You is proof of Netflix's grip on younger viewers

WASHINGTON • This past autumn, Ms Ashley Thomas of Los Angeles got quickly hooked on a new Lifetime drama titled You, starring Penn Badgley of Gossip Girl (2007 to 2012) as a psychotic stalker who becomes obsessed with a woman who visits his bookstore.

She urged her friends, especially those who were Gossip Girl fans, to check it out, but they mostly ignored her suggestion. "They shrugged it off because it was on Lifetime," said Ms Thomas, 23.

Fast-forward two months: Netflix, which acquired the rights to You early last year, launched it on the streaming service the day after Christmas.

Suddenly, social media blew up as viewers obsessed over the twisted, addicting series. Ms Thomas' friends started asking her: Had she heard of this great new Netflix show called You? It starred the guy from Gossip Girl - she might like it. After the fourth recommendation, Ms Thomas fired off a tweet.

"I would really appreciate it if people stopped thinking that You is a new show now that it's repackaged as a Netflix Original. You didn't discover it. It was on Lifetime for 10 weeks," she wrote. "Stop telling me to watch a show I already watched weeks ago."

Ms Thomas is far from the only one annoyed by the recent popularity of You and its now-common description as a "Netflix show".

Twitter is currently filled with similar missives, from TV critics (The Washington Post's Hank Stuever: "Also depressing: reviewing it, thoughtfully and with advice to watch it back in September, only to be 'informed' by your readers of its existence once it goes to Netflix") to viewers ("The people watching You on Netflix are fake fans to those of us that watched it on Lifetime.")

In an e-mail to The Washington Post, Badgley said he was not surprised by the surge in attention from new Netflix viewers.

"We're grateful to Lifetime for being the gateway to getting the show made. We wouldn't have been able to make the show without them, as far as I can tell," Badgley said.

"There is no sense of bewilderment that the show had one reaction while it was on Lifetime and another when it went to Netflix. The difference in viewership is obvious and it's indicative of so many different things, not the least of which is the way young people consume media."

But to some in the industry, it is more than just another example of the behemoth streaming platform boosting the profile of a TV show, such as the spike in popularity of The CW TV Network's Riverdale or a new generation discovering NBC's Friends.

This is perhaps the most stark example yet of the iron grip Netflix has on younger viewers and a fascinating case study for where the increasingly fractured future of TV is headed.

For one thing, it shows basic cable channels that rely on scripted content are in for a uniquely tough road ahead.

They do not offer easy binge-watching like streaming services; they do not have news or sports like broadcast networks; they cannot be R-rated like premium channels; and they do not have the budget to cast, say, Julia Roberts (Amazon Prime's Homecoming) or Emma Stone (Netflix's Maniac).

Plus, as former network executive Tom Nunan said, even if they could afford a major movie star, who knows whether their audience would watch?

"In this marketplace, how do channels like these survive? That's the chill that goes down the necks of these guys," said Mr Nunan, former president of United Paramount Network and a professor at the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television.

"It isn't 'Netflix gets to buy whatever it wants', which is a daily truth they have to swallow, but, 'How are we going to survive?' That's the harder truth they're facing."

It becomes a difficult question: Whose fault is it if a show fails? Does a series such as You flop on cable simply because of audience bias against traditional cable networks? Or are those networks not accurately catering to their audience?

In reality, it was not a fair fight. Netflix has the ability to cater to exactly what its subscribers want - to splash recommendations across the home screen as a suggestion to viewers looking for something similar to Gossip Girl.

That tactic won out over Lifetime's traditional platform. As writer Richard Rushfield said: "You have to look at the reality of who the audience is, and consider a show that gets buzz on Netflix might not cause a ripple here."

"What Netflix has shown the ability to do, beyond what almost anyone else can do right now, is create a sensation," said Rushfield, editor of entertainment industry newsletter The Ankler. "I'm not sure how much of it is it managing and consciously creating that, or sensations just arising out of its shows."

It is hard to tell: Recently, Sandra Bullock's Bird Box became a viral hit, despite being mediocre. Marie Kondo has urged people to declutter for years, but once her show hit Netflix, thrift stores around the United States saw a spike in donations.

Of course, it is all part of Netflix's two-decade-long effort to get to know everything about its users and target shows such as You directly to them, in order to keep them renewing their subscriptions.

According to Gina Keating, author of Netflixed: The Epic Battle For America's Eyeballs, the company watches you as you watch television: when you stream, what time you stream, where you are, what kind of device, what shows you watch. Basically, whatever patterns it can discern from your viewing habits.

"It's creepy in a way, but also endearing," Keating said. "It figures out a way to straddle that line between creepy, and feeling like it knows you."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2019, with the headline 'You is proof of Netflix's grip on younger viewers'. Subscribe