Netflix is the news again. (Is it ever not?)
This weekend’s Times Magazine featured a glossy profile of everyone’s favourite TV ‘disrupter’ by Janice Turner. Laced with mild scepticism (especially enjoyable are her attempts to get Netflix execs to admit there might be a difference between reading a book and watching TV). Written after a plush Berlin promo-junket of the kind that makes Netflix PRs proud, it makes a precis of the remarkable rise of Netflix, its two most senior faces (CEO Reed Hastings and content chief Ted Sarandos), its radical effect on hipster media consumption, and its massive push into the production of original content. In the process it becomes the first example of that truly Californian concatenation – what happens when Silicon Valley collides into Hollywood.
The piece covers all the expected tick-box features of a Netflix profile – the rapid international growth, the rise of binge viewing thanks to the ‘next episode’ ticker, the lack of advertising, the emergence of ‘Netflix and chill’, the magic of its algorithms, the scale of its budgets, and the total creative freedom of the producers of its shows, in contrast to the small-minded meddling of conventional broadcast networks and their slavish attachment to ‘ratings’.
And away from the hype, it’s these last couple of points that we find most fascinating – because beyond the technical innovations in the Netflix model, it strikes us that it completely shatters the traditional relationship between producer, distributor and audience.
Netflix breaks the feedback loop
For as long as mankind has attempted to ‘do’ entertainment, from the very moment the first storyteller shaman stood up in the flickering firelight, through the development of theatre, visual art, music, film and television there’s been one constant: producers and performers have always had an idea of what their audience thought of what they made: Whether they enjoyed it or not, whether they turned up or not, whether they purchased it or not, whether the audience got restless, or booed, or erupted to their feet in cheers.
In the age of mass media these reactions have been filtered, of course, through a variety of less nuanced, less cuddly forms – TV ratings, box office numbers, circulation figures. But in the end the result was the same: these metrics enabled creators to know whether what they created had an audience or not. There has always been a feedback loop in entertainment.
Is it constructive to move beyond TV ratings?
Netflix is supremely coy about such matters for one very good reason: it suits them and gives them the upper hand in almost all of their transactions. Knowledge is power, and if you withhold the knowledge you have all the power. At the same time, a world without ratings presents a superficially attractive prospect to TV producers as – at last – they are freed from the tyranny and embarrassment of ratings failure and cancellation. As a subscription business Netflix don’t need to worry about the performance of individual shows – so why would they run the risk of admitting that they’d ever produced a failure? At the same time, as an entity that doesn’t care about ratings, Netflix might argue that they are self-evidently the friend of the true creative: they can reward art for art’s sake, or at least be seen to do so.
And so Netflix becomes a more attractive place for self-identifying ‘visionaries’ and creatives than those old-fashioned networks. The appeal for producers is, of course, that it neutralises the risk of any creative endeavour and annihilates the possibility of ever having a flop.
One suspects that for Netflix, the emphasis of this advantage is on finance over reputation. If they can prevent their suppliers ever knowing how shows have done, then they remove almost all negotiating power from producers, stars, and agents. That traditional Hollywood scenario – the stars of hit shows demanding (and receiving) larger fees as successful series are renewed – is flummoxed by the remarkable tactic of not letting anyone know if their show has been a hit.
But here is the thing: is this isolation from the audience actually in anyone’s long term creative interests?
Art can’t grow in a black box
What worries is the sterile safety of this dynamic. Understanding what audiences think of their entertainment has always been one of the greatest drivers of continued creativity in entertainment. The lure of the hit and the acclaim of mass popularity is unparalleled.
Knowing what doesn’t work and why has also always been one of the greatest stimuli in the production of stories, characters, songs, books and music.
Audiences should never be thought of as passive recipients living in a hermetically sealed black box. As the streaming services become the creators of more original shows, and in the process adopt the risk profiles of conventional broadcasters, they may have to learn that viewers should be listened to, not hidden from view.
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