Let’s be real, 2020 sucked, unless you were a corporation. In a year where screens brought both dreadful headlines and home-theatrical releases, Netflix’s seemingly endless library of titles gave those actually following stay-at-home orders a place to drown out the constant breaking news. Although 2020 brought new competition from HBO Max and NBC’s Peacock — which ended their launch year with 12.6 and 26 million subscribers respectively — Netflix exceeded streaming expectations for 2020’s fourth quarter, ending the year with a total of more than 200 million subscribers. The first quarter of 2020 alone saw an increase of 2.8 million American households with one or more streaming services, meaning 74 percent of Americans now pay for at least one service. Netflix seems to be banking on these numbers continuing or increasing into 2021, with the company having 500 movies in post-production and plans to release a new movie every week of 2021. But, how much did our culture’s mass media consumption have to do with the rapid deterioration of normalcy over the past few years, and is this sustainable?
The “new normal” was 2020’s catchphrase. The U.S. ended the year with a 6.9 percent unemployment rate, with a high of 14.7 percent in April, the rates of which were higher among Black and Latinx workers. Among jobs that can be completed at home, 74 percent of Americans worked from home, compared to the one in five before. College students were more in limbo, with 44 percent of colleges implementing fully online fall curriculums and others opting for hybrid or in-person learning (which may have been halted throughout the semesters). Beyond this, COVID-19 is a global issue, though this may still surprise people, since Americans are no strangers to making everything about themselves. While people in the U.S. watched the already-tattered fabric of the American flag quite literally burn, people across the globe adapted to an adjusted normal themselves. Those in the U.K. faced the finalization of Brexit during a widespread pandemic, witnessed their Prime Minister in the ICU due to COVID-19, and dealt with a seemingly constant fluctuation of COVID guidelines. Social environments restructured around the world and turned to screens, making it no surprise that Netflix profited from the likely high need for escapism in our streaming habits.
Streaming, across all platforms, accounted for 25 percent of television watching in the pandemic, with the cumulative weekly time streaming in the second quarter of 2020 (a.k.a: when sh—t hit the fan) increasing 75 percent from the second quarter of 2019 to reach 142.5 billion minutes per week. Netflix’s move to new releases every week serves to maximize their benefit from the surge in streaming. Given the success of Netflix originals, with four out of the five top streamed shows on Netflix in 2020 being the platform’s own content, Netflix does not seem to be hurting from the loss of classics such as Friends and The Office. Fans’ outrage over these losses may impact Netflix in the coming years, depending on how their original content fills the gap, but it has yet to hit them. As more providers begin offering streaming services, it becomes too costly for Netflix to spend hundreds of millions to retain a show and makes the risk of banking on their originals more appealing. Instead, the only wallets that are hurt are of viewers who have to fork over money to another streaming service. The platforms are aware of this, the CEO of NBCUniversal, Jeff Shell, acknowledged that most of their subscribers will come from fans of The Office.
With the collective desire for nostalgia and escapism, where can streaming services go wrong? Netflix does not want to find out; their plan to release a new film every week balances star-studded new with starry-eyed old. Among the new are a western The Harder the Fall, musical Tick, Tick… Boom!, and apparent-satire Don’t Look Up. Fans of drowning their sorrows in nauseating teen romance can look forward to the final iterations of The Kissing Booth and To All The Boys I Loved Before.
If none of these sound appealing, perhaps the content on our screens is not as important as the light at the end of the tunnel. And, without that light during these… unprecedented times… the glow of screens, often many at once, is the only substitute. One study found that one in six people use their phone while watching television, a number that is likely to have risen considering screen time on social media in the U.K. rose 15 percent.
Netflix’s mass release of movies throughout 2021 seems like a smart business decision, by capitalizing on trends towards digital and streaming social lives, but possibly preemptive. Netflix is expected to spend $19 billion in 2021; maybe we should be hopeful this choice doesn’t pay off. At the risk of jinxing the future, the light at the end of the tunnel may be drawing closer every day. There are currently two vaccines available in the U.S. and more in clinical trials, despite the flawed vaccine rollout keeping this light tantalizingly out of reach. President Joe Biden has one foot in the oval office; the future is still uncertain, but starting to green. Eventually, the ‘new normal’ will just become normal and, every day, we get closer to a clearer understanding of what that will look like outside of our screens.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Nerdist / Netflix