Life, it seems, is not without a sense of irony… and that’s definitely true as far as show biz is concerned, if what is happening with Netflix these days is any indication. The company that likes to paint itself as the great disruptor of home entertainment — which, let’s face it, is not far from the truth as far as films and TV shows are concerned — seems to be going through such a rough patch at the moment that it’s reassessing its position on almost everything that makes Netflix the streaming service it is today. The irony angle? The outcome of this reassessment could lead Netflix right back to where it all started: to the disruption point it’s been so proud of marking in the past.
After losing more than 220.000 subscribers while expecting to add more than 2.5 million, after watching its stock price tank, after making grim predictions for its immediate future and finally accepting the existence of problems (such as account sharing) and fierce competition (Disney Plus and HBO Max come to mind), Netflix quickly made the first big step back: it will be introducing an ad-supported subscription tier at some point in the next few months. The absence of commercials was one of the main reasons millions of people flocked to Netflix, especially during the early years. Details about this ad-supported tier are not known at the moment, but it will have to be significantly more affordable than its lowest current tier (otherwise there’s no point in putting up with ads) which is the least flexible one to use. It will be interesting to see how Netflix plans to handle that.
Then there’s the already much-discussed Deadline report: Netflix is seriously looking into offering live streaming content. The company had made a few scant comments about this in the past, but the necessary functionality is now in the early stages of development, officially rendering the most famous on-demand streaming service a… hybrid, of sorts? Live streaming would allow Netflix to “broadcast” unscripted shows, stand-up specials, talent contests, music performances and many other types of programming in real-time, essentially asking its subscribers to “tune in” at specific times in order to watch them as they happen.
But… but… wait a minute! Broadcasting at specific hours? Showing commercials during movies and TV shows? Maybe showing commercials during broadcasting at specific hours (later down the road)? This sounds much like… linear programming, like cable networks, like, you know, good old TV! What about the cord-cutting? What about giving consumers the freedom to choose what to watch and when to watch it? Wasn’t Netflix all about disrupting old TV watching habits and breaking out of old TV watching constraints? Isn’t Netflix, by employing certain operating and financial practices established by old TV networks, practically admitting that their traditional way of doing things was not that bad after all?
Well… no, not quite. Netflix will always offer streaming content — it has made a huge investment on that front for more than a decade after all — and it will be using live programming to complement, certainly not replace, that content. The company was also right to bet on doing things differently than traditional TV and that was what the first few millions of Netflix subscribers loved about it. Furthermore, one can’t blame Hastings and his lieutenants for now experimenting with certain aspects of the service: if Netflix is to not just survive in the long run, but maintain its leading position in the streaming entertainment services market, it needs to make changes. These two are among the most obvious ones.
But watching Netflix resorting to old practices in order to ensure its future relevance is still a painful reminder of one simple fact: bold, disruptive choices can only take newcomers so far. Netflix practically kickstarted the streaming revolution for the home market more than a decade ago, had a slow but steady start, gathered pace later on, exploded in popularity a few years back… but failed to capitalize on that amazing momentum because of mismanagement and a few unforgivably big mistakes. Netflix becoming a “hybrid” streaming service now — a modern Internet platform relying on a number of old TV features — under the pressure of strong competition will be a balancing act with no guarantees of success. Here’s hope that there’s still time and that past experience will help the company avoid any pitfalls ahead. Disruptors deserve a second chance too.