Wouldn’t it be just a shame if a Silicon Valley tech startup didn’t have some corporate ethos-soaked origin story?
In this way, Netflix is truly no different from other jingoism toting tech companies like Apple, Amazon, and Tesla. We have the classic David vs. Goliath story of Netflix killing the behemoth that was Blockbuster Video with dashes of neoliberal tropes of “individuality,” “disruption,” and “freedom” thrown in for good measure.
I mean how cool must Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings feel to hear himself compared to Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White or House of Cards’ Frank Underwood by media scholars like Gerald Sim? As the connections between all three and American Exceptionalism is anything but subtle.
But to really understand the connection, it’s important to talk about just how Netflix seemingly “killed” Blockbuster. The public often forgets that Blockbuster too offered a DVD-by-mail-service, which allowed its customers to drop off DVDs at the store for quicker turnaround. However the company was doing this at a loss, something Hastings was quick to point out to Antioco in their “dramatic” Sundance Film Festival meeting in Utah. Scholar Cameron Lindsey makes note that Netflix’s prediction algorithm has always been “somewhat legendary” although mysterious as the company has never divulged much information about it. Couple this with Antioco’s poor judgment with investors and backlash from Blockbuster suggesting Planet of the Apes for its Black History Month category and the picture starts to take form as Netflix was able to slip past the sinking ship.
Of course, this has all been told through the Business Wars podcast with its characteristical revelry tone towards corporate drama and spectatorship, something that Sims has noticed the company has been able to brand at the same time as Hastings has Netflix has “democratized” television. In Netflix’s fight to the top, Sims writes that the Hastings has been a mere institutional agent, not a true disruptor, using neoliberal narratives of individuality to brand Netflix apart of other competitors like Amazon, Hulu and HBO all with their own threats of being disrupted by new competitors that could enter the market and play the game better than they do. In this context, Hastings use of these tropes goes far beyond just the neoliberal economic system but how the culture itself extends a mythology about itself. Perhaps nowhere in recent memory have we seen Netflix brand itself the true provider of autonomy with its anywhere access for customers and a slew of “Netflix Original” programming that’s synonymous with quality itself.
Yet how much autonomy Netflix has given users is incredibly questionable with the new media benefiting the corporate structure before the consumer. Sims cites the AMC’s corporate decisions around Breaking Bad were elided for a more populist narrative and how data was used to determine that users would watch House of Cards. While these can be called “smart business practices” they certainly do not match with Hastings claims of Netflix users being unshackled from the programming system. In short, “what people want” has been “both, quantified and commodified” by the “Netflix Quantum Theory” as Sims puts it. Sims believes it proves that there is a literal system for appealing to differentiated customers based on the sort of democratization and personal freedom the company has touted it gives customers while at the same time profiting off a constructed brand identity.
But it’s also important to note that trouble may lie ahead for Netflix as it struggles to appeal to East Asian markets with the constant threat of disruption from platforms like Crunchyroll while it manages to keep atop rising production costs for its original series and films.
Is Hastings really the one who knocks? Time will tell.