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Squid Game, Netflix
Squid Game, NetflixCourtesy of Netflix

Why the Golden Age of Streaming is dead

As the streaming service announces that it will be cracking down on password sharing, this could be the final nail in the coffin

In devastating news for cheapskates everywhere (myself included), it was announced today that Netflix will soon start cracking down on password sharing – a crime of which 16 per cent of its users are guilty. Never mind that we’re in a cost-of-living crisis, never mind that many of us are struggling to survive, these greedy corporate fatcats want us to start paying to use their service. How out-of-touch can you get?

This latest measure – which will reportedly come into play within the next few months – comes after a turbulent period for the company. In 2021, an exodus of subscribers led to its valuation dropping by over 50 billion dollars. While it has made a comeback in financial terms – increasing its subscribers in recent months and enjoying international growth – its place in the culture seems less assured. People are pissed off about the fact that it’s cancelled so many shows (including 1889, The Bastard Son and the Devil Himself, The Midnight Club, and countless others), many of which were critically acclaimed and already developing a devoted fanbase. It seems that unless a series instantly becomes a viral smash, the company starts sharpening its knives, which makes many viewers less inclined to invest in the first place. Why bother getting into a show if, in all likelihood, it won’t make it past the first season? 

Netflix faces both an increasingly crowded market and a wider downturn in the industry. As many critics have suggested, it seems like the ‘golden age of streaming’ has come to an end. The password-sharing crackdown is not the only measure Netflix has taken to combat this: last November, it introduced a low-cost tier which comes with advertisements. Apparently, this has been successful so far, but it undermines one of the company’s chief selling points. As with every other streaming platform, it is producing less new content than it was before.

The days when Netflix was a reliable incubator of prestige telly are long gone, and there is a widespread sense that the platform has dumbed down its content. This is partly due to changes within the company’s power structure. Cindy Holland – the vice president responsible for early successes like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black – was ousted in 2020 and replaced by Bela Bajaria, a seasoned television executive who had joined a few years earlier and oversaw Netflix’s first forays into reality television. In fairness, Bajaria also pushed for an increase in international development, so her tenure hasn’t been all bad. But within the company itself and Hollywood at large, many felt that the show Insatiable – greenlit by Bajaria – marked a turning point for the company. A coming-of-age drama about a fat teenage girl who loses weight and then returns to high school to enact revenge on her tormentors, the show was critically reviled and inspired a ferocious social media backlash.  According to an anonymous employee quoted in Hollywood Reporter, this marked the “Walmart-isation” of the company, the point when it became more concerned with quantity than quality.

The company has also been plagued by a string of controversies. Dave Chappelle’s 2021 comedy special,  for example, was heavily criticised for featuring transphobic content – even some Netflix employees staged a walk-out in protest. But CEO Reed Hastings was unrepentant, saying that – as long as they were commercially successful – he would gladly commission Chappelle specials “again and again.  At the same time, queer-focused shows like The Babysitters Club and Warrior Club were cancelled, leading many LGBTQ+ viewers to feel sidelined by the company. Within the last few years, there has also been a cultural backlash to the true crime genre, which remains a staple of Netlifx’s programming. While Dahmer (a Ryan Murphy-helmed biopic about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer) was enormously successful in terms of viewing figures, lots of people felt that it crossed a line into lurid exploitation. Whether or not anyone ever felt strongly about Netflix to begin with, its position in the culture has shifted from something neutral or benign to a purveyor of a lot of unpleasant content. 

At the same time, this shift doesn’t appear to have had any dent in its viewership figures, and it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the company is becoming irrelevant. As well as reversing its financial difficulties, the platform still continues to release zeitgeisty TV shows and films. Squid Game, its biggest hit to date, was a cultural moment which we’ll probably look back on as era-defining. Glass Onion, although nothing special, was undeniably something that people were watching and discussing, as was Harry and Meghan. Within the last six months, Wednesday and Stranger Things both broke viewing records. Most significantly, its international output is going from strength to strength and an increasing focus for the company (around 70 per cent of its subscribers come from outside the US and Canada.) 

The company is not at death’s door, but if current trends continue, it will probably keep getting worse. For the top brass, it’s obvious that commercial imperatives supersede any aesthetic or moral considerations. If they do commission anything cool or interesting, they’ll probably just axe it, unless it becomes an overnight sensation. So Netflix, if you’re listening, I’d like you to hear me please: you can intimidate me, you can bully and harass me, you can arrest me and throw me in jail – I will never pay for my own subscription.

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