Password sharing doesn’t kill Netflix, streaming fatigue does

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Ryan Haines / Android Authority

Netflix surprised the world when it announced its first-ever subscriber drop earlier this month. Dropping 200,000 subscribers after a decade of growth is no joke. The streaming services banner has been building content, acquisition, and subscriber growth for years. But even excluding the COVID-induced growth in memberships and the subsequent slowdown, a drop in viewership would be a long time coming. Call it subscription fatigue or a flawed content strategy, Netflix’s dip can be a cautionary tale and a lesson to be learned for just about any streaming service. This is why.

Read more: Netflix has to choose between quality and quantity if it wants to stay at the top

The problem of abundance

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At the time of publication, Netflix US reports more than 2,247 TV shows and at least 3,846 movies. That’s more content than anyone could reasonably see. And yet, finding content to enjoy remains a chore. That problem is exacerbated when you look at the countless additional streaming services. In fact, the problem is so bad that Netflix’s doom scrolling has become a legitimate meme. The popularity of our own streaming suggestions for what to watch on Netflix this week shows that users just can’t figure out what to watch on the platform.

Now it’s not like Netflix hasn’t had a fair share of blockbuster hits. Shows like House of Cards, Dark, Ozark, Stranger Things and even Bridgerton have become part of the cultural zeitgeist. However, for each Stranger Things, the service commissions ten tween-led shows and cancels them very quickly. The signal-to-noise ratio is way too skewed in favor of derivative, same content rather than blockbuster IPs that have a lasting impact. It certainly doesn’t help that Netflix tends to drop content before it has time to grow an audience. Hey Netflix, not every show can be Squid Games, and it doesn’t have to be.

Shows like Squid Games and Stranger Things have become part of the cultural zeitgeist, but they are one-offs amid an abundance of mediocrity.

Netflix’s abundance of “good enough” to mediocre content smacks of a strategy more focused on providing a massive amount of filler. It may be a holdover from the company’s DVD rental past, but becoming the video library of the Internet just doesn’t make sense anymore. While syndicated content keeps users on a platform, it takes meaningful original content to get users to it. The battle for eyes means the spotlight is once again on quality over quantity. Users only have so much time, and the rise of alternative services has finally given viewers multiple options, such as Apple TV Plus and HBO Max.

Related: The 18 Apple TV Plus shows you should watch first

Netflix is ​​not aware of the problem. In its recent earnings call, the company said, “On the content side, we’re doubling down on story development and creative excellence.” The company reiterated, “Our plan is to accelerate our viewing and revenue growth again by continuing to improve all aspects of Netflix – especially the quality of our programming and recommendations, which our members value most.”

That problem of mediocre content is compounded by Netflix’s instant gratification model. Early on, Netflix practically created the concept of binge-watching shows. Why wait a week for an episode when you can watch the entire season at once? Sure, there’s a degree of instant gratification when you finish a show on the first day and can talk about it with friends. However, there is a risk that the shelf life of the product will be shortened if the bar for the quality of the content is not high enough. With nothing to retain users and return to the service, there is an inherent risk of alienation.

Instant gratification combined with mediocre content is the perfect recipe for losing mindshare.

Meanwhile, both HBO Max and Apple TV have shifted back to a more traditional weekly cadence for episodic releases that will keep subscribers hooked and returning to the platform. It helps build anticipation and keeps the audience engaged.

Interestingly, one service that seems to have struck a good balance between abundant content and relative quality is Xbox Gamepass. Speaking to my colleague Adam Birney, he testified that the monthly rotation and curated selection of games led him to discover many hidden gems. There’s still plenty to find, but the smaller curation means it’s a lot easier to actually get to that content.

Also take a look at: Xbox Gamepass: everything you need to know

Apple TV seems to be following a similar model where shows are released at a slower pace and the focus is on quality rather than flooding the service with low-quality content. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the limited library at launch, I’ve personally found that practically every show has compelling storylines that kept me hooked. The approach seems to be paying off for Apple, as the company already has more than 40 million active subscribers, despite only having 120 shows and movies on the platform.

Findability is key

Mubi on an Android phone

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However, my concerns with Netflix’s strategy extend beyond just the quality of the content. In concrete terms, it is about discovering that content. The streaming company’s data-driven approach barely surfaces in its own content library. As a horror movie buff, I’m tired of recommending the same series of hit movies like The Conjuring over and over. I know Netflix has deep cuts like The Old Ways, but the award-winning movie has never been recommended to me despite my copious consumption of scary content.

Our choices: The best movies on Netflix in many genres

Netflix’s data-driven approach works well when popping up popular content. However, it cannot quantify the emotional aspect of cinema. Genre tags might suggest that two horror movies are inevitably clubbed together, but there’s so much more nuance involved. Making suggestions based on heavily viewed content just doesn’t work well enough to keep cinephiles hooked.

By contrast, despite being niche by nature and limited by appeal, Mubi guarantees a thought-provoking cinematic experience. This is mainly due to the human management required to select each movie to be added to the platform.

AI cannot quantify the emotional aspect of content recommendations, human management and user-generated playlists can help solve that.

Spotify, the Netflix of the music streaming world, faces a similar problem, but it has managed to get around it through user-led curation. These days, I prefer to listen to music through user playlists that introduce me to new artists much better than Spotify’s algorithms ever did. Predictably, easy access to better quality content keeps me hooked on the platform.

Related: Tips to get the most out of your Spotify premium or free account

Coupled with the relatively limited quality content, it becomes all the more important to have a robust recommendation system that prioritizes discovery over watching the same content with a slightly different spin. Subscribers should feel a sense of excitement and wonder every time they tune in to the platform over the overwhelming deja vu that seems to cloud Netflix’s homepage.

Detailed Personalization

Netflix two thumbs up in app

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The content discoverability problem is also a by-product of limited user interaction with content. Sure, you can mark a movie with a thumbs up or down, but that’s barely enough to quantify how much you liked it. Watch time is another commonly used metric, but I often consume movies in bite-sized packages.

Netflix has experimented with a double thumbs up to identify content you actually liked. However, a scale of one to five or a star-based rating may be a better approach to better understand viewer preferences.

View more: The best TV shows to binge on Netflix

Taking it a step further, the issue of customization is one that extends across streaming platforms. Netflix, Spotify and most other platforms have no real option to filter content. For example, I have no interest in listening to remixes of some of my favorite songs, nor do I want to hear content from compilation albums that often get thrown into my listen queue. Spotify doesn’t provide a way to rule these out.

It’s imperative for streaming services to stop being avid sellers of mediocre content and go back to a librarian with thoughtful suggestions.

Extensive filtering or customization options go against the whole “keep it simple” paradigm of streaming services, but can be very well hidden under an advanced settings menu. The fact is, no matter how good AI gets at predicting user interests, it simply can’t take into account the preferences of hundreds of millions of users. Even human curation can only go so far. Returning control to the users would be a big step forward in avoiding services being an eager seller and going back to a librarian or curators instead.

If it all seems obvious to you, maybe it is. Netflix and Spotify exploded at a time when they had no competition whatsoever. However, the arrival of deep-pocketed rivals with a legacy of original content creation would certainly throw a spanner in the works for Netflix in particular. In Spotify’s case, the service has to constantly battle profitability, curation, and repeated attempts to be trendsetters.

The real battle is ahead, with most streaming platforms having to make strategic decisions aimed at retaining users rather than a quick fix strategy to get subscriptions that may not last as long. And while alternative streaming services like Apple TV may currently have a head start in content quality, they too risk facing the same streaming fatigue future unless steps are taken ahead of time.

Read more: What’s new on Netflix this month?

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