year in culture 2018

The Year in Netflix: What It Got Right (and Wrong) in 2018

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Netflix

Netflix’s rivals started 2018 hoping this might be the year the streaming behemoth finally hit some speed bumps on its quest for global entertainment domination. That … did not happen. Instead, the story of Netflix this year is the same as it’s been for the past five: “More, More, More.” The company, which practically invented the idea (if not the name) of Peak TV, continued to binge-spend on content, shelling out billions of dollars to make and acquire upwards of 1,000 original TV shows, movies, documentaries, concerts, and stand-up specials. It also stepped up its deal-making, spending big for the right to make new movies and TV show based on the C.S. Lewis Narnia books, signing exclusive production agreements with a slew of Hollywood heavyweights (Ryan Murphy, Kenya Barris, Marti Noxon) and one former First Couple (Barack and Michelle Obama). And just this week, it stole away a big executive from the network world, hiring former ABC Entertainment boss Channing Dungey for a key position.

At least so far, the strategy behind this shock-and-awe spending — make more stuff, get more subscribers — continues to work. “Heading into this year, they were expected to add 21 million subscribers globally,” says BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield. “It looks like they’ll do 29 or 30 million. [They’re] growing dramatically faster than anyone was expecting.” Of course, it helped that Netflix once again didn’t face any serious challenges to its streaming crown. Longtime competitors Amazon Prime Video and Hulu, despite launching some buzzy new shows, were distracted by behind-the-scenes exec shuffles and strategy shifts. And while upstart streaming efforts from Apple, Disney, and WarnerMedia made lots of noise (and committed tons of money to future programming), none actually launched their services.

That will change: By this time next year, all three streaming rivals are expected to be up and running, while Amazon’s new leadership will unveil its slate and Hulu could be energized by Disney taking majority ownership. But in 2018, Netflix was free to continue its methodical makeover of the TV universe largely unchecked. Here’s what the streaming giant did this year to pull even further ahead in the race to remake television:

It got very comfortable canceling shows …

In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings made headlines for saying the service needed to start canceling more shows. In 2018, his team started executing that strategy with a vengeance. Since January, Netflix has ended well over a dozen high-profile series, easily the streamer’s largest number of cancellations yet in a single year. While Netflix long ago ceased being a place where every new show was guaranteed a two- or three-season run, what’s striking about the latest wave of cancellations is how quickly the company is now deciding to move on. Shows such as Seven Seconds, Everything Sucks, and The Good Cop were dropped after just one season, usually within weeks of debuting. Critical buzz also seems to matter much less than it used to in terms of Netflix’s cancel/renew algorithm: American Vandal won the super-prestigious Peabody Award in April and was dead by October, not long after its second season premiered. Conversely, the chattering classes destroyed the teen comedy series Insatiable, but the streamer nevertheless renewed it for a second season.

Netflix’s most high-profile casualties this year were three Marvel-produced hours (Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Daredevil), a development which drew a predictable outcry from hard-core fans. And yet the move felt inevitable once Marvel parent company Disney announced it was terminating its feature film output deal with Netflix and launching its own streaming service. The movie and TV deals are technically unrelated, but on a practical level, it doesn’t make sense for Netflix to keep paying Disney so much money for shows which never really seemed to catch fire — and, just as importantly, Netflix doesn’t own. As is the case with most of the shows it canceled in 2018, Netflix is betting any subscribers angered by the loss of their favorites will find enough other programming on the service to keep shelling out the monthly fee. It’s a pretty safe bet.

… even as it kept resurrecting series from competing outlets.

Ever since 2012, when it announced plans to bring Arrested Development back from the dead, Netflix has shown it’s down with O.P.P. — other platforms’ property. The strategy has a certain logic: If you’re trying to grab market share from existing broadcast and cable nets, why not “save” shows which either couldn’t quite cut it on other networks or had been neglected by their previous homes? In 2018, the pace of such pickups seemed to increase.

