N is for Netflix: the rise and rise of the ubiquitous streaming service

The fourteenth letter in the New Statesman’s A-Z of the decade.

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Over the last decade, the way in which we watch television has changed dramatically – and no provider has been more influential than Netflix. 

Between 2011 and 2019, the number of paying Netflix subscribers worldwide rose from 21.5 million to 158 million (plus 5.5 million customers on free trials). The company has ramped up its spending on content each year, with analysts expecting its total spending to hit as much as $15bn over 2019, around two-thirds of which will be on original shows.

Netflix encourages obsessive, long-form viewing. In the early 2010s you may well have talked about “binge-watching” a DVD boxset, but the term didn’t have nearly as much resonance then as it did by the middle of the decade, when a Sunday afternoon sofa slumber wasn’t the same without Netflix’s passive-aggressive “Are you still watching…?” appearing on-screen many episodes after you last considered moving a muscle. “Binge-watch” became the Collins English Dictionary’s word of 2015. 

The exponential rise of Netflix has changed the type of TV on offer, too. Netflix “originals” (new shows created exclusively for its platform, rather than existing ones aggregated from other studios), work differently to traditional programmes vying for a prime-time television slot. They can afford to have more intricate storylines, slower-moving plots and more complex characters. The advent of streaming has shifted the priorities of television, attracting those determined to get through a whole series in one sitting rather than casual viewers happy to browse through channels until they stumble across something that piques their interest. 

A decade on from Netflix’s pivot from a DVD sales and rental service to a streaming platform, its first generation of original shows has come to an end: Orange is the New Black, the third show commissioned by Netflix and now its most-watched original, aired its final season in July 2019. Over seven series it changed the landscape of television, becoming one of the first programmes to understand that its audience wanted to be represented along lines of race, gender, sexuality and class – and that 2010s television required addictive storylines set for non-stop satiation as opposed to a weekly check-in.

Political thriller House of Cards, science-fiction horror Stranger Things and historical drama The Crown are a handful of other hugely successful “originals” with which Netflix has proven itself as a creative outlet in its own right. The Netflix model has allowed for an incredible diversity of television that never would have made it onto mainstream television: instead of fighting competitors for prime-time television spots, the platform personalises viewers’ homepages to target content. You don’t need to be drawn to all of Netflix’s shows to want to subscribe; and once you start watching the few you do like the look of, the algorithm will nudge more and more recommendations your way. 

The Netflix effect is apparent in the other small-screen successes of the decade, even those not available on Netflix. Its enthusiasm for long-form adventurousness and a desire to create cult fans is evident in HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones; while Fleabag, which followed HBO’s Girls in its willingness to marry humour and gritty sincerity in its raw discussions of sex and mental health, was released as a boxset on BBC Three – which this decade became an online-only channel – perfect for viewers who, by 2016, were readied by Netflix and primed for binging.

Netflix remains the world’s largest subscription streaming service, well ahead of its rivals such as Now TV, Apple and Hulu. Even Amazon Prime, with its subscriptions linked to fast mailing and the heft of one of the world's most valuable companies behind it, has failed to achieve the same cultural salience. There are however signs of a fightback from older firms threatened by its rise. In November this year, Disney pulled all its content from Netflix and launched Disney+, which surpassed one million subscribers on its first day. Whether this and further planned changes to the platform’s content (all ten seasons of Friends will be taken off Netflix at the end of December, to re-emerge on HBO Max in May 2020), will affect Netflix’s popularity into 2020 is yet to be seen. But, considering the know-how of its economic model, it looks unlikely. A July 2019 article in The Information reported:

Netflix has learned that the first two seasons of a show are key to bringing in subscribers – but the third and later seasons don’t do much to retain or win new subscribers. Ending a show after the second season saves money, because showrunners who oversee production tend to negotiate a boost in pay after two years.

Despite the funding of bold new television, Netflix and its CEO Reed Hastings are focused on economic gain over creative interest – and it's working. Netflix has become to TV what Amazon has to online shopping, what Spotify has to music – that is, the prime destination, ethical considerations or thoughts on what is best for the artistic industry cast aside. For the moment, its ubiquity is a given, but looking ahead to a new decade, we should question the impact of Netflix’s monopoly on the industry.

Most ominously, it is not just other entertainment providers with which Netflix sees itself competing. “Sleep is my greatest enemy,” reads a viral 2017 tweet from the Netflix account. Remember that, next time your eyelids are growing heavy and the next episode is just about to start...

This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s. 

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.