I contacted Netflix support a couple of days ago in order to give them my feedback regarding their choice of programming. I’d become disappointed with what they offered and I found myself wasting lots of time browsing their selections endlessly, only to give up and watch something else on some other streaming service. Furthermore, I thought their shows had become either too niche or too unappealing. In particular, I was disappointed with what I thought were “filler” movies and shows from Eastern countries. I have no interest in Bollywood or Turkish or Arab titles. I’ve tried watching them but I don’t like them, yet Netflix keeps showing them to me, plus a bunch of other shows from other countries.
Sure, they’re expanding into those countries and they’re buying up some of their content in order to appeal to those audiences, but why am I, a Westerner with Western entertainment values, being bombarded with Eastern shows that I don’t want to watch? I am Romanian by birth, and yet I don’t even watch Romanian shows. I can’t. I find the language harsh. I find the shows’ aesthetics harsh. I find the way they look at life unentertaining. When I watch “entertainment“, I want to be entertained. I find the Eastern languages even harsher to my ear, sorry. I fell in love with English a long time ago, I find it to be a beautiful language, and I want to watch movies and shows made in English, for Western sensibilities. I know that statement is bound to disappoint some people, but I also think you’ll agree that what I watch — what I do with my free time really — should be completely up to me.
It didn’t matter that I continually avoided Netflix’s recommendations and gave downvotes to shows I didn’t like in the hope that they’d stop showing them to me. Netflix kept continually pestering me with choices that were unappealing to me. So at some point, I had to admit the possibility that it wasn’t their recommendation algorithm, but their lack of quality content, that filled up my screen with thumbnails of weird, unappealing shows. I wanted to be able to opt out of everything but movies and shows made by English-speaking countries, for English-speaking countries. I told Netflix Support that and asked them to forward my feedback to the content programming team.
Here’s the interesting part: even before I got done typing all my comments into the chat box, the tech recommended that I cancel my subscription. I don’t know if that’s now become standard practice at Netflix, to tell customers that have been loyal to the service since they were mailing DVDs to essentially “f**k off”, but I thought I’d raise the issue here on my website. And just to be clear, cancelling my subscription was the obvious choice to me as well, but I was trying to offer constructive criticism, not to pull the plug.
The question I ask in my post’s headline implies that we look at Netflix’s history. They started with red vending machines that offered a limited but interesting selection of movies old and new. I used those machines and loved them. Then they offered DVDs by mail (that was another innovative thing) where they widened their selection considerably to include even some hard-to-find classics. I used that service and loved it. Then they switched to streaming, where they once again offered up a narrow but good selection of the market; certainly less of a selection than they offered with DVDs, but a good selection nonetheless, compelling enough to make me spend my money on it. I used that service from the get-go and loved it. I have to give them credit here, they predicted the future when they started offering their streaming service. But then they felt they had to expand in all sorts of ways, to grow their subscribership aggressively and to buy up all kinds of shows and movies so they could wow their new, fickle public. I remember their ads running constantly for years on end on many websites. If I remember correctly, they used the affiliate model for a while and offered payouts to those who would help them get customers. As recently as this year, their ads ran constantly on YouTube, to the point of making me swear and cuss.
Instead of being patient, instead of growing their customer base slowly but surely, winning them over with good content, instead of being a place where you could get some of the most interesting movies ever made, they wanted to be the place where you got to see most of the interesting movies and TV shows made today. Never mind the fact that no one in the history of TV channels has been able to do that, and not for a lack of trying.
Damn the classics, they also said, and they cut all of them out of their offering. At one point they had less than 20 classic titles listed on their site, none of them going back earlier than the 1970s.
But being modern, fresh, up-to-date can be an expensive endeavor. Licensing rights for the most popular movies and shows of today can run pretty steep. So even though it looked like they were on their way to doing that for a while, they had to change tack. They thought they might be the place for tons of TV shows, with less movies. But here’s the thing: people still want to see movies. So they continued including movies, but they bought lower quality ones — the ones that were cheaper to license plus a few A-list movies every now and then to headline their portfolio. They also started producing their own shows and movies. When I say producing, I mean producing, not making. There’s a difference between having a proper studio where you’ve got high standards in production values that apply to every aspect of a production, and sticking your logo at the beginning of a title. Also for clarity’s sake, let me say that great visuals do not equal a great title. You can film in 4K, light and color grade perfectly, but if the subject, script, casting, direction, acting and editing isn’t also top notch, that title’s going to suck. And now, as they’ve expanded their membership plans to most countries, they’re trying to be everything to everyone, and that means buying up shows and movies made in foreign countries to boost up their offering, and pushing those shows on everyone. Yuck!
At some point, the Netflix execs should sit down and think about what they want to be. I don’t think they’ve done enough of that kind of thinking. They’ve just been chanting “more, more, more of everything!” at the subscribers, at the studios and at the investors, and that can only go on for so long… Netflix has to realize it can’t keep throwing money at the problem that is their lack of vision. That’s unsustainable and irresponsible. They can’t be everything to everyone, because that role is filled by YouTube, and you can’t replace YouTube unless you get everyone to give you their content for free, and that comes with its own list of problems. Google can tell you all about that. They know very well the headaches they’ve had with YouTube.
At some point, Netflix has to decide what it wants to be. HBO knows it very well. TCM Streaming, God bless them, know their market so well (incidentally, I love movies made in the 30s and 40s). Hulu knows what it wants to be. Amazon Streaming knows damn well the role it fills with its service; you don’t see them splurging on everything out there — actually, you don’t see Amazon splurging on anything. And you’d better believe Disney knows what they’re going to do with their streaming service. Disney always knows what it wants to be.
Netflix… it’s trying this and that and the other thing, and then going to a bunch more stores and trying on those things as well… It’s buying up good shows, then cancelling them instead of giving them time to develop an audience. It’s buying up the streaming rights to great movies, but only for a little bit of time, so you end up adding a movie to your list but it disappears before you get the chance to watch it. It’s producing shows that are bizarre, or they’ve got trite scripts, or soap opera production values, or bad acting… there are all sorts of problems that put you off when you spend a few minutes watching them.
So what people end up doing on Netflix these days is exactly what they were doing on their TVs before Netflix existed: browsing the channels, wondering what to watch out of the sea of useless, boring programming available. And that means we’ve come full circle, and since there’s no real differentiator between Netflix and regular TV, there’s no point for its existence, certainly not at the rate that it’s burning through its cash.
What do you want to be, Netflix? Because loyal customers like me aren’t going to hang around forever. We might just do the thrifty thing and cancel our subscriptions for 8-10 months of the year, then watch to see what movies and shows you’re buying up, and switch it on for a month at a time, binge watch, then switch it off again. You may not care if only a few people do it, but you’re going to feel it in your bottom line after a while. Or we might just cancel our subscriptions altogether and use another service. It is after all what your support techs are advising people to do. Let’s see how that sort of thing works out for you.