on netflix

Forgive me, but someone is wrong on the internet.

Ben Thompson is one of the first movers of the current newsletter boom. Yes, it's hard to define when the whole thing started, and yes, people have been taking payments for emails for far longer than Thompson's Stratechery has been published. But his claim is real, if for no other reason than that his newsletter was a) financially successful enough to enable him to work on it full time and b) aimed at the tech sector, and so able to spark a legion of imitators.

Thompson's one of my favourite writers on tech right now, because he's rarely wrong and boring at the same time. Case in point: his most recent weekly article, a look at Dave Chappelle's successful campaign to get Netflix to pull episodes of his first series, Chappelle’s Show. Thompson uses decision as a lens to examine Netflix's success in general:

Chappelle’s 18-minute special, which I highly suggest you watch in full, is chock-full of insights about how the Internet has transformed the entertainment industry specifically, and business broadly; my goal is to, in my own clumsy way, highlight and expand on those insights. That I ought to make a simple list and not compete on story-telling is one lesson down; four to go.

Much of it is illuminating, but there's one particular lesson Thompson draws which is not only wrong, but wrong in a way that I think explains a lot of my other problems with his arguments. He says this (emphasis mine):

Aggregators (even weak ones like Netflix), are inherently a better bet for the individual creator than middlemen like the networks ever were. On Netflix, every show is equally accessible relative to every other show; there is no fighting for prime time slots or seasons. It’s the same dynamic on Google or Facebook: all content is treated the same, which is absolutely a problem for companies that used to rule the roost when physical distribution mattered, and nothing but upside for individual creators that only exist because of the Internet.

And, by extension, a company like Netflix is far more sensitive to the needs of the creators that its audience actually care about. The fact the company has twice extended Chappelle’s stand-up special deal is all of the evidence you need that that $20/million per show is money well spent, not because Netflix made people watch, but because people sought it out, and the reality of Aggregators is that they win by making users happy in a world where competition is only a click away, not by denying them choice by virtue of controlling physical distribution.

This claim will, I think, come as a surprise to many of Netflix's show runners, who are acutely aware of the company's ability to generate hits. The Netflix homepage is an extraordinarily powerful promotional tool; so too are the company's recommendation algorithms. Even its relatively staid promotional efforts off platform direct attention to individual shows, be that The Queen's Gambit or the Crown.

The company's never been hugely open about viewing figures, but it's recently begun declaring its top 10 within its app. In the UK as I write this, seven of those ten – and four of the top four – are branded as Netflix originals. It's possible to argue, perhaps, that this reflects Netflix's ability to make great TV, and that on a fully even playing field, The Christmas Chronicles 2 really would be the third most-watched piece of content on the entire platform. 

But I think that everything we know about Netflix's hit-making capability suggests that the company's on-platform promotional tools are phenomenally powerful.

The mistake Thompson makes is to confuse pure accessibility with broader power. Yes: in the pre-streaming days, if it was 11pm and you wanted to watch something that had already aired at 9pm, it was functionally impossible. (Leave aside, for the moment, the invention of VHS onwards). And that did indeed grant huge power to networks, in choosing what to schedule when. Burying something in the midnight slot is a good way to kill it; airing it at teatime on a Sunday is a great way to promote it.

But that power was also necessarily limited. There is, after all, only one teatime slot on a Sunday. It's a promotional weapon that BBC One could wield on maybe ten shows a year. And if you wanted to double-up your promotion, well… you couldn't. It would be a brave controller indeed who decided to schedule a repeat of the Saturday evening prime-time show on Sunday at teatime, no matter how much of a success they hoped to make it.

By contrast, Netflix's promotional tools are less coercive, but no less powerful. Yes, you can use Netflix in a way that completely ignores the company's promotional apparatus. I do! I'm also a deeply weird human being, who decides what I want to watch before I turn on the TV, searches JustWatch to find what streaming service it's on, and then watched a single episode before doing what I had planned to do next.

But in practice, as we can see from top ten lists, huge numbers of users turn on the service, see a selection of shows on the front page, and navigate to one of those, perhaps with a bit of word-of-mouth to back it up. And unlike the broadcast channels of old, Netflix never needs to rotate out those selections. The Crown can occupy the top slot on the entire service for, well, as long as Netflix sees fit to keep it there.

Of course the company has other constraints. It can't elevate a perfect turd no matter how much promotion it puts into it, and it can achieve corresponding success with much less promotional effort if viewers are already primed to enjoy what they're being shown (as is perhaps the case with Dave Chappelle's standup). But "competition is just a click away", one of Thompson's – and Google's – favourite sayings, simply does not imply "therefore everything within that click radius is equally accessible".

I think this matters in more domains than just the question of whether Netflix has power over the creators it funds. A belief in the fundamental "flatness" of the online world is core to a particular way of thinking about big tech, one which emphasises the impossibility of moderation at scale, the undesirability of large companies making content decisions, and the opportunity those platforms provide to their users (typically personified as either fledgling small businesses who couldn't have existed before the rise of the company in question, or marginalised communities finally granted the power of distributed speech).

A world in which Netflix's power to pick winners is glossed over is also a world in which the massive success of American extremists on Facebook can be explained because "that's the content people crave", or where the tendency of YouTube's algorithms to drift from "how to eat healthy" to "here's why vaccines are killing your children" is simply an reflection of how people choose what to watch next.

Still, good for Dave Chappelle.