I had to wait until mid-December to watch You, Lifetime’s adaptation of the Caroline Kepnes thriller I had read earlier in the year with much fervour. The story of an obsessive stalker who manipulates the life of the woman he has become enamoured with had kept me up at night, eager to find out how such a deliciously unnerving tale would end. Finding out there would be a television series based on it was simply the icing in the cake, but while I was left further anticipating the season thanks to the small handful of available reviews, I had no legal access to it. Until mid-December, of course, when it became available to watch on Netflix. That’s when I checked it out, and seemingly, so did everyone else.
Netflix acquired You for international distribution. By that point, Lifetime had already announced that the series had been renewed for a second season, yet, just before the show premiered on Netflix, it was revealed that the network had passed on You and Netflix had officially picked it up as a new exclusive. You had been well-received as a Lifetime series but not widely reviewed or watched, despite strong acclaim and a sizeable marketing campaign. However, when Netflix got their hands on it, its popularity seemingly exploded overnight. The streaming service claimed last week that the series was on track to be streamed by over 40 million viewers in its first month on Netflix. Of course, this being Netflix, such figures should be taken with a grain of salt since we have no way of confirming them. Still, that’s an impressive number to throw around and it doesn’t seem all that hard to believe, given how You took the internet by storm. It felt like everyone I knew was watching it, even people who would usually avoid such stories like the plague. I’m not sure they would have been so excited by it had they been watching the show week by week on Lifetime.
You is not a Netflix original series but you would probably assume it was thanks to marketing and branding had you not been aware of its Lifetime origins. It’s a great show and one that deserved to find an audience. It seems like it may have sunk into the obscure regions of Peak TV legend had it remained on Lifetime. The stigma of the network - the home of women-centred programming that is often the butt of many TV fans’ jokes - seemingly kept a lot of its key demographic away, and Netflix is seen as the more egalitarian approach to your viewing experience. As Alison Herman of The Ringer tweeted on January 11th, ‘YOU technically came out last year. YOU effectively came out last week.’
We have more television than ever, available to watch on more platforms than ever, but that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily watching more. We’re creatures of habit who stick to the shows we know, the people we love, and the most convenient ways of consuming them. Sure, that new series with Penn Badgley that’s getting all those awesome reviews and is based on that book you love sounds good but it’s on that network you don’t watch and you’re too busy to watch something week after week and aren’t you just in the mood for another Friends marathon? But then it’s right there on Netflix, all episodes raring to go for a binge-watch over the holiday season, and everyone else is watching it now so why not you?
I wonder if this is how Peak TV ends: Not with a bang or a fizzle but with another mundanely evil media monopoly.
Scripted television is expensive to make, and when there’s so much competition in your way, your network needs to do more than simply make a great show. You need stars, high-concept hooks, impeccable marketing, and a format that can become easy to marathon once your show inevitably makes its way to a streaming platform. But even then, that’s not always enough when there are mental blocks in place keeping potential audiences at a distance. Lifetime got a lot of flack for not giving You a fair shake but there really wasn’t much else they could do. It was marketed heavily, far more than many of their other programmes, it fit in well with their brand, critics loved it, and it brought something new to an over-saturated media landscape. But you can’t make people watch a network they’ve decided from the get-go isn’t for them, and how do you compete with the service everyone uses that can splash your series over its front page for everyone to see when they log in?
This is not a problem exclusive to You, although that series feels like the strongest example of this trend. Think of Bird Box, a film that was reviewed less than enthusiastically but still became a must-watch movie if only to understand all those damn memes. Remember The Cloverfield Paradox? That film’s buzz existed almost exclusively on the gimmick of it being dropped directly after the Super Bowl, and way more people ended up checking it out based on sheer convenience than they probably would have if Paramount had kept its release theatrical. Would Marie Kondo be so hotly debated right now had her show been a TLC series? For a large demographic of viewers, who seem to skew young, a show or film simply doesn’t exist unless it’s on Netflix. Why do you think so many teenagers were amazed to discover Friends for the first time?
This makes the future of television that much harder for your mid-tier cable network trying to stay afloat as the market rapidly expands and contracts. If a huge chunk of the most profitable demographic just don’t watch regular television anymore because everything is on Netflix, how do you compete with that? If you’re a showrunner who just wants the best for your series and crew, how do you reconcile that with the possibility of one streaming service owning everything? If anyone under the age of 25, for example, is now unattainable as a potential audience, do you just skew your programming older until that inevitably ages into another problem or do you stop making shows altogether because what’s the point?
Netflix is not unique in its status as the monster that ate everything - hi, upcoming merger of Fox by Disney - but their might feels especially notable given how inevitable its domination has seemingly become. We just instinctively say that we’ll catch up on something once it’s on Netflix now. The service is the perfect breeding ground for buzz in a way traditional network and cable channels aren’t. That prospect is enticing for a writer or showrunner: Watch as your series, funded by a seemingly infinite pool of revenue, goes viral and has the most desired demographics clamouring for more. Netflix is no guarantee of success but it’s begun to feel like the safer bet and that illusion is enough for some. It probably doesn’t hurt those ailing networks to have someone else willing to buy out those risky experiments that just aren’t paying off like they’d hoped they would.
Netflix’s algorithm and their questionable tactics of keeping track of what audiences want put them above their competition in a way not even the most well-funded prestige networks can keep up with. They can get people to watch what they want them to watch. True hype remains organic but a helpful nudge in the right way works wonders. For showrunners and writers going forward who only want the best chance possible for their artistic endeavour, what once seemed like a landscape of limitless options is contracting fast. You can take a chance with that little-seen network who believe in you, but when push comes to shove, wouldn’t you rather be on the platform that can make tens of millions of viewers aware of your existence? People will grumble but they’ll probably still watch. Why not? It’s there, after all.
Header Image Source: Netflix // Lifetime