Can Stranger Things Reverse Netflix’s Bad Headlines?

Photo: Netflix

When Stranger Things finally returns to Netflix next week for its fourth season after an extended three-year absence, it will do so at a time when the streaming giant finds itself stuck in a real-world version of the Upside Down. The once unstoppable darling of Silicon Valley and Hollywood has been battered by a constant barrage of bad news in recent months, from stalled growth and a massive stock collapse to rolling waves of layoffs. It’s a glum new normal for Netflix, one which makes a successful launch of ST4 — always set to be a critical moment for the streamer’s 2022 slate — dramatically more important.

The biggest (and most obvious) reason Netflix needs the Duffer brothers’ supernatural sensation to sizzle again can be summed up in a single word: subscribers. Even knowing that ST4 is on its summer schedule, the company has warned investors it expects to lose as many as 2 million members over the next few months, reversing its nearly uninterrupted streak of growth during the past decade. (The streamer technically finished the first quarter of 2022 with slightly fewer subscribers, but that was only due to its exit from Russia.) Wall Street has already built these expected declines into its assessment of Netflix’s health: It’s why the company’s stock spent most of April in free fall. So at this point, what’s most important for Netflix is that when the final subscriber counts for the second and third quarters of the year come in, it is able to either match or improve upon its own glum forecasts. How audiences greet the return of Stranger Things coud play a key role in whether Netflix achieves that goal.

While no one season of a series is make or break for any platform, Stranger Things was Netflix’s first big global blockbuster in the genre space, and its fandom is legion. Parrot Analytics, which tracks consumption and interest in television shows across various platforms — what it labels “demand” — tells Buffering that 2019’s season three had the highest peak demand of any streaming-original launch since the company starting measuring in 2015, with only the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones (airing on cable) doing better. More impressively, even though there haven’t been new episodes of the show in nearly three years, Stranger Things has “consistently been in the top-ten Netflix originals, and even top-ten overall shows, in the U.S. and globally” since season three dropped, a Parrot rep says, calling it a “rare” phenomenon. He notes that Netflix hits such as The Witcher and Cobra Kai will stay in the top ten for a month or two before being replaced by newer fare on the service, but Stranger Things just keeps hanging on. The show hasn’t been regularly cracking Netflix or Nielsen’s weekly viewership charts, but as Parrot data isn’t based entirely on hours viewed, it’s likely the company’s demand metric is picking up on persistent social buzz and media coverage of the series between seasons.

Given the continued audience interest, it’s hard not to imagine Stranger Things returning with massive first-month viewership, even if many critics end up largely panning its return (not far-fetched given the show’s fading Metacritic scores over time). Quite frankly, it would almost be shocking if Netflix doesn’t confirm that season four is the platform’s biggest launch ever. While it’s true many shows see their audience shrink as they get older, the new season of Stranger Things arrives with a major advantage: Netflix has nearly 70 million more subscribers today than it had in July 2019, when the last one arrived. Even if a smaller percentage of subscribers watch the new batch of episodes, Netflix’s massive growth over the past 36 months theoretically makes it much easier for the show to open with a record audience.

And yet there are factors that could negatively impact Stranger Things 4 viewership. For one thing, the TV universe itself has been completely remade since we last saw the kids from Hawkins. The launch of no fewer than five heavily funded rival platforms has ushered in an era of unprecedented competition in the streaming space, with viewers having infinitely more options than they did even a few years ago. Indeed, the very same day the new Stranger Things bows, Disney+ will release the first two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, arguably the biggest Star Wars TV event to date. There’s no reason audiences can’t stream both in one week, but Stranger Things might have a harder time dominating the pop-culture landscape the way it did when season three arrived on July 4, 2019.

Netflix is also taking a medium-size risk in the way it is releasing the episodes. For the first time ever, the streamer is splitting a Stranger Things season into volumes with part two bowing five weeks (July 1) after the first run of six episodes. The company has previously played around with release patterns slightly different from its usual binge model: Reality hit Love Is Blind rolled out weekly episodes over the course of a month, and the final seasons of Ozark and Grace and Frankie were divided into two parts spaced a few months apart. But Netflix has never split up a show as big as Stranger Things.

The move is quite possibly a ploy, at least in part, to allow season four to double dip in the Emmys since volume two will debut during the 2022–23 eligibility period. But Julia Alexander, senior strategy analyst at Parrot, theorizes that Netflix may also be taking a gamble here because slowing subscriber growth now makes this sort of experimentation a must. “Netflix knows that at its current spend rate, and without the longevity or return on those investments, it’s not feasible to throw everything into one weekend and then hope for the next title to pick up the slack,” she told me Wednesday via email. “It’s definitely a way of … seeing if there’s a justifiable way to do this for their other marquee series going forward without going directly to weekly — right away at least.”

