At the beginning of each semester, I always go through a set of back-to-school rituals as a way to mentally set myself up for a new chapter of life. This time, the ritual went digital — I cancelled my Netflix subscription. No, I’m not quitting TV. These rituals tend to be merely symbolic and experimental. In fact, many of my favorite films and TV shows are still Netflix-exclusive, and I will most likely resubscribe to Netflix once my craving for quality media content resurges. I probably sound like a crybaby hipster here, but I can’t wait to see a post-Netflix digital media landscape.
What I did is a mere act of resistance against Netflix’s replication of the Hollywood mode of neoliberal bureaucratic production disguised in Silicon Valley’s techno-modernity that echoes freedom and openness. As Netflix rapidly grows into a media conglomerate, the streaming giant has begun to operate just like any other major Hollywood studio. Netflix has lost its digital roots that once fostered its audacity. The cord-cutting movement has developed into an unstoppable trend to tear down the monopoly of cable TV, and ironically, Netflix is the next on the chopping block despite once being a major part of this potent force for change.
And it seems to be on the chopping block already. Netflix’s quarterly report says it all — Netflix is losing talents, shows, subscribers, copyrights, originality and bold ideas. The only area of growth Netflix is seeing is its global subscribers, which also turned out to be a disappointment according to the previous forecast. Just like empires in the past, as they see no room for growth at home, Netflix clings onto cultural colonialism overseas, where they see no competition as all local companies are rendered vulnerable under the media giant’s global dominance.
Before Netflix got into its identity crisis, Netflix Originals are what consolidated its monopoly in the early stage. When Netflix first launched its original series, it was perceived as an epoch-defining endeavor that would fundamentally reshape the media industry. It signified a digital force of resistance within the overarching trend of media conglomeration, in which Netflix was not only a streaming media provider, but a movie studio, a TV production company and a global distributor. During its phase of rapid expansion, Netflix was touted for splurging on big-budget films and TV series, setting fire to the creative industry’s deal-making practices. Producers, screenwriters, actors and technicians alike were well-paid; talents are from the bureaucratic exploitation of labor. Everything seemed promising in this new golden age of media, and Netflix was the one to make that promise.
Looking back, the clout of big money and big ideas was merely a meticulously curated image to equivocate from the company’s true intent of conglomeration. While its public relations campaign depicts a creative environment that fosters boundless innovation, it is merely an illusional promise to lure talents into helping the company consolidate its dominance. Now, Netflix acts just like any other media conglomerate. After it accumulated a hefty debt in its effort to produce more original content, the media giant ceased investing in hits like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. Instead, it started strategically cancelling its original shows on a frequent basis, replicating the market-driven business model that it once so vehemently criticized. These decisions aren’t even transparent to the content creators. Netflix rarely releases ratings of its original shows to the public, not even to the creators, as if the streaming platform’s esteemed openness is merely a fog of freedom. If this is the case, this new Netflix and its Hollywood mindset should not disguise itself with the original Netflix’s Silicon Valley mentality.
What exactly is killing Netflix now? At the core of Netflix’s current dilemma is its use of the new digital strategies to replicate the successes of the past analog era. Netflix’s own algorithms are killing its original series. It caught people’s attention when Netflix’s recommendation algorithms didn’t recommend Tuca & Bertie to its own creator, Lisa Hanawalt. Netflix may not be recommending the stuff you want to see, but Netflix is not exactly recommending the stuff they want you to see, either — Netflix is recommending the stuff its algorithms think you might like. The problem is, the algorithms are based on the data collected from the current user’s past viewing history, which oftentimes is not valuable for reinventing the viewing experience in the new streaming age.
The most vulnerable under this algorithm of oppression is its sci-fi series. Sense8 and The OA, two big-budget original shows, were cancelled after two seasons following minimal promotion. As a response to the unforeseen cancellations, fan campaigns to bring back the cancelled shows have gone viral on Twitter. Yet instead of directly responding to the plea of the company’s most loyal fanbase, Netflix released an overstuffed movie as the ending to the Sense8 series with storylines that are meant to span over three more seasons, and the chance for The OA to be renewed remains slim to none. These sci-fi series about disenfranchisement with the advent of new technologies are just for a niche audience, but they depict the relatable postmodernist reality we’re currently experiencing. It is just that Netflix’s algorithms don’t understand this, so they don’t recommend these shows.
A solution to the Netflix crisis may be coming soon –– or maybe not. A few weeks ago, Netflix started testing a new feature called Collections. Collections is a human-led curation by experts on the company’s creative team that aims to emphasize the human factors in its recommendations. This is a pioneering move away from Netflix’s current algorithm-based recommendation system. Efforts have been made to make everything more open and human-centered. Maybe this will save Netflix, or maybe this is yet another illusional campaign to cover up the boiling pressure from its stockholders. Before you see the changes become apparent, cancel your subscription to Netflix. Pressure the media giant into action, and we might just see the result of our collective action.
Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Rewriting Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.