Sony Crackle’s Jerry Seinfeld–led talk show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee drove over to Netflix, while The Great British Baking Show departed longtime American home PBS for some sweet, sweet streaming cash. (Both did fine at their old outlets, but Netflix offered the chance to reach a broader audience through its much bigger platform.) Netflix also revived a brand once synonymous with Bravo (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy lost the last three words of its title and gained a whole new generation of fans); updated a documentary series which first aired on Sundance Channel more than a decade ago (The Staircase); and rebooted a syndicated cartoon series from the 1980s (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power). And while audiences won’t see them until next year, in recent months Netflix negotiated deals for new seasons of three canceled dramas: ABC’s Designated Survivor, Fox’s Lucifer, and Lifetime’s You. They’re all expected to be born again in 2019. Sadly, still no signs of Netflix reviving Happy Endings, but we can hope.

It bet big on reality and talk shows …

Speaking of Queer Eye, the instantly iconic makeover show was part of the streamer’s massive push into producing original unscripted shows this year. Netflix unveiled a couple dozen reality and talk shows this year, instantly transforming itself into a major player in the space by rolling out a show in seemingly every major reality-show category. Addicted to Food Network and Cooking Channel shows? Netflix gave you Nailed It!, Chef’s Table, and Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. If you still miss The Hills, you could fill that void with the musical soap opera Westside. HGTV diehards had Amazing Interiors and Stay Here to divert them. There were also shows about racing, haunted houses, and deep-sea fishing, as well as more than one series about an edgy magician. If it seems like Netflix looked out at the cable universe and said, “Let’s compete with every major channel that focuses on reality shows,” well … yeah, that’s pretty much what they did in 2018 (and will continue to do next year).

Because Netflix doesn’t release ratings, there’s no way of knowing if the strategy is working. Queer Eye certainly seems to have clicked, while Nailed It! had enough of a following to merit a special holiday season. But the streamer’s success with another key unscripted category — talk shows — seems a bit spottier. Despite lots of advance hype and some good reviews, Michelle Wolf’s The Break was unceremoniously canceled after just ten episodes, as was The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale. There’s also been no word on another season of Norm Macdonald Has a Show. And while Netflix has committed to a 32-episode run of Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, the series isn’t generating the sort of viral Did You See That? buzz of similar series from Samantha Bee and John Oliver. By contrast, David Letterman’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction got significant buzz for some of its episodes and will film a second season next year.

… and pushed closer to its goal of being a truly global TV network.

Thanks to Narcos, Netflix proved years ago it had the ability to get American audiences to pay attention to shows produced in other countries (or in languages other than English). But 2018 showed that global success wasn’t a fluke. Elite, the prep-school confidential soap from Spain, became a Gossip Girl–like obsession for some audiences, while the U.K.-produced (and Netflix co-owned) The End of the F***ing World ended up on a number of year-end top ten lists. Poland’s 1983 also generated attention this fall, while Netflix this year also unveiled its first originals from India (Sacred Games) and Turkey (The Protector). And last month brought Narcos: Mexico, a spinoff of the original breakthrough series which has already snagged a season-two order. Netflix has not been secret about its international ambitions: It is hoping a least a few of its shows produced outside the United States end up as popular here as American-made series such as Stranger Things or Orange Is the New Black are in other countries. That’s why 2019 will see even more global content pop up in your queue, including new offerings from Korea, South Africa, Japan, and Jordan. (Just last month, the streamer announced plans for a whopping 17 new originals from Asia alone.) “No one ever thought international shows had appeal beyond niche audiences,” BTIG’s Greenfield says. “But Netflix has proven there’s a true global market now. It’s a huge advantage for them.”

