In a bid to claw back its waning subscriber base, the streamer is going back to a more traditional model of watching telly
March 2, 2023 1:02 pm(Updated 1:03 pm)
On Sunday, comedian Chris Rock will take to the stage in Netflix’s first ever live streamed “global event”. It’s a big deal! Chris Rock is one of the most famous comics in the world, there are going to be live pre- and post-shows from the likes of Amy Schumer and Jerry Seinfeld, and according to The Wall Street Journal, Rock’s Selective Outrage set includes material about the time Will Smith smacked him in the gob at the Oscars. It’s the Super Bowl of the comedy world!
I won’t be watching though. I’ll be in bed. Asleep. Because in the UK, the live stream will be broadcast at 3am.
Hosting a live stream is a bold move by the streamer, who, it would seem, has more money than it knows what to do with (Rock’s deal with Netflix reportedly earned him $40 million). Live productions are not only expensive, but risky by their very nature — an infinite number of things could go wrong. That’s also what makes them fun: this year’s Brits were a shambles, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
But in the grander scheme of the television landscape, it feels like a step backwards. For the past decade, traditional broadcasters have been trying to copy Netflix’s streaming model. BBC’s iPlayer has had an entire overhaul and relaunch, with many shows available to watch online before being broadcast on the BBC’s linear channels. Channel 4’s library of content All 4 is advertised as the UK’s “biggest free streaming service” and ITV recently rebranded its Hub to ITVX, offering exclusive series to online viewers months before they’re broadcast on TV.
Disney, HBO, Paramount and Apple have all launched their own streaming services to compete directly with Netflix, with varying degrees of success. Why would Netflix want to revert to the old ways of TV?
Well, it’s losing subscribers for a start. In 2022, Netflix reported a downturn in paying users for the first time, meaning something had to change. The rising cost of living (and the recent crackdown on password sharing) has forced us to reconsider what we spend our money on, and many have decided Netflix — itself getting more and more expensive — isn’t worth it anymore. To recoup our attention, the streamer must make unmissable content and be part of the wider cultural conversation. One way to do that is to create good old-fashioned event TV.
But that phenomenon, as much as we cling onto the nostalgic idea of “communal viewing”, is dead. And that’s largely Netflix’s fault. The emphasis on streaming shows not just as a way to catch up on episodes you missed when they were on telly but as a primary method of viewing has spoiled the idea that all of us watch the same thing at the same time. Our lives are – with few exceptions – too busy and hectic to revolve around a Sunday night drama: why suffer a late night when you could watch it on your Monday lunch break?
On a practical level, live streaming on Netflix is nonsensical. The streamer is putting emphasis on the “global” aspect of its upcoming event, but when you take into consideration simple things like time zones and language barriers (translating a live stream isn’t as simple as a pre-filmed drama), the concept falls apart. Even across America, where the live stream is based, the show will air at different times — 7pm in the East Coast and 10pm in the West. As far as I’m concerned, those time slots denote very different types of content: 7pm is gentle and calm while 10pm calls for something more risqué.
Chris Rock’s show is likely a test for how further live streaming on Netflix will work in future. The platform already has the rights to broadcast next year’s SAG Awards and has reportedly bid on contracts to stream sporting events, including the ATP tennis tour.
For years, Netflix has been heralded as the future of technology and television and has dictated the way broadcasters approach their shows. But this new step into live streaming feels out of step with the way the world has learned to watch TV. Will anyone in the UK stay up until 3am just to watch Chris Rock tell jokes he’s already told on his tour? Maybe. If we get our own live streams in the future, will we choose to watch those over whatever is on BBC One or ITV1? Probably, if the offering is good enough.
Live TV is magical and exciting, but often underwhelming. Netflix would do better to focus on making its on demand shows better and giving its waning customer base what we signed up for in the first place: good TV available to watch whenever we want and at our own pace. We should be in charge of our viewing schedule, not Netflix.