Six years after it started releasing its own programming, Netflix is basically remaking all of TV.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might as well be an NBC sitcom. The Crown would be right at home on the BBC. The Joel McHale Show is The Soup with more adult humor. Bright would’ve bombed in theaters, but no worse than Will Smith’s other recent action flicks like After Earth. The Week Of is a B-movie. And, in another life, The Christmas Prince would have aired on Lifetime, and Ultimate Beastmaster would’ve been on CBS. That’s not to mention Netflix’s actual TV remakes and revivals, like Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls, Fuller House, and Queer Eye.
Netflix expects to have 1,000 original TV shows, movies, and other productions in its video library by year’s end. In under a decade, it’s become one of the biggest buyers of video globally. It made a name for itself with prestige dramas like House of Cards and comedies like Orange Is the New Black, and now appears to be throwing everything at the wall to see what else sticks with audiences.
Unlike networks like HBO that can thrive by doing one thing really well—such as genre-defining drama and comedy series—Netflix’s subscription model requires it to have a little bit of everything. It needs fresh content that appeals to all of its 125 million members, so they keep coming back and spending $8 or more to be on the service each month. New players, like Disney and Apple, are also starting to stream video, and Netflix’s top rivals Amazon Prime and Hulu are investing more to compete against it. Having content that subscribers can’t get anywhere else helps Netflix distance itself from the competition.
Its latest venture is into unscripted programming with competition series including Nailed It, where amateur bakers attempt to recreate professional desserts, Zumbo’s Just Desserts, Ultimate Beastmaster, and Fastest Car. It’s also exploring the kinds of programming you might find on HGTV, chief content officer Ted Sarandos said this past week, speaking at a MoffettNathanson investor conference. These shows can be made cheaply—relative to the cost of a $100 million show like The Crown—and amass a wide audience. Nailed It, Sarandos said, was as popular in Mexico as it was in the US. Not that Netflix has ever held onto its purse strings too tightly. It has $8 billion budgeted for content this year, 85% of which will go toward original and global programming. But, with 470 productions due out before the end of the year, it needs to spend that money wisely.
Producing these series rather than licensing them from networks gives Netflix greater control over the content. It can play with the structure to make the shows work better for its ad-free format. “In my house, we watch an embarrassing amount of Home & Garden Television,” said Sarandos. “If you watch those shows on the network, every time there’s a commercial break, they recap everything you just watched. Well, when you put them on Netflix, you strip the commercials out, it’s ridiculous. … When we produce the 30-minute unscripted show, it’s 30 minutes of programming. But no catching up because we figured you’d remember what you just saw.”
It can also tweak the series to make them land internationally. Netflix created nine localized versions of obstacle-course competition Ultimate Beastmaster, for example, with different hosts chosen for each market. “We can decide between, do we want to make a local language format of this, or do we want to make this show travel a little bit better by tweaking the show a little bit,” said Sarandos. “That you could never do with domestic-only licensing.”
Netflix has been pushing hard into international programming now that more than half of its users come from outside the US. It counts German dramas like Dark, Danish series like The Rain, Brazilian programming like 3%, and anime series like Devilman Crybaby among its Netflix originals.
And let’s not forget movies. Netflix is beyond the days of making its land grabs at indie film festivals and is now attracting directors like Martin Scorsese to make movies just for its platform. The streaming service, which opened a studio on Sunset Boulevard in 2017, plans to release more movies this year than most other major US movie studios combined.
Just about the only segment of entertainment Netflix hasn’t touched are mainstays of live TV, like sporting events and news broadcasts, which don’t make sense in an on-demand format. Give it time. Netflix is already plotting ways into those genres with docu-series like Formula 1, and news magazine shows like My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman.
While 1,000 originals may seem like a lot, not all of that programming is available to everyone everywhere. Netflix has been snapping up the international rights to popular programming where it can. The series Designated Survivor, which airs on the US TV network ABC, for example, is branded as a Netflix Original outside of the US and Canada.
In other words, don’t expect Netflix to stop flooding its users with content any time soon. “We’re a fraction of the hours of viewing of YouTube,” said CEO Reed Hastings, on his company’s latest earnings call. “We’re a fraction of the hours of viewing of linear TV. We’ve got some great momentum, and we’re very excited about that, but we have a long way to go in terms of earning all of the viewing that we want to.”
Netflix may never be all things to all people. But it hopes to be one of the one to two pay-TV services viewers turn to regularly. The question is, will its programming match the quality of its rivals while doing so many things at once?