Fans of Netflix and The Office were dealt a blow this week with the news that the most-watched show on the streaming service will be leaving Netflix in 2021. We’ve been through drills like this before—Friends nearly left Netflix this year, until the streaming service and Warner Bros. struck a new deal to keep the series on Netflix through 2019. But these “scares” of potentially losing Netflix’s most-watched programming highlight another major problem: with various studios launching streaming platforms of their own and taking their content off of Netflix, the streaming service lacks anything substantial to replace it. Despite the success of shows like Stranger Things or Mindhunter or Narcos, Netflix original series are created specifically to be binged. But in creating episodes that lack conclusions in favor of cliffhangers, Netflix’s original series fail to serve the same “comfort viewing” purpose as classic sitcoms like The Office. And that’s a problem.
Before we dig into the specifics, let’s first discuss why these shows are leaving Netflix in the first place. If you’ll recall, before Netflix was Netflix, it began building up its streaming service by purchasing licenses for existing content and crafting a robust and diverse library. This included not just famous TV shows but a bevy of feature films from nearly every major studio in town (remember when movies made before 1985 were on Netflix?). As the company began winding down its DVD mail-in service, and as more and more people subscribed to its streaming service, the studios that owned this content that was playing on Netflix started to understand its increasing value.
As Netflix became a go-to destination for streaming, studios began either re-negotiating the licenses for its content for higher fees (meaning Netflix now had to pay more to host, say, 30 Rock on its streaming service) or pulling it off altogether. The latter was more prominent with feature films, as the dwindling DVD and Blu-ray market was being done no favors by putting those same films available to stream on a third-party service. It must be noted here, too, that if you love a show like The Office enough, the physical DVDs are still available to purchase. Then you own it!
Now, in 2019, when Netflix is the biggest content provider in the world, other studios are gearing up to launch their own competitive steaming services. Which means simply re-negotiating for Netflix to pay them more money is no longer their best option. Instead, in the case of The Office, NBCUniversal would rather end their deal with Netflix altogether and put The Office—widely regarded as the most-watched show on all of Netflix—on their own streaming service, which launches later this year. The same thing is likely to happen with Friends as WarnerMedia kicks off its own streaming service, and so on and so forth. So similar to how Netflix built up its business by offering subscribers a bevy of library content, these new streaming services are looking to entice new subscribers by serving as the exclusive home to in-demand, existing shows and films.
While Netflix has certainly had success with original programming, by and large the most-watched content has been older, existing TV shows that Netflix does not own. Why? Because it’s comforting. Shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Friends are watched over and over and over again because they provide comfort. They’re the perfect bite-sized snack to consume just before bedtime, or to enjoy on a lunch break at work. Episodes run 22 to 23 minutes in length, and since these shows were created for network television—and in the case of Friends long before DVR or VOD delayed viewing—most episodes offer up a satisfying, conclusive story. This gives the viewer a sense of satisfaction at the end of an episode. You don’t have to watch the next one. Michael and Stanley buried the hatchet and all is (relatively) well in the offices of Dunder Mifflin. Chandler and Rachel’s cheesecake-eating ruse has come to an end. Leslie successfully got her bill passed in city council.
But Netflix’s original content model is antithetical to conclusive storytelling. The entire idea behind Netflix’s original shows is bingeworthiness, and almost every episode ends with a cliffhanger that urges you to keep watching. While this results in entire weekends spent watching a whole season of a show like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or House of Cards, it’s a completely different type of viewing experience than watching a couple episodes of The Office. And frankly, watching just a single episode of Ozark isn’t super satisfying.
Even Netflix’s half-hour comedies are built this way. Episodes of shows like American Vandal or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt end on cliffhangers, spurring the viewer to keep going. Now this isn’t to say Netflix original series are bad. Quite the opposite. GLOW and Russian Doll are two of the most critically acclaimed series Netflix has ever produced, and they both push the boundaries of what’s possible in television storytelling. They’re incredible, and I’m glad they exist. But they’re not exactly the kinds of shows you want to watch over and over again.
Netflix has certainly tried to create shows akin to The Office or Parks and Rec, like the multicam sitcoms The Ranch, Fuller House, and the cancelled One Day at a Time. But none of these shows have hit quite the way that those other iconic sitcoms did. And while Netflix has scored megadeals with veteran TV producers like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, who are no doubt in the midst of creating bingeworthy content of their own, the smartest thing they could’ve done was lock in someone like Parks and Recreation and The Good Place co-creator Michael Schur for a deal to create new content. Alas, he re-upped with Universal TV to stick (mostly) with network television for now.
And it’s not like Netflix doesn’t understand comfort viewing. They’ve done remarkably well in that arena with their reality programming, from Queer Eye to The Great British Baking Show. But in the scripted arena, they’re severely lacking.
It appears they’re finally trying to come around, and they do have a new half-hour comedy series from The Office creator Greg Daniels in the works starring Steve Carell, but TV can only be created so quickly. When The Office and Friends and Parks and Recreation inevitably leave Netflix, subscribers will be severely lacking in comfort viewing options. Will they leave Netflix and sign up for even more subscriptions elsewhere? Will they finally spring for the DVD box sets so they can watch these shows anytime? Or will Netflix be forced to alter it content model and start producing more, better shows with conclusive, standalone episodes? Time will tell, but as the streaming wars heat up later this year, Netflix faces stiff competition in more ways than one.