HARVARD HERO MOMENT #13: If Netflix did Sundays

Jo Franklin-Wright

22 Nov 2019

Picture the scene. It’s a cold, rainy November Sunday in the UK. You’ve just trudged your way through Allo Allo, Last of the Summer Wine, Songs of Praise, Antiques Roadshow, and we’re maybe - just, maybe - going to be treated to a Narnia level epic to cap off a relentlessly mediocre evening of telly. Or maybe there’ll be a power cut to cheer us up.

That’s right folks, this is the 90s!

Blockbuster is closed on Sundays and we’re left to the whims of the live broadcasting schedule. Heaven help. Little did we know from our cold little island that the very same day, across the world (because what’s a weekend to entrepreneurs) two men with the unimaginably cool names, Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph, could be actively trying to pull Sundays out of the darkness and into the light, for us, for everyone. Netflix: telly excellence since 1997. They saw what Blockbuster were doing. The market for accessible movies was alive and kicking. People loved it. They flocked to go and browse, reserve and choose their own (properly rewound before it was returned) adventure for the night. People were even looting the in-store merch, choosing to give their student pads a sense of anarchic cool with a life-size cut-out of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Blockbuster was the epicentre of what we now call “content”. And if you worked there, you were a level above. A sort of sensei wizard, the kind you now only find in record stores. But to get to the holy land, you had to leave your house. And on a Sunday, you couldn’t even do that because it was shut. And god forbid you ever fell foul and got a late return fee. So in the early 2000s we all got LoveFilm fever. This allowed us to get 1 or 2 DVDs in the post from a list of favourites. Sunday sorted, right? Wrong. You’d get all the films you’d added to the list to appear cultured and edgy to your flatmates, when what you really wanted was to rewatch the Breakfast Club or the Lion King. You’d thus have to force yourself through The Hours or Memento so you could send it back to get the next DVD through - and so the cycle went.

Sundays will never be the same

Little did we know that right around the corner, Sundays were about to be turned on their heads entirely. With 25 million subscribers in the US in 2011, Netflix was about to explode onto the scene in the UK in a big way. It had obliterated the competition in the US through sheer accessibility and democratisation of content. It was a snip at $5 a month for an all you can eat buffet TV movies and Buffy. Despite its utter domination of the rental market, Blockbuster was ultimately blindsided by Netflix’s ability to out-develop them and bring to market an online subscription platform quicker – fully capturing the available market. Looking back, the early days of Netflix were admittedly bleak in comparison, but now a dizzying variety of content is available. What’s more is many shows on the platform have a niche audience and just wouldn’t have survived in the Dads Army mass market slot on a rainy Sunday in the 90s. Disgruntled of Daventry would have written to Points of View. Now Netflix subscribers have hit an eye-popping 158.3 million in 2019. And thanks to a tech that acknowledges and caters to all tastes, it’s surfaced everything from manga, to drag, to cheesy Christmas romcoms. In this environment creators have a platform to find their tribe – and are winning Emmys left, right and centre for it. I’m looking at you, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Bring on those rainy Sundays, because Shante I’m staying in.