Is mainstream content squeezing out the daring plots viewers originally fell for?

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Since the field of cultural studies got its start in the 1950s, academics have been investigating what different pop cultures have to say about society. While popular culture has often been criticised as a sort of dumbing-down of “real” culture driven by purely commercial interests, research has provided important insight into modern sociology through study of subjects as diverse as Andy Warhol, hip-hop and punk music, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga.

Netflix launched in 1997 and by 2007 it began its transformation into a true ‘video on demand’ platform. It’s now the world’s largest streaming platform, putting it front and centre in the pop culture universe. Despite a dip in popularity in 2022, the platform has managed to accrue 220 million users and more than 5,000 titles to date.

Netflix has been able to crush its competition, even snuffing out certain services right from the outset. But is this superstore for series promoting diverse narratives and plots or is it nothing more than a gigantic conformity-producing machine? A series that’s received less praise than most of the platform’s offerings is Emilie in Paris, which has been widely panned since its release. As Iva Dixit of The New York Times wrote, “Emily Is Still in Paris. Why Are We Still Watching?”

A bold spark in a drab landscape

When Netflix launched its US streaming service in 2007, its immediate concern was distancing itself from competitors such as HBO – which began broadcasting the iconic series Game of Thrones in 2011. To do so, Netflix presented a bold offer of complex plots, strong characters (such as Carrie in Homeland and Piper in Orange Is the New Black) and polished productions.

Three years later, Netflix reached deals with Paramount, Lionsgate and Metro Goldwyn Mayer to provide high-quality, more diverse programming. House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black were the first of the made-by-Netflix offerings, and their success proved that this was the right decision. Original creations soon became the platform’s focus, increasing by 88% between 2017 and 2018 to reach over 5,000 titles. It was also during this year that the platform acquired its first major production studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Netflix Originals have since become the brand’s trademark, bringing in directors such as Martin Scorsese and Bong Joon-Ho, and demanding sizeable budgets. Bold series such as Orange Is the New Black shook up audiences’ expectations, shedding light on important issues like feminism, gender and sexual violence – a real first in an audiovisual universe long overpowered by the “male gaze”.

Original trailer for the series Squid Game.

Staying local yet universal

As it has grown, Netflix has been able to go global, while taking into account local factors both in its original productions and through its partnerships. The platform relies on a certain universalisation of expectations, in a world where pop culture is largely dominated by US productions, but plays on differences, specific traits and regional identities in line with the spirit of “glocalisation”. Its approach involves purchasing and broadcasting creations made by local studios, the most notable example being Money Heist. With an initial budget of $600,000 per episode – one-tenth that of Game of Thrones – this “minor” Spanish series reached icon status thanks to the platform.

Netflix Original series are often deeply incisive, taking aim at the Modi administration in India with Leila and at the Erdoğan regime in Turkey with Ethos. Since 2020, 18% of Netflix Originals have been produced or co-produced in Europe, 12% in Asia, 5% in Latin America and 2% in Oceania. To date, some 40 countries have been enlisted in Netflix original productions, which have been filmed in around 20 languages.

For now, this “Tower of Babel” strategy is paying off. As Cindy Holland, the platform’s then-vice president of original series, stated in 2018, “the most powerful promotional vehicle… is the Netflix service itself”. Put simply, Netflix constructs its own autonomy in order to maintain full control over all the inner workings of the service, from creations to in-house writers, production and distribution.

The attention economy

Although the “attention economy” has always existed, it has become the be-all and end-all of any audiovisual or editorial production. As with other platforms, the goal at Netflix is to capture our attention, which is the very basis of its profitability.

Algorithms help Netflix and other services fine tune their attention-economy strategy, all to keep us locked inside our bubbles. They want to attract audiences and keep them engaged as long as possible, concentrating this sly tactic into the one almighty “Next Episode” button. The Netflix algorithm is immensely powerful, profiling users with every site visit, making ever more accurate suggestions and predictions and driving addiction. And so the trap snaps shut and we are turned into mere consumers, helped merrily along by the potent algorithm.

Another trap operates through the narrative arcs constructed essentially around the infamous cliff-hanger – the “to be continued” of yesteryear’s soap operas. This is how subtitled Korean series such as Squid Game have become smash hits for Netflix, relying on fierce political and social critique. Extraordinary Attorney Woo follows the story of an autistic lawyer, while The Penthouse charts the lives of Seoul’s wealthiest and often most corrupt residents. These three series have achieved spectacular numbers, clocking in at 46 million viewing hours for Extraordinary Attorney Woo and 142 million for Squid Game. The latter represents twice the number of viewing hours enjoyed by Bridgerton, which was itself a huge success.

These series consistently feature highly emotional climaxes that encourage binge-watching. The same trend can be found in cinema, with multiplexes featuring much-hyped productions alongside more difficult works. For instance, the heist movie Ocean’s Eleven ($450 million at the box office) is a far cry from the more discreet, artistic cinema of Peter Greenaway. Whether we are dealing with a series, a film or a book, “accessibility” is the watchword.

When algorithms bite back

Netflix relies on neuro-marketing to generate powerful sensory responses. As soon as we stop watching, the dopamine hit subsides, and so we feel “required” to keep watching. In other words, it is difficult on an emotional level for us to miss the next part and the next episode. Evidently, the series-watching phenomenon obeys the stimulation-addiction logic.

Until now Netflix has been able to create daring content, broadening the scope of plots and imagined horizons. But its algorithm-driven success depends largely on binge-watching fuelled by cliff-hangers, the oldest of tropes. There are already series “recipes”, but these push less for conformity than for the ease that is at the heart of attention economics.


Virginie Martin is the author of “Le Charme discret des séries” (“The Understated Charm of the TV Series”), published in French by Humensciences in 2021.

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