Is Netflix Just Another TV Channel Now?
What is Netflix? What actually is it? It’s a question that’s decided to vex me after a recent conversation with our manipulative genius of an Editor here at Cultured Vultures Command. But seriously, Netflix. Are you an internet thing? Are you a television one? Is it anything but a waste of time to try and file you into a neat little folder in my filing cabinet of a brain?
After a lot of cog spinning and steam billowing from my ears I have an answer. Or, at least, I have a narrative held together by masking tape and blue tack as long as you don’t prod it too much. As of December 2016 Netflix is a television channel, and all of you will just have to accept it.
The Changing Face of Netflix
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It’s not always been the case. Intent has a lot to do with things. It would have been hard to call Netflix a TV channel back when it was mainly there to post you rental copies of Wall-E because there wasn’t a Blockbuster nearby. Even a handful of years ago it would have probably been better described as a content archive. Remember that middle class craze for buying box sets of classic television? Then remember when Netflix decided to be the place where you could watch all of them for relative peanuts? All the reruns you could want in one place forever!
Sure, there are still TV channels that exist on an entire diet of syndicated reruns, but that’s zombie television. Zombie TV is bad for you, guys. We all know Friends was great, but the 90s are over.
No, as of now, Netflix is a TV channel. It didn’t happen overnight. There was never a weekend Netflix upped sticks from Silicon Valley to 30 Rockefeller Plaza. But just as Michael Corleone didn’t go from war hero to mob boss in one scene, the cumulative project drift has fundamentally changed Netflix.
“But, Chris!” you bark, spraying your morning cornflakes over the breakfast table in indignation. “It’s not like I can just turn on my TV and switch to the Netflix channel! Stop being such a pedantic hipster and go back to writing bad wrestling articles.”
First of all, that hurts my feelings. Secondly though, are you telling me you can’t turn your TV on and switch straight to Netflix? At this point it’s probably cheaper and more accessible than a lot of cable packages. Yes, you need some kind of device that let’s you access it (Smart TV, Set top box, mobile phone, other thingy), but as of October it boasts 47 million subscribers in the US alone. I’ll bet that across North America, Netflix’ biggest market, more than a few users have migrated from squinting at it on their laptops to browsing like Caligula in their living rooms. But, you know, without the incest.
What Even is TV anymore?
And just what is a TV channel, anyway? I don’t mean all that technical waffle about carrier frequencies and transponders, either. For decades, we’ve basically understood a TV channel to be something you can switch on and find some kind of audio-visual content on the other end. But by this definition Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu and even Youtube could be considered a TV channel. The only difference is control. With BBC One or NBC, what’s playing on the channel is down to whoever schedules programming. With Netflix and its ilk, the control of what’s on is in the hands of the watcher. That’s not any kind of revolutionary emancipatory act -Netflix is still a corporation- but it is a different relationship between viewer and content.
On the other hand, this relationship has been true of Netflix for years. So what’s changed now? Well, like I said earlier, it comes down to intent. Netflix has set itself some lofty targets recently. We’re talking 1,000 hours of new original content in 2017. A 50/50 split between original programming and the rest. In 2016 they’ve already managed the equivalent of 25 days of original content. Nearly all of that is television.
The Red Menace
There was a time several years ago when Netflix was going to destroy television channels. The think piece Twitterati all had a different spin on this. It was going to bring the September to May American TV season to a quick and painful end. Within a decade, Netflix would transform ABC, CBS and Fox in its own image. Everything from Breaking Bad to Keeping Up with the Kardashians would be released in bulk for binge watching.
I’m being hyperbolic, but you get the point.
You and I both know that is not going to happen. Hell, even Netflix knew this wasn’t their future. Back in 2013, its chief content officer Ted Sarandos said its aim was to “become HBO faster than HBO can become us”. HBO is a TV channel. In 2016, so is Netflix. It’s not an online video service full of gaming Let’s Plays, like YouTube. Neither is it a shopping website that produces a bit of TV on the side, like Amazon. It makes television. That’s its main thing.
What the heck is a TV channel in 2016 anyway? Both Netflix and HBO produce television, and are available through monthly subscription fees. What’s the difference? Thing is, I’m pretty tired of calling Netflix an online streaming service. Because everything is an online streaming service these days. Over here in the UK, every major channel has a website where you can stream an archive of past and recent content. The same is true in the US, as well as more and more countries worldwide.
Once, it may have looked like Netflix was going to burn TV to the ground and rise from its ashes like a phoenix. Now we know the truth – it’s a TV channel. What that means isn’t the same as before, but television is television. Let’s not kid ourselves that Netflix is some kind of internet savoir or revolutionary. It just makes TV, which is cool. Maybe. Who knows. Yay for television, I guess.