With so many potential pitfalls, Netflix is not leaving anything to chance (or algorithm) when it comes to hyping the return of Stranger Things. In order to assure the maximum number of eyeballs on the series, the streamer has mounted a massive marketing push on its behalf– one that in some ways began years ago. Among the most notable elements:

➽ As with the previous season of the seriesNetflix has struck deals for dozens of partnerships around the world with both local and global brands. In the U.S., for example, consumers can already order Domino’s Pizza through a new “mind-ordering app,” which borrows elements from the Stranger Things universe, and get them delivered in throwback boxes that look almost exactly like the ones the pizza giant used in the ’80s. In Brazil, meanwhile, local branches of Burger King next week will begin offering a “Stranger Menu” with items such as Hellfire Fries, the Sundae Demogorgon, and a Waffle Burger. And in Mexico, PepsiCo is launching themed packaging for its “Flamin’ Hot” line of chips including Ruffles. Other partnerships announced so far include MAC Cosmetics, Quiksilver, and JanSport, as well as another avalanche of licensed products and toys “inspired” by the Stranger Things universe. These licensing deals are more cash grabs than marketing ploys, but you can now pick up Eleven and Hopper plush toys for your doggies at PetSmart, or even have key plot elements of season four spoiled with the latest Stranger Things Monopoly edition.

➽ Given the long gap between seasons, Netflix began working to keep the show’s fandom stoked for season four just months after season three arrived. Back in 2019, the streamer used its made-up “Stranger Things Day” holiday (November 6) to offer a first look at the script and episode title for the initial installment of the upcoming season. A year later, it released a snippet from that episode and a look at the Hellfire Club logo, while last year saw the reveal of all the episode titles from season four and a full day of various teases and cross-promotions (including some tied to outside brands). Netflix isn’t alone in building awareness of titles well in advance of its premieres: Amazon Prime Video, for example, has been touting its new Lord of the Ring series, which arrives in September, for well over a year now. But the Stranger Things campaign is arguably one of the longest and most involved for an existing TV series.

➽ Netflix is using real-life activations to stir up interest in the series and deepen fan connection.Last year, even as the pandemic roared, the company created the Stranger Things “Drive-Into Experience,” which (for a fee) allowed fans in Los Angeles to enter the world of Hawkins while staying in their cars. What was supposed to be a 12-week event ended up lasting seven months and prompted the streamer to create an even more ambitious indoor version of the idea now running in Brooklyn and scheduled to travel to San Francisco and London later this year. While Netflix insiders say such in-person events are mostly a way of solidifying audiences’ connection to the show while promoting the new episodes, they also open up a new revenue stream for the platform.

➽ Because of the split-season strategy, the level of marketing surrounding the new season might actually increase in the weeks after it premieres next Friday in order to make sure audiences who stream the first batch of episodes return for the finale. Netflix has already announced the Doritos-sponsored virtual concert “Live From the Upside Down,” featuring Charli XCX and ’80s icons the Go-Go’s, Corey Hart, and Soft Cell. It launches June 23, a week before volume two lands. Netflix insiders are also hinting that more brand partnerships, similar in scope to the aforementioned ones from Domino’s and MAC, will roll out between the two volumes.

So how will we know if season four delivers for Netflix? In terms of “ratings,” while the company has changed how it reports data since 2019 — transitioning from revealing the number of member accounts that watch a show to touting how many hours of a show get consumed — it has actually released data using the latter metric for season three of Stranger Things. Per the company, the series racked up 582.1 million hours of viewing in its first four weeks of release, putting it behind both seasons of Bridgerton (and barely ahead of the fifth season of Lucifer, interestingly enough). I’ll be shocked if Netflix doesn’t tweet or issue a statement declaring the upcoming Stranger Things installment as the new viewing champ.

However, the more important number, as noted earlier, will come when the company releases its second- and third-quarter results. If Netflix lives up to its own projections and loses 2 million subscribers this quarter — or does even worse — some may try to put some of the blame on audience response to Stranger Things 4. But while it might suggest the series juggernaut has slowed a bit, I don’t think it would necessarily be a sign audiences have somehow lost interest in Stranger Things. Fact is, as Alexander observes, Netflix’s problems really shouldn’t be chalked up to a couple of fading franchises or a decline in the quality of any one title. The “key issue with Netflix right now,” she told me, is “there aren’t enough franchises, quality films, and TV shows to keep people interested when there’s stronger competition. Not even Stranger Things is enough to create a big enough splash to convince people to stick around.”

Alexander is clear that’s just a working theory, one based on the (still likely) scenario in which Netflix bleeds 2 million customers even with one of its biggest guns. I agree it’s probably the most likely outcome, but I think there is also a real possibility Netflix outperforms its dire forecasts and either suffers a smaller-than-expected subscriber loss or, somehow, goes back to growing. If that occurs, I don’t think it will be that much of a stretch to give Stranger Things some of the credit.

Perhaps I’m being unreasonably optimistic, but the show really is a four-quadrant global hit, one based on original IP that hasn’t been relentlessly exploited (yet) with multiple offshoots the way Disney has done with Marvel and Star Wars. I’m sure some critics and wags on social media will declare Stranger Things has stretched its story line one or two seasons too long, and having not seen the full season, I’m in no position to agree or disagree. But whatever the critical verdict, Stranger Things remains a series beloved by tens of millions of people around the world, with a core audience that has very likely grown dramatically as those who resisted its charms initially finally gave in and watched it. (Folks also consumed a lot of TV during the first few months of the pandemic.) Don’t be shocked if a sizable number of Netflix members who churned out in recent months end up returning to find out what new dangers await the residents of Hawkins, Indiana.

Can Stranger Things Reverse Netflix’s Bad Headlines?