Why Aren't We Suspicious of Netflix?


The title says it all really. In an age where we are keen to question and condemn anything and everyone, because it does not fit with our very specific ideas of ‘correctness’, why does Netflix get a free ride? Because they really aren’t as wholesome as everyone seems to treat them. They recently disclosed they have close to 140 million users worldwide, and with each profile contributing a minimum of $6 a month, that means they are earning well over $800 million dollars a month, yet a Fader article also recently pointed out they are $20 billion in debt. This means nothing however as their business model “promotes growth”, apparently, and it’s only a problem if those loaning the money want to collect. Which they won’t. At least not while everyone bangs on about every single new show that drops, as soon as it drops, on social media. The Netflix accounts on Twitter even utilise the data they collect on viewers to interact with them online: “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince everyday for the last 18 days: Who hurt you?” was a recent tweet. Ignoring the fact, it was doubtless 53 ghost accounts created by a production company to cycle through their content once a day to keep their viewing figures active, this tweet and others like it show an alarming amount of specificity in what Netflix knows about its users regarding who watches what and when, yet they don’t seem to care who knows it. So, why aren’t we more suspicious of Netflix?

At a time when a large portion of America are desperate for the President to be impeached due to collusion with election tampering Russian bot accounts – or whatever the hell it is they think happened – and when Cambridge Analytica are forced to disappear without a trace after provably having invaded the privacy of millions via Facebook for data mining reasons, why are we not keeping a wary distance from the global company that retain our bank information and know exactly what device we are using and when and, for that matter, where? This is a company that recently created a consumer questionnaire in the form of a feature episode of Black Mirror, that now knows whether you like Frosties or Sugar Puffs. Useful information to sell to advertisers, no? It’s also a company who now offers the ability to download their content (via an installed app) that probably doesn’t come with malware, but isn’t that what Facebook told us too? Netflix are known for not releasing their figures and their latest data release was pathetically thin on information. It amounted to little more than a rough guess-timate of their number of overall users (exact numbers fluctuate due to cancellations; daily increasing subscription and the fact multiple individuals use one account) and how many accounts watched their latest ‘Blockbuster’ Bird Box. In short, this is a HUGE multinational corporation that is making billions of dollars, that controls a substantial amount of cultural consumption and dialogue around media, with access to an increasing amount of our personal information, who is not, and has no intention of being, transparent with its own data and finances. Again, why aren’t we suspicious of Netflix?

Netflix is a boom company that only seems to grow larger by the day. It gutted the video rental industry in just a couple of years at the turn of the century and placed itself perfectly as the new media template after the 2008 crash as the ‘mobile premium content delivery service’ for those of us now stuck in the gig economy with no way out. For a generation of workers who live by their laptops from contract to contract, subsisting on coffee shops using their free WiFi because they can’t afford it at home, who are forced to move every six months due to climbing rents and stagnating wages, Netflix is there for you, wherever you are, with its hashtag relatable content and jokey, matey comradery. This is because it doesn’t just buy in and host your favourite media from other sources, it makes them too.

In a Variety article in 2016 CFO David Wells said Netflix want to be hosting 50% their own content “within a few years”. They seem to be on track to meet that target and more. It seems likely they will be closer to 80% by the early 2020s. They are also doing their best to be taken seriously as an artistic medium, enticing big name directors and stars like David Fincher, The Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron. Netflix is seen as a platform that makes space for experimentation for the more creatively minded writers, directors and performers Out There, with many A-list celebrities praising the encouragement the studio offers. A favourite director of mine, Jeremy Saulnier, along with his creative sometimes-partner Macon Blair, have found a home there, delighted that they are able to tell their strange, dark stories with little compromise, and for that I am very grateful. However, there is a reason the joke persists that Netflix’s slogan should be “Hi we’re Netflix, you’re Greenlit.” Their propensity for hoovering up productions and talent has produced some good (rarely great) output, but has mainly produced either utterly forgettable chaff or plain old stinkers. Films like the Cloverfield Paradox and Bright were high profile turkeys but there is a vast undercurrent of content churning below the surface of their recommendation algorithm that is pure effluence, little seen by most users and only exists to cater to a tiny but consistent market. This gives Netflix the feeling of what one Twitter user called ‘a modern straight-to-video dumping ground’ but because of its ‘store front’ based UI and near constant overturn of productions these can be quickly buried in favour of whatever show or movie has positive buzz around it. Its budgeting also means that while fully fledged cinema like Roma can be produced by Netflix, they can rarely fund movies to the same level as a Warner Brothers or a Disney. This creates the sensation when watching something like ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ that the Coen’s are constrained by a limited budget (the finale of that movie in particular is where the limits of its budget shows). This means that while Netflix attract talent with offers of creative freedom, they are still bound by budgeting issues. Those merchandising cheques cover a lot more than we think, eh Disney? And while it never outright lies about its productions, Netflix is very careful about how it manages presentation and expectation, which means it now sits in a unique position where it can neither be seen as a modern legacy production studio nor as a low-to-no budget producer of video nasties. Unlike, say, HBO, who have a reputation for producing less content but at an outstanding quality, a fact that, ironically, is about to change due to the recent acquisition of Time Warner (HBO’s parent company) by AT&T who have stated they want HBO to be “more like Netflix” *sigh*. While Netflix’s method is, on the one hand praised for “disrupting” the choke hold of Hollywood’s production and distribution method, it can also be criticised for disrupting it in the wrong way. The old model and the new Netflix model are both based on maximising profit, whereas Netflix are in the arguably ‘future proofed’ position to capitalise on the high-turnover, “infinite scroll” of modern media. Neither model is actually sustainable however (as I’ll explain), so given their clear contempt for quality control, half-hearted creative investment and desire for an industry monopoly, why aren’t we more suspicious of Netflix?

