Before Netflix jumped on to the “Originals” bandwagon — producing new, scripted shows like House Of Cards (2013) and Orange Is The New Black (2013), and promoting its now-trademark “binge-watch” model — the streaming service did audiences a bigger service: it kept Breaking Bad (2008) alive.
The Vince Gilligan show, which spawned several fan clubs, got millions addicted to the life of chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer Walter White, and which will forever remain in a tussle with Mad Men (2007) for the tag of Best TV Show this side of The Wire (2002), was facing an uncertain future after the first two seasons ended. The show aired on the cable channel, AMC, and got in just a little over a million viewers per episode.
Then, something wonderful happened. Breaking Bad became available to viewers in the US and some other parts of the world on Netflix. Newer audiences started discovering the show, while older ones went back to it. It eventually ran for five seasons, and its final episode, was watched on AMC by more than 10 million viewers, many of who caught up with the show on Netflix.
Contrary to popular belief, Netflix didn’t bring about a television revolution in America. That started a decade earlier, with shows like The Sopranos (1999), The West Wing (1999) and The Wire (2002) leading the way. In his book, The Revolution Was Televised, popular television critic Alan Sepinwall picked 12 shows that changed the way audiences and creators approached TV entertainment. Two HBO shows — Oz (1997) and The Sopranos — kick-started this trend, says Sepinwall, followed by cable channels like AMC and Showtime, commissioning original content that was “edgier” than what aired on traditional broadcast network.
What Netflix altered, though, was how entertainment was consumed. After giving its customers the option to watch an unlimited number of DVDs per month in exchange for a USD20 (`1,340 approx) fee, Netflix turned into an online streaming service. CEO Reed Hastings began licensing TV shows and films that consumers were already watching on their non-smart TVs, but which now they could see at their convenience. No ad breaks. No fixed timings. No limit on the number of episodes.
With Netflix now in India, can the streaming service replicate its success in markets like the US and the UK? Of course not. You can’t expect it to alter how we consume entertainment. More than 200 channels are available to Indian viewers on cable, at around Rs 300 a month, and that will continue to remain the primary source of home entertainment (as opposed to the US, where the culture of streaming content preceded the success of Netflix).
Then there’s the content itself. Netflix contributed generously to the newly invigorated TV ecosystem. It freed creators from the insecurity of mid-season cancellation by commissioning full seasons. Netflix made use of “Big Data Analytics” to make better choices. What subscribers liked to watch on Netflix is what Netflix gave subscribers. Before landing House Of Cards, for example, Netflix realised that David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) was among the few films on Netflix that subscribers watched right till the end. The original House Of Cards (UK) was available on Netflix, and did good numbers. And Kevin Spacey films did well. These three factors contributed to Netflix fighting off other networks for the show.
But more than any formula, what works for Netflix — and its competitor Amazon (with Amazon Prime) — is the willingness to back shows that wouldn’t find a spot on broadcast television. Female inmates in a prison (Orange Is The New Black), Colombian gang lords (Narcos), brooding superheroes without capes (Jessica Jones), Asians struggling with an identity crisis (Master of None) — these aren’t characters you’d see on traditional TV.
These factors won’t be a game-changer in India, where the consumption of English entertainment is anyway small. A large part of the Netflix catalogue is made up of English shows, which will never overtake, or even come close to, locally produced content. English general entertainment channels in India themselves cater to a niche audience, and only some of them may take to streaming. Internet speeds might improve and 4G will be a reality soon, but will Orange Is The New Black replace, say, Saath Nibhaana Saathiya? Unlikely.
Yet, a significant number of Indians have been ruing the lack of decent television programming for long, and there is a market for English-language shows (illegal downloads of Breaking Bad and House of Cards here are among the highest in the world). Netflix comes as a boon to these select few. And that’s reason enough to celebrate.
- Guha is a film critic and writes on TV. He tweets as @AniGuha
We asked Netflix… 5 things that we’ve been wondering about
Q) Why was House of Cards, a signature show, left out of the India catalogue?
- For House of Cards, we didn’t negotiate global licenses to the content, so they’ve aired on other platforms in the meantime. We still have territorial licensing; that’s a legacy from the last seven or eight years. We’re moving as quickly as we can to have global availability of all the content on Netflix so that there are no regional distinctions. We’re still somewhat a prisoner of the current distribution architecture; we’re trying really hard to get there.
Q) The Indian content on Netflix seems limited at the moment. Is that likely to expand? Will we see a Netflix original show made in India?
- There is a limited amount of local content available at launch... We will add more as the service grows in popularity and we better understand what our members want to watch in each region… In most markets, the size of the catalogue doubles in the first year.
- We’re already making series and films in Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Japan, Italy, Mexico and the UK, and are always on the lookout for new and compelling projects that would appeal to a global audience.
Q) Hollywood films typically release late in India. Will Netflix be a game-changer here by making them available quicker?
- The goal is to offer a fully global service with a global catalogue so no one has to wait for the hottest new show or movie. However, the world of content licensing has traditionally been very fragmented and regionalised. It will take some time, several years at least, to get to an offering that’s the same everywhere.
Q) How does Netflix typically affect online piracy in a country?
- We find people are willing to pay a fair price for great content, delivered without hassle whenever they want it, as opposed to resorting to illegal methods. Our push to secure global rights and release all originals simultaneously to our global members will help address piracy by those who simply want access to the latest movies and TV shows. There’s been a notable reduction in piracy in countries where we operate such as the US and Canada, where we have been the longest, according to Sandvine Internet Phenomena (sandvine.com) reports on Bittorrent.
Q) With limited speeds and data caps a concern in India, there have been talks a tie-up up with an Internet Provider as a partner. Is that likelihood?
- We would be unable to comment on private discussions with local partners.
— Queries answered by Netflix USA
Trial run: A user’s first-week experience with Netflix; and why you should get your internet from your local cable guy
It started with a barrage of WhatsApp messages announcing “Netflix is here”. Seconds later, I was registering myself on their website. The process is simple, but needs a credit card even though the first month is free. This is an old trick. If you’re not interested in continuing beyond the free month, the onus is on you to cancel in time, or you’ll get charged.
The standard membership is `500 per month. This is for some reason deemed too expensive by every single Indian tech website. But while they were busy predicting early death for Netflix, I learnt that multiple households can use the same account. So I’ve subscribed to the premium option that streams in Ultra HD and can be used on four screens simultaneously. Needless to say, my mum and brother have been given my password and `800 per month shared among three households doesn’t seem expensive at all. I find the collection of shows and movies good, even though their Indian movie selection process seems suspect and they seem to have an unhealthy obsession with Pablo Escobar (Colombian drug lord).
However India, despite its attempts at shining, has among the worst internet services in the world. Netflix has recommended a 5Mbps internet connection for smooth streaming. This is far from what most households have. But the real culprit is FUP (Fair Usage Policy) which is a term made up by internet service providers which lets them limit the data in your unlimited data connections (see box, right). Regular HD streaming uses 3GB of data per hour; ultra HD streaming uses 7GB of data per hour. At that rate, most Indian households will finish their monthly data allowance in a few days. The only solution is to get your internet from a local cable guy.
To conclude, as selfish as it may seem, I hope Netflix doesn’t become a huge hit in India and come under the government’s scanner. The last thing I would want is censorship and cigarette warnings within episodes of Narcos.
— Karan Agarwal. He is a writer, director, producer of web content and television shows.
The competition: Other streaming services available in India