On-Demand Diversity: Netflix and Its Version of Success

Does Netflix know what viewers want before viewers do? If you're a fan of film and television, you've likely noticed and contributed to the success of the streaming and rental website’s success. You’ve probably also clicked on a few stars here and there, contributing to their ever-present micro surveys, pooling into all of the data the company measures. This data apparently gives Netflix a magical insight into the “biz.” However, the relevant question here is not whether Netflix’s formula works -- it clearly does -- but rather: What does their content say about the company and their goals?

Netflix's collection of data and measurement of trends followed by the application of this information to their programming is essentially a more advanced version of what we see with a company like Nielsen; television has been measuring ratings for years, just never to as much success as Netflix. The fact that its programs have pulled in a number of Emmy nominations and wins confirms that their algorithms are working, but it's quite possible that the gold distributed come awards’ season is not the standard for success by which Netflix measures. After all, it was decided before either show's season one premieres that "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black" will both return for second seasons. "House of Cards" is also already being talked up for a third season return. The advantage that Netflix has is indeed that of specific metrics, but the way they apply those metrics -- as evidenced by the content in which they invest -- is really the key to unlocking what they consider success.

Netflix is a business and their product is content -- not just television or movies, but content that relates to specific consumers. They are relying on a reverse business model that has thus far been deemed the gold standard in Hollywood: Invest hundreds of millions of dollars into a two-hour movie that is going to make hundreds of billions of dollars (ah, there you are "Avatar"). On the contrary, Netflix drops $100 million for twenty-six hours of content ("House of Cards"), garnering more bang for their buck, as well as more staying power; they have split the show into at least two seasons, and plans for more content and a foray into film are also on the horizon.

Looking at Netflix’s content can be the most telling element of what the goal is for the online streaming and rental site. First, consider "Lilyhammer," starring Steven Van Zandt (from "The Sopranos"), a very quiet acquisition from the Norwegian television station NKR1. "Lilyhammer" follows a mafia boss who enters the witness protection program and moves to Lillehammer, Norway. It was a huge success in the country, setting records for Norwegian television, and Netflix produced two additional seasons. A seemingly curious move for Netflix, right? Not really: Aside from the U.S. and Canada, Netflix also had plans for Nordic and northern European countries. They just needed the original content to spark more interest. Meanwhile, back on this side of the pond, they began production on a revival fourth season of audience favorite "Arrested Development."

An argument against Netflix having produced any actual “original” content can certainly be made. They sweep in and snag a popular Scandinavian series ("Lilyhammer") and revive an American cult favorite begging for a return ("Arrested Development"). There is also no question that literary adaptations are high on the list for key components to successful programming. The development of the popular book and remake of British miniseries "House of Cards" has generated attention from the industry, particularly with its exemplification of Netflix’s recipe: a dash of David Fincher, pinch of Kevin Spacey, and a dab of literary adaptation. In addition, there is the slightly less popular but perhaps equally successful (in the eyes of its creators) "Hemlock Grove." Also based on a book, it taps into "Twilight"-style horror and teen romance, and was a relative success stylistically, capturing a Noir-esque atmosphere and a few Emmy nods.

The most interesting of all Netflix programming is the series "Orange Is the New Black," based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, about a woman spending a year in a minimum security prison. There is no other series on television like "Orange Is the New Black," considering its ethnically diverse and predominantly female cast. Its closest rivals, "Sex and the City" and "The L Word" pale in comparison. "Orange Is the New Black" epitomizes everything about Netflix’s business strategy. Its appeal does not land on those viewers who are over-represented, but instead on the significant (and perhaps more dominant) groups of under-represented minorities -- the women who are ethnically, physically, and sexually diverse.

According to series creator Jenji Kohan, main-character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) was really only a “Trojan horse,” entree into this setting where all the indicators of class, of wealth, of society are stripped away. Superficiality is stripped down to the core, and major women’s issues are explored, from the transgender Sophia (Laverne Cox) to the religiously over-the-top Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), to Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and the Latinos. This ability to make a show this progressive, to give a face to women who are so often overlooked, especially in mainstream media, could only be made by a Netflix, who according to Kohan gave her the freedom to make her own show.

Using the baseball analogy from the film "Moneyball," Netflix’s business model is not going to win them the World Series -- but they are going to keep putting together a patchwork team that will win a lot of games, and perhaps get them into the playoffs. Their wide range of content is the prime example of what Netflix is capable of and what their business model is all about: not appealing to the most-common denominator, but the lesser common, and not through one all-encompassing program, but through multiple, diverse shows. Netflix is not a celebration of conformity, but a celebration of diversity. And it's working for them.