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Fixing Netflix: livestreaming could make them cool again

Bad news is, generally speaking, bad news.

Unless you work in Netflix’s PR team, of course. The streaming service recently lost about a million subscribers but, hey, they were expecting to lose two million. Chalk that one up as a W.1

Brad Esposito summed it up well in his newsletter:

Let me tell you something about bad news: Most of us can identify it like a plague… Bad news is bad news. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise should be treated with care and caution, like an alleycat purring on a fencepost. The starving and the weak will do dangerous things to keep on living, and there is nothing more starving and desperate than a living, breathing, corporation. It could have been worse, they’ll tell you, and you’d be a fool to listen. This is the game: content. And if people don’t care about it, you’re losing.

And, yeah, people don’t care about Netflix anymore. You can only make so much dross before people move on. Esposito argues that Netflix has failed to live up to its own transformative potential and now a murder of competitors are coming for its audience.

“I can hear the faint and dull rhythm of the PirateBay on the horizon” he says, although he has some some ideas on how to fix the “generally uncool empire”. They’re all worth reading. One in particular has me ruminating, though: livestreaming.

Live and let livestream

There’s something intoxicating about live. Things can just happen and when it hits - it hits hard.

Sport is the obvious example, but it’s not necessarily the games themselves that stick. From “Shaq, we’re on live” to Kevin Harlan calling a streaker during an NFL game to… whatever happens on Inside the NBA, it’s the chance that something unexpected may happen that matters.

And not many people are really making places for the unexpected. Netflix could.

As Esposito explains, “Twitch remains the only platform still pitched as an outright livestream service” despite a few others giving it the ol’ college try. Esposito continues:

There is clear appetite for this form of content, and it is currently being monetised by the most ham-fisted among us: a series of deliberately irritating pre-roll advertisements and an occasional pop-up, too. YouTube hates itself but is honest enough to capitalise on where the money is.

Netflix doesn’t have to worry about that. The money’s already there and so are the subscribers. They can build an ecosystem around themselves.

Netflix needs the stick

I don’t watch many things anymore, but I’ve probably watched 50+ hours of Seagull play Apex Legends in the past month. If he makes any merch, I’d probably buy it. If he makes any other content, I’ll give it a look.

There’s a reason “that’s my streamer” (and variations thereof) are a meme in Twitch chats. Seagull’s my streamer; he’s the guy I watch.

Streamers are sticky. Netflix could use a bit more stick.

They already have the content: hours upon hours of stuff to watch. It’s not even uncharted territory: the “MasterChef meta” was a big thing on Twitch a little while ago as big streamers like HasanAbi steamed themselves watching the reality show, doing numbers in the process.

I mean, Netflix is already doing it. Just on YouTube. I Like To Watch with Trixie & Katya is just two magnetic drag queens reacting to everything from Resident Evil to Legally Blonde to Feel Good. And it gets millions of views. On YouTube.

Imagine a world where you have streamers on Netflix, steaming and reacting to Netflix shows in real time. There’s potential.

You get the streams themselves, sure. But then there are the clips – quick grabs of highly shareable moments. I’m never going to watch the latest mid-tier Ryan Reynolds action vehicle but if a clip of someone losing their mind over a scene or two? Sure, I’ll give it a look. If I see enough of them, maybe I’ll even load up a stream. See what the deal is.

Hell, throw some cash at Reynolds and do a watch party with him. Do it for some cult classics as well. I’d watch the heck out of the cast of Bojack Horseman commentating over the show. Director’s commentary DVDs are ready for a return.2

Livestreaming is transformative. All of a sudden, you have a cadre of streamers, all chasing something to watch. And Netflix has a vault. The right people could take everything that’s a bit middling, a bit bleh, a bit weird and turn it into the thing.

Why couldn’t any old show be the meta for a while? Why wouldn’t people watching old musicals in a hot tub bring in some viewers?

Throw in some microtransactions (so people can support their favourite streamers, of course), live chat, easy ways to export clips and you’ve got something interesting. You’ve got countless ways to repurpose content and drive conversation.

You start building communities around your shows. And communities are sticky.

But Netflix wants the prestige

Netflix probably won’t do livestreams. A lot of people would end up dunking on their shows and, as fun as that would be, I can’t see Netflix wanting that.

Netflix wants you to love and respect them. That’s me psychoanalysing a massive corporation, sure, but it feels like a safe bet. You don’t court Hollywood, an industry possibly even more self-celebratory than the tech industry, if you don’t want to be loved. You don’t chase Academy Awards if you don’t want to be respected. And you don’t release a book about your management style if you don’t think you’re special.

Letting people livestream your shows means making those shows not-the-point. It means making yourself not-the-point.

It’s hard to see Netflix doing that. Even if, by becoming painfully uncool, they’re not the point anyway.

  1. Ben Thompson covered Netflix’s predicament and move to ads well. Check out his POV on Stratechery

  2. I had the first four seasons of Futurama on DVD when I was growing up. I watched them so much that I eventually watched them with the director’s comedy on, just for something new. It was a mix of directors, producers, writers and actors. And they were hilarious. I watched them so many times that I remember jokes from the commentary more than jokes from the show itself. 

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