Netflix’s best and worst programs, charted

Taking a good look at it.
Taking a good look at it.
Image: Netflix
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Netflix has long had a reputation for having a lot of content on its service, often taking a quantity over quality approach. That’s in contrast to the strategy of a network like HBO, which offers a much smaller, highly curated library of content.

Quartz decided to look at data from review aggregation site Metacritic to see whether or not that reputation was accurate—and to look more closely at where Netflix’s content strengths and weaknesses are. Metacritic takes reviews from TV critics, assigns each one a 0 to 100 score and then creates an average of those scores. It’s far from a perfect science, but it gets close to measuring how critically acclaimed (or not) a given television series is.

(Note: Quartz only looked at drama, comedy, reality, and documentary shows from 2017 and 2020 with enough reviews to earn a Metacritic score. Many shows did not have scores, and thus were not included in this analysis. Generally, shows with scores between a 60 and 70 are average. Above 70 is good, while above 80 is great.)

Here’s what we discovered about the true quality of Netflix’s content, based on what the TV critics think (hover over each dot to see that title):

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Netflix comedies have a higher critical ceiling and floor than its dramas

Since 2017, 24 of Netflix’s 59 comedies with Metacritic scores earned scores 80 or higher (41%) while just 17 of its 101 dramas during that same period (16.8%) did the same. So despite Netflix making fewer comedies than dramas, its comedies are much more frequently praised by critics.

Meanwhile, 11 Netflix dramas receives scores of 50 or lower, while just six comedies did. No Netflix comedy scored below a 40, while several dramas did—a few, like the shows Insatiable and The I-Land, didn’t even crack 30.

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So Netflix is relying less on drama, and adding in more documentaries and reality TV instead

The streaming service is also investing heavily in stand-up comedy. Unfortunately for our purposes, many of its stand-up specials do not have Metacritic scores and were not included in this analysis. However, Netflix has already released 15 stand-up comedy specials so far this year, with at least four more planned before July.

It’s clear the company wants to diversify its programming, and much of the recent emphasis has been on unscripted content like stand-up, documentary, and reality TV. Why? It’s cheaper to produce and can still have huge returns, as demonstrated by the documentary series Tiger King and the reality TV dating shows Too Hot to Handle and Love Is Blind.

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The typical show on Netflix has gotten slightly worse in the last few years

That’s not true for its competitors. Amazon’s median show, for instance, improved from a 68 in 2017 to a 74 last year as the e-commerce company has begun to take its original content more seriously. HBO’s has increased marginally, from an already robust 77 in 2017 to an 80 in 2019.

Netflix is likely weighed down here by a few truly miserable shows, like the aforementioned The I-Landa disaster of a show that likely would have never been allowed to happen at HBO. Because Netflix orders many of its shows straight to series without testing out a pilot before moving to full production, some misfires can fall through the cracks and end up on the service, dragging down the median score.

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There might be a lot of crap on Netflix, but it still has just as much great TV as HBO

Sure, HBO produces the same number of critically acclaimed shows as Netflix does on about half the attempts. That likely doesn’t really matter to consumers, beyond having to look a bit harder to find them on Netflix. They are still getting the same number of great shows on both services. Nobody is forcing Netflix viewers to watch the bad shows.

At Netflix’s current price point of $13 ($2 cheaper than HBO), wading through its swamp of content to find the pearls is a small price to pay for the breadth of programming the service offers. And given the success of shows like Too Hot to Handle and Love Is Blind, there’s still a market for trashy TV—Metacritic scores be damned.