep up after building that reputation by genuinely not caring what others thought and pushing forward with its head down.

Now Netflix is the biggest thing about TV. And has been for a while. What with its massive $6 billion in content spending, give or take a billion in the plus column going forward. With its maddening (to others) refusal to talk about ratings. With its seemingly endless supply of series coming out of the spigot. With its constant announcement of deals. With it cornering the market on stand-up specials. With it starting to cancel shows, finally. With stories about its debt. With Disney creating its own streaming service and taking much of its fare off of Netflix. With Hulu beating it to the punch and being the first streaming service to win an Emmy for best drama. With Apple emerging as someone who could truly challenge it (and outspend it). With its subscription price increase.

Yeah, Netflix is in the zeitgeist.

As it should be, particularly in the TV industry. Netflix is a fascinating thing to consider.

But it's certainly not a well understood entity. I spend a lot of time thinking about Netflix and have ever since I sat in a room years ago with its executives trying to explain to me what the plan was as it decided to create its own TV series, to get in the TV game.

So, you're going to be kinda like HBO?

Well, apparently, not so much.

I like Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer at Netflix, quite a bit. He's smart, he hasn't wavered in his belief that Netflix was going to be successful (and continue to be, Peak TV or not), and he's touted counter-intuitive ideas to the TV industry hive-mind for years now and hasn't yet had to eat them. He doesn't seem to take criticism personally. He doesn't covet the spotlight.

I've been on record for some time now agreeing that Netflix shouldn't release ratings. Why should it? If HBO and Showtime, two other entities that don't need to discuss ratings because ratings don't really have much to do with their business model, could walk back their decision to release those numbers I'll bet they would. On the other hand, I don't think anyone should allow Netflix to proclaim that its shows are more popular than others on cable or broadcast without the concrete statistical evidence everybody measures against. "It's our most popular show" is fine with me because that means nothing in your secret little castle. You do you.

Trying to figure out what Netflix is or wants to be changed through the years. Rather quickly, actually. It's not in the prestige TV business like HBO and FX. Netflix is perfectly happy with Fuller House. It's in the volume business, not the quality business — even though many of its shows are superb. Netflix is basically the world's largest broadcaster that happens to be streamed.

I also don't root against Netflix as some do. In a world where you had to pick just a handful of channels or streaming services to live with, Netflix would be my first choice without hesitation. How could it not? It's absolutely the best bang for the buck. That's why being in the volume business — the deep bench business — works. That rate increase Netflix is implementing? I'd argue it has another four or five dollars wiggle room before many people would flinch.

No, the things that give me pause about Netflix are not that it's secretive and will spend $7 billion on content or damage the marketplace of ideas. As a user, I don't like that it's overwhelming (exponential content growth can be both good or bad, depending on your take) and it doesn't have the best user interface to manage its enormous offerings coherently (and yes, that's bad).

As someone who deals with Netflix professionally, its press strategy can be mystifying (some stuff doesn't get promoted, other things get slotted at times not geared toward maximum coverage, like when Making A Murderer dropped on Dec. 18) or when it embargoes reviews of, say, David Fincher's upcoming Mindhunter until the day before it premieres; there's even a belief among some reviewers that Netflix grants different people different access. But all of that is arguably petty and even though better (and more) reviews could drive greater interest in new customer subscriptions, it's not entirely clear if worrying about press in any capacity is a thing at Netflix.

However, there is one area where there might be some vulnerability in the long-term, especially with FX and HBO having pretty sterling reputations, Apple jumping into the competitive fray with all that money and Hulu suddenly being the "it" streamer: the relationship business.

In the summer of 2016, I wrote a THR column about "Decoding Amazon's Baffling TV Strategy," where I talked about how the streamer didn't seem too keen on branding its own original content or even promoting its video offerings (it mostly fixed the former but I'm still stunned to this day how many people don't know they get series and movies with their Amazon Prime subscription). Anyway, when that column came out I got lots of feedback from frustrated series creators at Amazon who were relieved that someone pointed out how difficult it was to find their shows. Nobody wanted to go on record and bitch about it, though. You can't blame them. And some of that balancing act is still happening at Amazon — creators are happy about the good money they're getting but less so about exposure, which is one reason I didn't include Amazon in the previous paragraph.

But lately, deep background complaints I'm getting are coming mostly from creators with content at Netflix. And it's been slowly increasing. The gist is that the money is great to have but there's not a lot of promotion (advertising outside of the Netflix environment and exposure within it; because there's so much volume, press attention can be limited as well with advanced features and reviews).

Some creators are annoyed (or hurt) that they don't get splashy premieres (and yes, that matters — particularly when all your episodes drop on the same day and that's pretty much the end of the hype). A similar complaint: It's easy to get lost on Netflix once the show airs.

Others say the mysterious Netflix algorithms affect how much of a budget a show will get (for new and returning seasons) and even which actors need to be cast (meaning they're not exactly the ones creators want but they are the ones who will fuel suggestions to other series or movies in the Netflix archives).

A sign of impending doom? Doubtful. That budget is going up to $7 billion, not down to $5 billion. (And even if it did — wow, that's a lot of money.) But those are definitely cracks in the façade. Money can cover up a lot (and keep people from complaining publicly). But if your relationships with creators start to fray and pull apart in ways that can't really be addressed because of the make-up of the infrastructure (the company is too big to be intimate and attentive; the algorithms that helped make the company big are working against your creative wants), then there's an issue.

How big that issue gets remains to be seen. You can add it to the growing pile of things we all might be talking about when it comes to talking about Netflix.