The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Netflix’s comedown was inevitable. In fact, it’s a relief.

The Netflix logo a laptop. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)
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For the past decade, the assumption has been that what’s good for Netflix — more shows, more subscribers, more of everything — is good for the American fan. But on Monday, Icarus started to wobble. Netflix reported losing subscribers for the first time and forecasts an even bigger decline.

This comedown was inevitable. And while an end to the content boom may be hard on writers, directors and actors, it could offer viewers some relief.

Netflix and other streaming services sold the U.S. public on convenience and abundance. But this came with a cost. Binge-watching and the content boom helped atomize American culture. And the streaming wars seduced Hollywood into abandoning a successful business model that supported a vibrant film and television ecosystem — one encompassing blockbusters, breakout indies and romantic comedies, sitcoms and “The Sopranos.”

However delightful they are, “Bridgerton” and “Ted Lasso” may not have been worth it.

The downsides of the deal American pop culture made with Netflix are clearest in hindsight. For consumers and creators, the vision Netflix committed to in 2011, when it outbid established TV networks for the right to make “House of Cards,” was entrancing. Rather than simply licensing content from other studios, Netflix would spend an enormous amount on original movies and television. In a departure from the traditional TV release model, it would make entire seasons available to binge at once. And all this bounty would be accessible from the privacy of one’s home or the convenience of one’s smartphone.

The subscriptions rolled in. Legacy entertainment companies, including Disney and HBO, rushed to catch up. The result was a radical reshaping of the movie and television business. Rather than starting in theaters or on a major network before moving to syndication and then DVD sales and rentals, movies went straight from theaters to the streaming services affiliated with the studios that produced them. TV shows originated on streaming services rather than finding profitable new life there or on basic cable. And the amount of television in production exploded, a phenomenon FX network chief John Landgraf referred to as “peak TV.”

For a time, the streaming business seemed to be expanding with all the force and inexorable momentum of the Big Bang. But the laws of demography, time and economics were bound to reassert themselves. There are only so many people in the country where streaming services operate. They have only so much money to spend on entertainment. And they have only so many free hours a day to amuse themselves.

Then there are the challenges posed by the geopolitical complexities of the entertainment business. Netflix recorded a loss of subscribers rather than a mere slowdown in subscription growth because it stopped offering its services in Russia. China, once seen as a key market for American blockbusters, doesn’t allow foreign streaming services to operate in the country at all.

The streamers are still spending like sailors on shore leave: Disney alone plans to shell out $33 billion on content this year, though a significant amount of that money is earmarked for sports rights rather than original programming. But if subscribers begin to churn through competing services more quickly, these sprees may not last. As part of its dismal report, Netflix acknowledged that it would pull back its spending on content.

That might not be such a bad thing for the entertainment-watching public.

At the beginning of the streaming revolution, the uptick in the number of shows getting made was exciting — especially when the result was something that felt genuinely fresh, such as the Netflix prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black.”

But the tipping point between abundance and glut is long past, especially when a lot of what’s being released seems more like a laundry-folding accompaniment than ambitious art. The modern Golden Age of Television was defined by rich arguments about game-changing series such as “The Wire,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” Too often, the dominant feeling of the streaming era is puzzlement about why so many people briefly went mad for “Tiger King.”

All this excess has another downside. Even when a Netflix show is wonderful, loving it can be a lonely experience if no one else is watching along with you. The weekly release model made cliffhangers possible. And the time between episodes — filled with water-cooler and online-forum chatter — turns out to have been a vital part of the thrill.

The old models of movie and television-making aren’t coming back: The streaming era and covid-19 have seen to that. But it would be a shame if what survives is only expensive blockbusters and cheap reality television. As streaming services start competing with the real world for consumers’ time and money again, let’s hope they remember that there’s more to entertainment than volume and distraction.

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