The Great Netflix Hit Factory Paradox

Wednesday, the new Addams Family coming-of-age series from Tim Burton, delivered the biggest premiere weekend of any English-speaking title on the service. Courtesy of Netflix
Julia Alexander
December 6, 2022

Netflix is on a hot streak. Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is the third series to surpass one billion hours viewed (about 112 million complete season streams) in 60 days, just behind Stranger Things 4 and Squid Game. Wednesday, the new Addams Family coming-of-age series from Tim Burton, delivered the biggest premiere weekend of any English-speaking title on the service. The show amassed more than 750 million hours viewed over the past two weeks, and will likely break into Netflix’s Top 10 most watched English-speaking premieres ever next week. And barring any last minute shifts, Stranger Things 4 will be crowned the biggest show of 2022 by almost any metric—views, demand, social media engagement, etcetera.

In fact, 50 percent of all of Netflix’s Top 10 English-speaking debuts premiered in 2022, including Ozark’s fourth season and Bridgerton’s second season. It’s an impressive feat, and yet it’s entirely discordant with the fact that Netflix also had arguably its worst year on record. The company lost subscribers in its second and third quarters, and gained only 100,000 subs in the U.S. and Canada in its most recent quarter. And, despite a recent rebound, its stock is still down some 50 percent from a year ago. Netflix is projecting subscriber growth of 4.5 million in Q4, about half the number that joined in Q4 2021. Revenue has slowed alongside subscriber growth, and churn rates are still higher than normal at the company. 

If TV is a business of hits—and, despite the claims of some analysts, it very much still is—then why is Netflix facing struggles when the hits have been rolling in? The answer is complex, and a harbinger for the rest of the industry. 

The Wednesday Paradigm

How streaming platforms identify valuable content has changed dramatically. There’s no question that much of Netflix’s brand value comes from its ability, over and again, to create cultural zeitgeist moments—popular shows, with the biggest stars, that dominate water cooler conversations and consumption charts. Ozark, Bridgerton, Dahmer, Wednesday: These represent the promise of what Netflix can do at a massive scale worldwide. 

But there’s another part of the value equation worth examining when considering Netflix’s years of hits and misses. Namely, many of these big-tent shows often appeal to the same Netflix super users who aren’t actually at risk of churning out. 

Co-C.E.O. Ted Sarandos said recently that the best way to prevent churn is to have entertaining shows and films that keep people watching. And while that’s obviously true, he’s downplaying the nuance. If the audience for its top shows comprises an almost completely overlapping Venn diagram—essentially one single circle—Netflix should focus on creating smaller shows that don’t overlap as much. That requires using data to find whitespace opportunities that appeal to customers who aren’t as engaged with those (often very expensive) top-performing titles.

Customers are less likely to churn when they’re engaged with a number of different series, both originals and licensed titles. And high engagement is unequivocally correlated to strong value perception. Therefore, shows that appeal to customers at a higher risk of churning are more valuable to the service. 

Wednesday, for example, has a very young audience, with nearly 85 percent of viewers in the Gen Z or Millennial demo. There’s also a pretty even gender split—52/48 male/female, according to Parrot Analytics, where I work as director of strategy. This group is far more likely to be among highly engaged viewers because the series has strong overlap with other young-skewing Netflix shows, such as Stranger Things, Dark, Warrior Nun, Manifest, and Dahmer. If the series engages a specific audience that wasn’t churning because of the aforementioned high engagement, its value within an SVOD structure may diminish slightly. 

Wednesday is a massive success, of course, but how that success translates into Netflix revenue is most important. If the show appeals to a low-risk audience, and it isn’t driving huge signups, then its value may not be as high as a lower-profile show that generates stronger returns. Don’t get me wrong: Wednesday will help boost Netflix subscriber numbers in the fourth quarter, but it’s likely more costly than other series that found more new customers for Netflix and expanded their palate, like reality franchise Selling Sunset, or international hits like RRR. Think of it this way: if another series manages to lower a subscriber segment’s churn at a similar rate as Wednesday but is far cheaper to produce, what option do you go with? This isn’t a trick question, but it is one that’s asked across programming departments, and there’s more than one answer.

A more valuable show, from a subscription growth perspective, may be Extraordinary Attorney Woo, a South Korean series that has garnered strong viewership (more than 400 million hours viewed) outside of its origin country. It bolsters subscribers in South Korea—Netflix’s only strong growth market over the past year is Asia Pacific, which provided 60 percent of the subscriber additions this past quarter. But more importantly, Attorney Woo is attracting new subscribers in different territories. It’s also simultaneously reducing potential churn among existing customers who might otherwise have tapped out. 

We saw this same phenomenon recently with Fauda, an Israeli action series that wasn’t a massive global hit but generated stronger interest out of viewers who were at higher risk of canceling than their counterparts. In the end, this makes Fauda an incredibly valuable global title for Netflix. (Its fourth season drops in January.) None of these shows are Wednesday, but that’s precisely the point—even without the giant viewership number attached.

That’s the content side. There’s also the strategic issue of scheduling. As Netflix executives said on a recent earnings call, churn is still slightly higher than desired. Customers who come in for one big quarter aren’t necessarily staying. Spreading out programming, and ensuring it is balanced between potential mainstream hits and Fauda-style fare, is key. Easier said than done, but it’s a notable pivot from Netflix’s less calculated strategy at the peak of its market dominance. 

The Advertising Component 

Subscription and churn aren’t the only two factors that matter now that Netflix is in the advertising game. Sure, niche hits are great for micro-targeting audiences, but what ad buyers care about, more than anything else, is scale. A title doesn’t need to retain at-risk customers or generate X number of subscribers to make it immensely valuable. It simply needs to keep viewers watching beyond the initial episode. 

To wit, Wednesday might overlap with Ozark or Bridgerton, but it’s also trending on Google and showing very little dropoff in interest. I won’t be surprised if Nielsen dubs Wednesday’s debut as one of the top SVOD releases of the year. In short, the show lured tons of eyeballs—and, for Netflix’s ad tier, that’s everything. Engagement is the core metric, so even if Wednesday or Ozark aren’t expanding the Netflix user base, they’re keeping viewers engaged and improving metrics for advertisers.

It’s here that Netflix can increase the value of its massive hits. Even if they’re not reducing churn as much as other titles targeted at higher-risk groups, they’re targeting a core user that’s continuously engaging. They’re watching, and rewatching. As Netflix brings more customers to its ad tier, including many current customers going from SVOD to the cheaper option, finding shows and movies that increase engagement is paramount. There’s less concern about who is watching, and more focus on how to keep viewers glued to their screens. More than 750 million hours viewed in 14 days is the exact type of feat that Netflix needs.

Yeah, it turns out that it’s pretty complicated trying to scale an SVOD service to one billion users. Netflix needs more shows like Dahmer and Wednesday, to be sure. But it also needs new, arguably more experimental and global programming to raise engagement among those audiences where the perceived value isn’t as strong—audiences who aren’t interested in Wednesday or Stranger Things but are still valuable. Can Netflix accomplish both while keeping down costs? Maybe, especially now that advertising presents another path for monetization. But it’s a complicated task, and it’s not only Netflix’s problem. Every media company trying to scale in streaming and make money in the process is going to run into the exact same issues.