This is all without mentioning the fact that they are the leaders in market demand for a global pivot toward ‘Streaming Only’ content, which presents us with another problem. Streaming is not a heritage format. We only have a roughly twenty-year time frame for the reliability of digital storage and I don’t know anyone who has kept something digital for that long. I am desperate to recover the data from my 11-year-old Mac that just died and am coming up against a brick wall of people sucking their teeth and shaking their head when I ask how to retrieve the not-that-old data. Built in obsolescence regarding hardware can perhaps be avoided by streaming at least but that is still relying on maintenance by Netflix to keep everything available. You only need to read about the recent trouble customers have had with iTunes deleting purchased items from people’s libraries to understand that digital copies of media are not forever. And lest we forget, huge companies go bust all the time, often without warning. The internet is not forever and nor is Netflix. With the entire globe unable to predict how things will be in a year’s time, let alone five, relying on Netflix to archive your favourite shows and movies is perhaps a little presumptuous. As soon as things take a turn for Netflix and the administrators move in for that $20 billion, you will only be able to watch in horror as your entire library vanishes in an instant. Trust me. I was a Vine user, this happens. To that end, why do we still trust Netflix?

Whilst this may all come off as hysterical and conspiratorial thinking, none of these issues would sit comfortably with any of us if it were any other company. Naturally, I have a Netflix account but I’m careful with my information on it, I pay through a third-party app for instance, but I still watch what I want through it. Its algorithm is probably aware of my age, gender and location, which, for a lot of advertising companies is valuable data. But this data, I’m sad to say, is pretty public domain at this point. We all use Google, or iTunes, Facebook, or Amazon (although I don’t use those last two and neither should you), who are all brazen about how little a shit they give about your privacy, to say nothing of Snowden’s revelations that we’re all being listened to by various government agencies anyway. The demand for privacy today seems tragically antiquated, but my reason for calling out Netflix is not purely their shady, late-stage-capitalism business practices, it’s more to do with how we interact with them. We have become willing marketing partners by sharing memes and viral posts about “are you still watching?” and “Netflix and chill”, all with a thick glaze of humour and chumminess that Netflix has been happy to foster. Their lack of transparency also aids this decision by customers to project a friendly image onto a company who uses a dark red emblem on a black background as their logo. Netflix have managed to position themselves so that they are a multi-national, profit driven company that has a controlling stake in the creative media we consume and mines our personal data, which in today’s highly suspicious and cynical era should set alarm bells ringing, but purely because they create entertainment and art, the public does not subject them to the same rigours of inquisition as other corporations and certainly doesn’t question them as heavily as say, Disney. We all know Disney is a monstrous, litigious, exploitative, soulless company that favours wealth over creativity, but we love what they produce so we somehow resolve this cognitive dissonance by being visibly critical of the Mouse House while still going to see all the Marvel movies and the Frozen sequel. Netflix, on the other hand, has generated no dissonance whatsoever. We all unreservedly love the Big Red N and are happy to contribute to their take over of the entertainment industry while patting them on the back and cheering them on.

I am not asking you to delete your Netflix, I am asking you to think very carefully about how much of it you watch and what you are contributing to it in return for what you get out of it. Netflix don’t exist to make Quality Content Online, they exist for profit and the Leviathan that is digital media today enables them to rake that in at an astonishing rate. The $800 million a month unlikely goes back into production, I’d wager most of that goes to CEOs. Netflix, much like Disney and Warner Bros, have a strangle hold on our cultural conversation but we treat Netflix as the alternative, the Saviour, the ‘Disruptor’. Why? Why aren’t we more suspicious of Netflix?