New Normal

Netflix's master plan for streaming looks eerily similar to cable TV

Netflix made its name giving you ad-free movies and TV whenever you wanted, but now it's strategy looks a lot different.

BRAZIL - 2022/07/06: In this photo illustration, a silhouetted woman holds a smartphone with the Net...
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Is it just me, or does Netflix feel a lot like TV? The streaming service was supposed to be the vanguard of our à la carte, on-demand, subscription-based, ad-free media consuming future. And that was true... for a while. But with the launch of an ad-supported subscription tier (it didn’t work on Apple TV at launch, but otherwise seems fine) what Netflix actually is, culturally and experientially, has gotten a little bit blurrier.

No need to check your prescription, it’s about to get even blurrier. Netflix announced on Thursday that it’s getting into livestreaming, starting with an new live Chris Rock comedy special in 2023. Is it the final straw for Netflix’s foray into the “old” way of doing business or a prelude to something bigger? Our best bet is to look at the competition.

We’ll do it live!

Rumors that Netflix was exploring airing live unscripted reality TV and comedy specials on its service started circulating in May 2022. Netflix’s less-than-stellar second quarter earnings in July, just a couple months later, revealed why it might want to shift its strategy — it lost 970,000 subscribers, a first for the company.

The password sharing crackdowns and the accompanying Netflix Basic with ads subscription tier that followed have been framed as possible solutions; a way to scoop up new subscribers, hold on to old ones, and make some new money on selling ad space in the process. If Netflix made a name for itself being a disruptor, it could squeeze some additional blood from the stone using the tried and true advertising model that has helped support normal TV networks for decades.

Livestreaming a comedy special is a natural extension of that idea. It’s a nice exclusive perk for regular Netflix subscribers, just like games are, but it’s also a great way to command attention. The beauty of a live event is everyone has to watch at the same time. You’re captive, ready to see whatever silly Super Bowl ad is put in front of you. Netflix hasn’t shared the hard details of Rock’s special, but it’s easy to speculate the other kinds of events it could host assuming it goes well. A Selling Sunset reunion specials feel like an easy guess, and maybe further off. Live sports, perhaps?

Everyone loves sports

The best way to get people to watch live, pretty much universally, is to air sports. That’s the main reason why every streaming service has tried to build some kind of sports offering into its subscription. Apple TV+ has exclusive rights to all MLS games (reported to be part of a larger advertising push from Apple); Amazon Prime Video has its deal with the NFL for Thursday Night Football; Peacock has the Olympics.

Sports are the backbone of traditional broadcast television, and networks and streaming services are paying an arm and a leg to license the rights to them. If Netflix has built out the the technology to stream live video, and it’s already building an ad business for a new subscription tier, why wouldn’t it try to broadcast sports? Netflix proved people would pay a subscription to stream TV and movies, but for the business to keep growing, it might just have to become like everyone else.

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