Netflix’s future depends on scaring the hell out of viewers

A fan competes in a recent “Squid Game” event in  Bangkok, Thailand.
A fan competes in a recent “Squid Game” event in Bangkok, Thailand.
Image: REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa
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Netflix is taking its biggest hit, Squid Game, and turning it into a reality show—without killing off losing contestants, as happens in the fictional television show. 

Despite the success of Squid Game, the streaming network received criticism for the sometimes extreme violence depicted in the series where players either won the ultimate prize or were murdered by the game’s hosts. That Netflix is now directly harnessing the fictional game show’s dark premise for a reality competition is the latest indication that it may be getting desperate to stanch the flow of subscribers away from its platform as streaming competition continues to heat up.  

The new show is called Squid Game: The Challenge, and will show 456 contestants competing against each other to win $4.56 million. “The stakes are high, but in this game the worst fate is going home empty-handed,” the Netflix website states. Casting for English-speaking contestants has already begun.

Similar in some ways to the Joe Rogan-hosted Fear Factor, which debuted in 2001 and challenged players to engage in various gross and scary challenges, Squid Game: The Challenge will put contestants through tests to win the cash. The Rogan show was initially successful and then was eventually canceled as ratings declined, but it was an early proof of concept that such contests can work on television. 

The economics of horror and why Netflix isn’t worried about scaring viewers away

Beyond the cheap thrills (and low production costs) associated with reality TV shows, what Squid Game: The Challenge also reveals is Netflix’s reliance on horror as the driving engine of its viewership. Squid Game is the company’s most successful TV show to date with 1.6 billion hours viewed in its first 28 days, and the recently launched Stranger Things Season 4 is its most viewed English TV show with nearly 800 million hours watched in its first 28 days. 

In fact, there are only two titles in Netflix’s current top 10 most popular English-language TV shows that don’t contain either significant elements of horror or violent death as a theme. As illustrated by its decision to begin posting its own TV and film popularity charts last year, Netflix is increasingly relying on data to inform what direction to move in to capture the most viewers. 

However, to some degree, Netflix is just following the lead of Hollywood. When it comes to low production costs that deliver major box office returns, the horror genre has been one of the most reliable areas of content. The marriage of low-cost, largely unscripted reality TV with budget-friendly horror themes is a combination that would tempt even the most culturally conservative television network. 

Netflix’s easy embrace of horror and violent fare is another component that distinguishes it from its rival Disney+, which this week posted a warning on its Star Wars Obi-Wan Kenobi show to caution viewers about scenes of violence involving children.

So far, there’s been little pushback on Netflix’s decision to monetize the theme of its death race for cash hit by moving it into real life. But the fictional version isn’t due to be released until next year, so there will be plenty of time to gauge the cultural implications in the meantime.