Streaming the Zeitgeist: Netflix’s transition from must-have to must-see

In 2012 we saw a fundamental change to Netflix’s approach and strategy in its management of content: the production of original programming. After accumulating 20 million subscribers in 2010 based on the convenience, expediency and value offered by the streaming service, Netflix’s new adoption rates started to plateau throughout the year and 2011. The arrival of Amazon’s own streaming service in early 2011 would have caused only further concern to the so far burgeoning success of a service which had only just secured household name status. Netflix needed to change their own game and their new path rapidly became clear in the commissioning of a new drama, ‘House of Cards’.

Far from a tentative toe-dip into television production, ‘House of Cards’ had a Hollywood size budget of $100 million and starred 2 time Oscar winner, Kevin Spacey, and was overseen and sometimes directed by acclaimed director David Fincher. The sheen and content of the show, a political revenge story based on the novel by Michael Dobbs previously adapted to much praise by the BBC two decades earlier, had all the hallmarks of a primetime series produced by the likes of the HBO and AMC networks and made audiences and commentators take notice.

The first series 13 episodes were released in February 2013 to strong reviews relishing in the show’s strong performances and high productions values, and even led to some journalists speculating that it marked the end of scheduled TV as we know it. A second season was greenlit shortly after and the show went on to win several Emmy and Golden Globe awards for its lead actors and director. What with Netflix’s adoption rates starting to soar again, the $100 million gamble had paid off and a new force was starting to emerge in the production of quality television

As much of a financial risk as ‘House of Cards’ was, its subject matter and star lead always gave it some assurance of success. However, it’s with Netflix’s next notable output in 2013, the female prison comedy drama ‘Orange is the New Black’, that a greater risk was taken in terms of content and appeal. Seemingly aimed at a female and LGBT audience, it was key that the quality and tone of this show struck the right chord within these audiences and with critics alike to avoid any stigma of trying to cash in or exploit on current social trends. Fortunately, on the whole OISTNB achieved this building a precious cult audience quickly and pleasing more liberal critics, and angering more conservative ones — which may not have hurt its appeal given its target audiences.


This time there were no big names and a more modest promotional campaign, but the show gained traction through word of mouth due to its more alternative and progressive content making it a kind of anti-Sex and the City for the decade. Again many awards followed, but this time stars were made rather than rewarded as the standout performers among a relatively unknown cast started to become in demand, and it was smartly pushed into the comedy categories so as not to interfere with House of Cards chances in the drama categories.

The warm receptions and myriad of awards garnered by the two flagship Netflix originals are not just important in terms of gaining and keeping subscribers, but it also affects who will be prepared to work with the company. In 2015 we see the positive effect of this when Netflix released ‘Grace and Frankie’ starring Hollywood royalty in the form of Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin and Martin Sheen.

This is key for Netflix, with television no longer seen as a proving/dumping ground for Hollywood stars, it’s important that they can demonstrate appeal for established talent on show in this comedy. ‘Grace and Frankie’ was seen by some as a direct response to Amazon Prime’s highly acclaimed ‘Transparent’ due to both series concentrating on older parents “coming out” and shows Netflix ambition in keeping the competition at bay. Although it was not as well regarded or awarded as Prime’s effort, there was no sign of Netflix’s hunger for prestige subsiding

Beast Of

Having already made a considerable impact in the television landscape, Netflix proved their desire for acclaim again with their first film production, ‘Beasts of No Nation’. Set in war-torn Africa and starring Idris Elba, the story of a young boy partaking in warfare was clearly poised by Netflix for awards success. It’s short cinema release towards the end of 2015 maybe be seen as a tokenistic attempt at being taken seriously by some, the crucial factor was that the film would qualify for the multitude of award ceremonies at the start of 2016.

‘Beasts of No Nation’ was only partially successful in this regard with a Golden Globes nomination for Idris Elba but crucially none for the Academy Awards, however the cinema release yet again demonstrates Netflix’s seriousness in gaining as much recognition for quality as possible

Doc Graph

As we move into 2016, Netflix’s success is gaining even further momentum. Released in mid-December last year, the first Netflix Original documentary series, ‘Making a Murder’, has already established itself as the most talked about piece of television this year and is likely to remain so. Telling the controversial story of the possible framing of Steven Avery by local police in 2005, the documentary has been praised for its narrative prowess and became a hotbed for many heated conversations online spreading the appeal of the series further. With Netflix subscribers now numbering north of 60 million, ‘Making a Murderer’ became instant, compulsive and, perhaps most importantly, accessible watching worldwide.

Netflix Sub

The announcement of 130 new markets and 11 series premiers in just the first half of this year and the significant increase in new subscribers since the beginning of Netflix Originals means there’s no indication of an abatement in Netflix’s confidence in their own productions. And nor should it dwindle any time soon with Amazon Prime continuing along a similar path and audiences increasingly switching from traditional TV broadcasts to streamed content online, Netflix are at the forefront of a new era in television and no doubt wish to stay there.

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David Murphy

David Murphy

EntSight Researcher