Tim Goodman: Will Netflix Have to Change Its Strategy Soon?

Mindhunter Season 2 - Netflix Publicity -EMBED 8- 2019
Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix is doing something weird this week — and yes, it does often partake in convention-defying bits of decisionmaking almost as a rule: On Friday it will premiere the second season of its acclaimed but hardly zeitgeisty drama Mindhunter after choosing not to send out screeners to critics and to only have a fan-based premiere of the first three episodes.

Which is, well, weird. Not completely surprising but a lot surprising, even for Netflix. And it certainly adds to the looming sense that, like it or not, the lead streamer might have to start doing business differently sooner than it thinks.

Because Netflix is the Death Star of the Streaming Wars, it's a little too easy for people to predict its imminent doom, whether from the very real threat of Disney+, by far the most dangerous among a slew of new competitors, declining subscribers and very bad days on Wall Street, perceived Emmy failures, international uproars or, well, just because detractors want it to be so.

Historically, wishful (hateful?) thinking hasn't done much of any damage to Netflix.

All through the recent years chronicling the once-impending and now well-upon-us Streaming Wars, I've tried to be very dubious about all these predictions of doom. And I firmly believe that's a very long way off. But change is coming and something as seemingly insignificant as a second-season premiere indicates that Netflix, confident and comfortable, is showing zero interest in admitting that this change is something it will worry about right now.

That little promo decision can't be the tipping point, can it? No, but it's indicative of an entrenched attitude. And that attitude is likely to become a predicament — for a lot of reasons.

On Tuesday, in a back and forth discussion about summer TV with fellow THR critic Dan Fienberg, we both looked upon Stranger Things as something popular and fun (if repetitive), but hardly an Emmy threat, having won nothing of significance yet (losing last year to Game of Thrones). As for the concluding — and excellent — series Orange Is the New Black, we agreed that it was probably the defining original series on Netflix, while acknowledging that such a thing is no longer really a business goal. And by that, I mean that Netflix doesn't seem to care about "defining" itself with a series; its brand is volume.

So just for a few fleeting moments there, we were thinking of Past Netflix a little bit more than Present Netflix. 

But moving forward, the streamer's "volume" strategy might not be tenable, especially when your volume isn't particularly noteworthy or desirable — and having identifiable hits might be the strategy that eventually wins the day in the Streaming Wars over something as nebulous as "We have all the shows you need, even if you can only name five of them."

And honestly, name five Netflix series right now, off the top of your head, and then see which of them were released in the past 18 months.

To be clear, Stranger Things is easily one of Netflix's most recognizable series and, argue all you want to about invisible ratings, probably one if its more massive offerings. The difference between a legacy series like Orange Is the New Black and Stranger Things is that Netflix, new to the business, really promoted OITNB in 2013 and then worked to sustain it; the streamer didn't really know what it had when it "launched" Stranger Things in the summer of 2016. But even then, the find-it-organically-like-a-surprise fit into what was an operationally successful plan. By 2016 Netflix was all about volume and an out-of-nowhere hit like Stranger Things that seemed to surprise the people who bought it validated the concept. "We have all the shows you need" certainly seemed brilliantly accurate back then and, up until about a year or so ago, looked like a recipe that didn't need messing with.

The problem is this Streaming Wars thing is here, on the doorstep. When Disney+ launches — the first real fully formed threat to Netflix and first of the new wave out of the gate — it not only has volume, it has brand identity, hyper-recognizable IP and is eye-poppingly less expensive. Disney+ also comes with the promise — true or not — that subscribers will recognize future offerings. Why? Because colossally famous things are part of the Disney brand. Put another way — Disney will have fewer series from Norway.

That's why not touting Mindhunter when it had the chance, the budget and the need to create something more identifiable than what the series was in 2017 seems like a missed opportunity. I suspect that it doesn't seem like a missed opportunity to Netflix right now, but it might next year. Is it possible that David Fincher said "no hype, no nothing" to season two? Sure. Maybe. But the bigger point here is that dropping shows with no press and not much fanfare when you could be creating something sellable to new subscribers seems ... unwise.

Look at it this way: Selling volume is great when you want market dominance over the early-days Hulu or the we-sell-TV-shows-in-addition-to-gadgets-era Amazon. But now both of those streamers have their shit together and are making really good TV series. That's already a problem. Then here comes Disney+, with Apple+ and HBO Max right behind. Then NBCUniversal soon after.

Volume? The whole streaming universe is going to be volume.

Sorry, but you can't sell excess to people who are about to be more overwhelmed with choice than they've ever been.

But you can sell recognizable, desirable, entertaining, quality TV series like Orange Is the New Black, Stranger Things, GLOW, Ozark, The Crown or Russian Doll (though I'd argue some of those later ones should have been marketed wider at release; Netflix would argue that viewers and Emmy voters found them anyway, validating its approach).

So it will be interesting going forward in the Streaming Wars (for everybody, really), but in particular Netflix, the one streaming service that sells ubiquity over specificity. Will it focus on fine-tuning its series to win more Emmys (the streamer is obviously heavily invested in getting nominations, but ultimately wins will start to matter as the competition for subscribers heats up). Will it start to change how it makes shows — a little more prestige mixed into the plentitude? Will it change how it markets them? How it promotes them to the press (Netflix is famous for oppressive review embargoes or just, you know, not making something available).

All of this, in various ways, matters. It would be nice if Russian Doll broke out at the Emmys, but it's really a dark horse. Ozark and Bodyguard got drama nominations and in any other year that might have mattered (it's probably going to be Game of Thrones, you know that). When They See Us did great in the nominations but might be facing too much competition. 

With Amazon and Hulu upping their respective creative games, and with HBO and FX as long-standing stalwarts, more competition from Disney+, Apple+, etc. will just make it more essential that, if you want to use the Emmys as a marketing tool for subscriptions, curating and emphasizing individual series will be paramount. 

Emmys — nominations and wins — aren't everything, of course. But notable content — as opposed to just content — certainly will be moving forward.

What Netflix does in the face of this looming competition will be kind of fascinating, and you can bet others are watching. At the moment it appears there's no evident strategy shift, which means Netflix probably has a new series premiering tonight, no matter what night you're reading this.