Netflix’s chief executive and co-founder Reed Hastings once boasted that his company’s real rival was “sleep”’. Now the streaming group is struggling because it turns out that its most dangerous rivals are the cost of food and fuel.

We know that Netflix will survive — we just don’t know how. It may emerge from its present difficulties through its own efforts. It might be bought up or sold for parts, surviving in the closing credits on other platforms. Or it might just endure as a shorthand, whether for on-demand TV or sex. In that respect, Netflix is a lot like the Hoover: once-dominant, now a comparatively minor player in its market but guaranteed a degree of eternal life as the codifying example.

Of course, surviving as a shorthand is not much consolation if you are, say, Bill Ackman, who has walked away from his investment in the platform nursing a $400mn loss. But in terms of why Netflix actually matters, surviving as a significant cultural legacy is a lot more important than enduring as a company.

Because the other way that Netflix is like a Hoover is that the vacuum cleaner was part of a larger, more important trend: the emergence of low-cost household appliances. That changed labour markets and societies forever: it altered the nature of domestic service and how and what we consumed. In turn, domestic appliances reshaped politics.

The rise of household appliances was slowed, rather than thrown into reverse, by the Depression, in part because throwing away your vacuum cleaner doesn’t help save money. Streaming services, on the other hand, have, according to Kantar estimates, lost 1.5mn subscribers in the UK alone in the first three months of 2022.

That on-demand television is, it turns out, fairly low down consumers’ list of preferred purchases right now must be a blow to Netflix’s pride. But what is more important in the long term is that no one is cancelling their subscription because they’ve fallen back in love with linear television. In the UK, the number of BBC licences fell by nearly 1mn last year.

The big change the Hoover represented was physical: a number of tasks that took days could be completed in hours. The big change that Netflix represents is cultural: a really good television programme can’t force me to rearrange my schedule to watch it, and I no longer have to tolerate the viewing habits of others. I now expect a steady diet of art house films, disposable Star Wars knock-offs and workplace comedies without having to wade through, or compromise with, anyone else’s interests.

Politics is downstream from culture, and the fact that consumer expectations are now increasingly geared towards personalisation has big implications. Whether in reconciling different social perspectives within movements based around economic interests, or uniting clashing economic interests within movements constructed around cultural desires, successful political parties win by persuading their voters to shut up and watch the same programme at the same time.

While the increasing volatility of British voters has many causes — not least that once voters have moved away from traditional parties they are more likely to shop around, electorally speaking — it’s surely not a coincidence that their willingness to make the initial leap comes at the same time as they have grown used to a much greater level of choice in their viewing habits.

In countries with winner-takes-all electoral systems, the growing difficulty of forming cohesive blocs has meant even the triumphant feel defeated. Donald Trump accomplished less than any previous US president with a majority in both the legislative and judicial branch. Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto was heavy on things the government wouldn’t do — cut spending, raise taxes, increase immigration — and very light on anything it might. Almost every consequential policy promise has been watered down or retreated from. Although Joe Biden was able to force through a huge stimulus package, he has struggled to pass long-lasting legislation because his party cannot agree on a great deal other than mutual antipathy to his predecessor.

Nations with proportional systems have been able to outsource their problem to the voters. It is not yet clear, however, whether such political arrangements are capable of enduring policy achievement. Meeting the political ambitions of voters used to “on-demand” services might prove even more challenging than stewarding a streaming company through an era of squeezed incomes.

Sign up to Stephen’s Inside Politics newsletter.

Source link

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *