Normalising Netflix: The Platforms, Practices, and Protocols of Internet Distributed Television
As the leading internet-distributed television platform (IDTVP) today, with over 200 millionworldwide subscribers, Netflix is a fascinating case-study through which to unpack thestrategies, innovations, and possibilities of internet-delivered television.
This thesis argues that Netflix appropriates existing broadcast and premium cable networkpractices to produce original programming while using internet-originated tools, such as bigdata and algorithms, to continuously improve its interface design. The thesis demonstrateshow Netflix utilises internet discourses relating to television media, streaming, andtechnology, to contextualise subscribers’ interactions with, and consumption of, content onits platform, discursively and practically creating the ‘Netflix experience’.
The thesis examines the ways in which Netflix supports its commissioning strategies bycontinuously developing technology that emphasizes personalisation, choice, and temporalflexibility, all while promoting its digital capabilities through self-mythologizing narratives. AsNetflix is constantly evolving in response to changes in the television industry (and is at timesinstigating these changes) this thesis includes industry discourse in the forms of pressreleases, advertising materials, and popular media journalism. Netflix’s framing withinpopular media, both through its own promotional material and across industry press,simultaneously creates, reinforces, and normalises IDTV delivery and viewing protocols.
The thesis analyses Netflix’s use of big data and algorithms to ‘create value’ for subscribersby enhancing the user-friendliness and personalisation capabilities of its platform, both ofwhich increase viewer engagement with the Netflix interface. Also discussed are thecompany’s strategies for value creation, such as continuous playback, the skip intro feature,the ability to download episodes automatically for offline viewing, and others, all of whichincentivise temporally-flexible viewing habits, such as binge-watching. Additionally, the thesisinvestigates Netflix’s exploitation of its big data caches to market its original programmesdirectly to subscribers, circulate biased viewing figures pertaining to content on its platform,and categorise its viewers into ‘taste communities’.
Domestically, Netflix’s role in the increasing consolidation of content owned by mediaconglomerates is discussed, notably Disney’s 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox and itstelevision holdings, and the subsequent effects of the deal on the licensing of Fox and Disney’sintellectual property (IP). Netflix’s upward trajectory in the United States illustrates theopenings and opportunities available to the company in the time immediately before the IDTVmodel became widespread amongst (now) multi-platform broadcast and cable networks,thanks in part to Netflix’s innovations in popularising IDTV protocols. The company tookadvantage of the US television industry’s existing economic and industrial constraints to builda catalogue of acquired content. The resulting popularity of certain (high-end serial drama)programmes (particularly those licensed from cable networks) helped Netflix to establish adomestic subscriber base while forecasting the importance of IP ownership.
This thesis posits that the changes in the international regulation and provision of what is nowan established form of television delivery demonstrate the influence that Netflix, as thelargest purveyor of IDTV, has had in gaining entry into 190 countries over the past decade. Assuch, Netflix is an excellent representation of the international possibilities and successes ofIDTV. The thesis also interrogates how Netflix’s entry into original content commissioning hasinstigated broader changes in the legislation, commissioning, production, and reception ofIDTVP in markets such as Brazil, The United Kingdom, India, South Africa, and its domesticmarket of the United States. Internationally, this research examines Netflix’s investments ininternet infrastructure and physical infrastructure, in terms of buying its own production hubsin places like Spain, its relationships with non-US networks, and the legislative response tothe rapid growth of internationally-operating IDTVPs.
The thesis investigates how Netflix’s willingness to outspend competitors and accrue debtallows it to build subscriber numbers, despite continuing to rely on acquired content, andincreasingly, co-produced and directly commissioned content with (non-US) networks(Dunleavy 2020). It argues that Netflix is pursuing a commissioning and branding strategy of‘international localisation’. The strategy cultivates cultural specificity in the form of locallanguage use, a story by a local writer-producer, the involvement of a local productioncompany, and partnerships with local casts and crews. This cultural specificity is thencombined with factors that allow local content to appeal to Netflix’s international subscriberbase, including accurately translated subtitling and dubbing in a variety of languages, as wellas adopting aspects of high-end serial drama programming, such as large budgets, highproduction values, and creatively-risky or adult themes. The concept of internationallocalisation is explored through the case studies of two Netflix-originated serial dramaprogrammes, Stranger Things (US) and Queen Sono (South Africa).
Internet-delivered television is now a permanent fixture of the entertainment landscape.
Multi-platform networks are the predominant group of television providers, with IDTVplatforms constituting an ever-growing part of these networks’ strategies. Increasing mediacompany conglomeration is going to result in the consolidation of intellectual property rightsfor programmes among an oligopoly of parent companies, making content origination evenmore crucial for television providers. These conditions occurred alongside the rise of Netflix,a company which, little more than a decade prior, was primarily a DVD rental service, andnow, in 2020, boasts availability in 190 countries. Netflix is not the ‘global network’ its CEOReed Hastings claims it to be. However, its successes and challenges uniquely represent theseismic changes in the industrial, economic, and technological circumstances of the televisionindustry over the past ten years.