So you want to be the new "Netflix of ____". Too bad you got it all horribly wrong

I could lie. I could say it took a lot of effort. But it didn’t. They popped up in less than 10 seconds (I timed it): Fuller House, Between and Iron Fist. I’m quite sure there are many, many others, but these are three of the worst Netflix originals our subscription money can buy.

Netflix exists since 1997 — focused on the (truly American) DVD-rental-by-mail business. Exactly 10 years ago the company first introduced video on demand, and by 2011 they decided to expand their virtual borders outside the US & Canada. Life got better — not for you, for them: their revenue jumped from $1 billion a year to almost $9 billion a year between 2006 and 2016. Today everybody wants to be Netflix. Especially now that Reed Hasting’s company reached a major milestone: 100 million subscribers. Or rather, for lack of imagination, they want to be “the Netflix of” something. Anything.

Part of this creativity deficit belongs to media ‘experts’ — if there is a limit after which any expression is considered worn down, journalists usually tend to ignore it. “Why not add books to the subscription mix? That’s the bet several companies are making”, The New York Times pointed out in an article entitled — no shit — Aiming to Be the Netflix of Books. “Xbox Pass is being widely lauded as the Netflix of gaming”, stated Forbes two months ago. You can do your own search, my homework led me to “the Netflix of…” a lot of (unimaginable) things: retro games, poker, surfboards (!?), airline travel, news (of course), and — the exact moment I considered myself warned — “the Netflix of Zen Video Content”.

All the charm packed in this overused definition lies in the illusion that the label itself will rebrand some quite old strategy: subscriptions. How old? They have been around since the 19th century. So, that old. Repeating you’re the new “Netflix of______” (fill in the blanks with your line of work) does not automatically place your business in some kind of digital revolution.

That’s what most media executives get terribly wrong. There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all and Netflix is not subverting the subscription system, they’re doing the same thing old newspapers have been doing since the Wild West — and in this case that’s not a trope.

In Netflix’s case, however, the Wild West is 1997: when Reese Hastings started the company — DVD-rental-by-mail, keep that in mind — the subscription model turned out to be a competitive advantage, so to speak. But the real learning was hidden inside the spreadsheets where Hastings managed to track consumers behaviour. So ten years later, when the company began shifting from DVDs to streaming, he knew he could get a good bargain on old movies licenses because there was a substantial group of people who would pay to watch them. That scenario led the service to grow from 7.4 million (2007) to 20 million subscribers (2010) — flooding some cash along its course.

The real fame & glory came from something a little steadier than a 10-bucks invoice: badass content. In 2011, Netflix embarked on producing original material, but it took almost two years to stream its first massive hit — House of Cards premiered in February 2013. That same year, the company debuted Orange is the New Black and announced a deal with Marvel Studios to produce Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, — hate to bring it back — Iron Fist and, naturally, The Defenders. All this thrill earned Netflix 13 million new subscribers in 2014 and another 17 million the following year. In addition, original content strengthened Netflix’s position as a license buyer which triggered a better catalog and, of course, brought more value to subscribers’ money. Value for money is the main reason why the subscription model works for some business and doesn’t suit others so well (if you find a desolated guy, wondering what happened to journalism, it could very well be me).

Publishers are funny — I’m writing “funny” but you can secretly read “lazy”. Every time the discussion moves towards the costs and profits context they appeal to the same exorcism ritual: whining about how expensive it is (and it is indeed) to produce high-class journalism. The speech is stronger among those who lived the endless budget era of print media (they’re oddly good at playing the self-pity card) — the irony here is that, today, investing in the print industry seems almost like running a DVD-rental-by-mail business during a worldwide streaming era.

Some may agree with that hackneyed excuse that often links good-journalism and way-too-expensive, but since everybody wants to be Netflix, it seems inevitable to bring some overpriced data to establish a fair comparison: the entire season of The Crown cost $130 million, House of Cards does not appear in my living room for less than $60 million per season and bring David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld and Shonda Rhimes to your multitouch screen may be anything but dirt-cheap.

So, unless your favorite news source is investing tens of millions of dollars in journalism and it astonishes the world with original content, video docs, immersive AR and dazzling stories every 15 minutes, here’s the (real) deal: not only did media companies not drop their DVD-rental equivalent, they’re also still failing to be the Netflix of… anything. By now, most of them are just some mismatched stream services whose catalog only has three TV shows (on repeat mode): Fuller House, Between and Iron Fist. And you don’t win the battle of 100 million subscribers with one single punch, even from a glowing hand.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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