There’s only one reason I haven’t canceled my Netflix subscription. I’ve been counting the days until the streaming service releases the second season of Tim Robinson’s sketch show I Think You Should Leave. (Almost there! It comes out July 6.) But once I tear through Robinson’s latest, it might be time to smash the unsubscribe button. Over the past year, the most popular streamer has become my least-watched. If apps could gather dust, it would have cobwebs.
Netflix is the Kleenex of streaming, a brand so dominant it can stand for the whole of the market. (It’s not “Hulu and chill,” after all.) There are signs that this synecdochal power is waning, though. Shiny new rivals, particularly HBO Max and Disney+, have rolled out their own formidable streaming libraries. Plus, a constellation of smaller streamers have established themselves by catering to niche audiences. Film buffs have MUBI, Ovid, and Criterion; horror fans have Shudder; for anime devotees, there’s Crunchyroll and Funimation; the list goes on. As competitors multiply in the United States, they’re purloining former Netflix staples like The Office and Friends and coming out with features every bit as cinematic as Netflix awards bait like The Irishman. The original streaming giant is finally facing real competition.
Throughout the week, WIRED is publishing a series of essays about the current state of streaming services. Read about the futuristic stink of Amazon’s science fiction here.
With buzz building for these newer services’ hits—like WandaVision on Disney+, or HBO’s Mare of Easttown—streaming analyst Sarah Henschel says it is understandable that Netflix feels less popular right now. But she sees its dominance as far from over. “Netflix is still blowing everyone out of the water, they’re still the market leader.” Financially, it’s in a good place: Having recently rocketed past 200 million subscribers, it has also finally stopped borrowing money. Henschel attributes Netflix’s reputational funk to Covid-related production delays. What’s more, she sees Netflix as completely peerless in international markets. Operating in 190 countries, Netflix has a formidable head start over everyone else, and it pours resources into plucking shows from around the world that perform across borders, like the fun French-language caper Lupin.
Even as it adds subscribers globally, though, Netflix’s domestic market share is shrinking. As that happens, competitors are moving in. According to analysis from streaming guide ReelGood, HBO Max had the most popular blockbuster film releases this spring and early summer with Mortal Kombat and Godzilla vs. Kong. Its tag team of action movies made Netflix’s biggest hit, Army of the Dead, look wimpy. Plus, while Netflix continues to build itself into a streamer doubling as a studio, Amazon just bought a studio—MGM—outright. And some of Netflix’s homegrown attempts at making its own Game of Thrones–style or Marvel-style cultural touchstone have fizzled out spectacularly; a television adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic Jupiter’s Legacy, initially intended as a launchpad for a superhero franchise, was abruptly canceled less than a month after it debuted.
Here’s the thing: Jupiter’s Legacy had mediocre reviews. And mediocrity is increasingly a liability when competitors have hotter rosters. I Think You Should Leave aside, the other upcoming show on Netflix I’ve seen people hyped up for is that nightmarish-looking furry-themed dating show Sexy Beasts. And while its commitment to the grotesque appears admirable, Sexy Beasts looks like good-humored trash at best. This is not to say that Netflix is totally devoid of worthwhile content—the limited-series food show High on the Hog comes to mind as a recent creative success—but that its ratio of blah offerings to genuine winners is all off. At least for me, right now, there’s too much filler and not enough appointment television to justify the price, especially with other streamers asking for my money.
HBO Max, meanwhile, has a clunky user interface and a bad habit of fritzing out on its biggest nights. (When I tried to watch the finale of Mare of Easttown, the app on my Apple TV kept playing an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Rude.) But since its debut in May 2020, HBO Max has gradually bodied Netflix where it hurts the most: by offering better shows and movies. The HBO originals back catalog is already unparalleled, plus it has been on a roll with creative, fresh shows like I May Destroy You and Hacks. The pandemic spurred parent company WarnerMedia to release its slate of theater-bound Warner Bros. movies on the platform, from Shaka King’s tense, excellent drama Judas and the Black Messiah to the upcoming, long-awaited Dune. While Netflix’s 2021 film slate is nothing to sniff at—there’s new Adam McKay and Jane Campion films coming, for example—it simply doesn’t have the juice from a studio like Warner Bros. behind it. After years secure in its position as the “it” streaming service, Netflix has, at least temporarily, lost the quality-control crown to HBO Max.
Will Netflix get its groove back? It certainly could, perhaps by the time I Think You Should Leave’s third season makes me renew my subscription. But it also might be so big it doesn’t need the zeitgeist, anyways. There is a good road map for how Netflix could continue to dominate even if it loses its cool forever. In a recent column on media consolidation, my colleague Angela Watercutter pointed out that the competing streaming services may end up resembling network TV’s Big Three: ABC, NBC, and CBS. While CBS wasn’t the first television network—NBC beat it to the punch—it became the most popular network just as Americans were purchasing television sets en masse in the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, Netflix wasn’t technically the first streaming service (that was iTV, out of Hong Kong), but it was the one that became the juggernaut. I’d argue that Netflix may be inching ever closer to occupying the role that CBS did during the heyday of broadcast television—incredibly popular, and yet rarely considered even remotely adjacent to hip. And yes, of course, Paramount+ is literally the CBS of streaming services in that it is owned by CBS—but Netflix is its true spiritual successor, with a vast, entrenched audience. Relevance will be a battle fought over and over in the streaming wars, but this is still ultimately a tussle for the most eyeballs, not the most discerning ones.