There was no new Stranger Things, but lots of projects with buzz …

Since Netflix doesn’t release ratings, it’s impossible to know how many of its new shows this year can actually be called “hits.” But the streamer did manage to roll out a least a few newcomers with serious social media and awards buzz. Queer Eye was all over the pop culture for several weeks following the releases of its two batches of episodes, and it ended up winning three Emmy Awards in September. Chuck Lorre’s new comedy The Kominsky Method has been getting some of the best reviews of the sitcom hit-maker’s career, and stars Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin were both recently nominated for Golden Globes (as was the series). Netflix also scared up lots of attention in October with spooky dramas The Haunting of Hill House and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, while earlier in the year, teen comedy On My Block emerged as a bit of a cult favorite (see also: End of the F***ing World).

Netflix also had a few breakthroughs with its specials and mini-series, most notably with Hannah Gadsby’s word-of-mouth powerhouse Nanette, which spawned a million think pieces. The Emma Stone–Jonah Hill mini-series Maniac didn’t connect with Globes voters, but it got mostly good reviews and a ton of media attention when it debuted in September. Finally, it turns out this year’s version of Making a Murderer wasn’t the show’s official sequel but rather Wild, Wild Country, the jaw-dropping (and Emmy-winning) deep dive into a 1980s cult that spawned its own SNL parody and an upcoming installment of IFC’s Documentary Now!

… and more Emmy wins than ever.

It may have been inevitable given how much programming it produces, but Netflix nonetheless marked a major milestone in July when it ended HBO’s 17-year reign as the network with the most Emmy nominations. The TV Academy handed the streamer a whopping 112 noms this year, four more than HBO’s 108 and more than twice as many as Netflix earned just two years ago. More importantly, Netflix managed to get nominations for a slew of shows (more than three dozen) and in a broad range of categories (from animated and reality shows to scripted comedies and dramas). And the streamer also converted those noms into wins: It snagged 23 statuettes, tying HBO for the lead in the final tally. Emmy nominations and wins probably don’t translate into that many more subscribers, and it’s quite possible Netflix’s nomination lead will be short-lived, given HBO heavyweights Games of Thrones and Veep will be back in contention with their final seasons (while True Detective and Sharp Objects should both be major magnets for awards). But the 2018 haul will stand as the moment in time when Netflix cemented its standing as a leading creative force in the TV industry.

Its movie ambitions took a great leap forward.

Netflix’s feature-film division operates mostly independently from its TV arm, but for subscribers, that distinction doesn’t matter: Movies and TV shows arrive on the same platform. Until recently, movies often felt like filler for the service: For every quality effort such as Beasts of No Nation, there were groaners from Adam Sandler or Will Smith. But in 2018, Netflix’s film unit turned a corner. The streamer had its most prolific and ambitious feature-film output yet, with a slate which included everything from Hallmark Channel–like holiday films (A Christmas Prince 2) and dude-bro comedies (Game Over, Man) to a likely Best Picture Oscar nominee (Roma). It released a significant new movie almost every weekend this year, duplicating a strategy — volume and variety— that’s worked exceedingly well on the TV side so far.

While Netflix made all kinds of movies, its output in one genre — the romantic comedy — seemed to be the most successful. Titles such as The Kissing Booth, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Set It Up, Alex Strangelove, and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser all generated significant cultural conversation and, in many cases, turned cast members into stars (at least on social media). In addition to populist fare, there was also a renewed effort to win over critics and become more competitive during awards season. In order to appease potential Oscar voters, titles such as Roma, Bird Box, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs spent one to three weeks on the big screen before they debuted on the service — a big shift from Netflix’s previous insistence that its movies had to begin streaming the same day they appeared in theaters. The streamer also got rave reviews for projects such as 22 July, Private Life, and the finally completed Orson Welles project The Other Side of the Wind. As much as Netflix’s movie momentum shifted the past 12 months, Greenfield is convinced next year could be the ultimate test of whether feature films make sense for the company. “I’d keep your eye on 2019,” he says. “When you look at what they’ve got coming coming, there’s a lot of opportunity there. I think you’ll really see the success or failure of that strategy next year.”

The Year in Netflix: What It Got Right (and Wrong) in 2018