(LOS ANGELES-AFP) – From doorstep DVD delivery to binge-watching on tablets and phones: In 17 years Netflix has revolutionized the US television industry several times over.
The company — which is about to arrive in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany and Austria — has also totally revamped the relationship Americans have with both TV shows and film.
After launching in 1997, the service simply killed the traditional DVD or video store, experts say.
“Their catalogue was huge, it was so simple,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University.
Netflix subscribers could — and still can — watch an unlimited number of DVDs per month, delivered to their door. After viewing the DVD, the customer slips it in a pre-paid envelope and mails it back, triggering the next DVD to be sent.
Paradoxically, “Netflix in the beginning was a new technology company but based on the oldest technology possible: the US post office,” Thompson told AFP.
– Riding the streaming wave –
Based in Los Gatos, California, the company, which is led by co-founder Reed Hastings and has 50 million subscribers, surfed straight onto the online streaming wave as it took off on the Internet.
Competitor Hulu.com and several other platforms were already offering these services, but Netflix had an advantage of scale.
This also made it easier to export beyond the United States, as it is now doing in several European countries.
The arrival of tablets and large smartphones on a massive scale also helped popularize streaming, all the while marginalizing both traditional television and DVDs.
“There’s now a whole variety of ways to watch programs on TV but also on the computer, on your tablet, on your cell phone,” said Jeff Kagan, an independent technology analyst.
“Netflix allows people to watch programs when they want, where they want,” he added.
But its catalogue of shows and films for streaming remains far smaller than its DVD offerings, and Netflix meanwhile faces streaming competition from Hulu, Amazon and Google, not to mention illegal downloads.
– Shows of its own –
With its distinctive red-and-white branding, Netflix has also taken another turn to woo more subscribers and tempt back those who might have strayed: it began ordering its own shows, going straight for high-production value like cable channels HBO and Showtime.
When David Fincher, the director of “Fight Club,” “Se7en” and “The Social Network” was pitching the adaptation of a British political series to cable companies, Netflix made an audacious move to secure the show.
Instead of offering to buy only a pilot episode or to produce one season of “House of Cards,” Netflix ordered two seasons, with two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey cast in the central role.
In addition to the ground-breaking series, Netflix is “making equivalent kinds of commitments with lesser names in ‘Orange is the new Black,’ with mostly unknown actresses,” said media expert Tom Nunan, who teaches at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Theater, Film and Television.
The company understood that people only need to watch one or two shows to be hooked as subscribers.
– Entire season at once –
Netflix made yet another innovation by offering not only one episode per week but the entire season in one go.
“Netflix was a game changer not only through binge viewing” but also by providing “high-quality content with at least two seasons of confidence,” Nunan said.
“They’re making this kind of commitment with big-name Academy Award winners,” he added.
Netflix may have begun the revolution, but the market is now wide open, with everyone — not only Amazon and Google, but also the traditional networks like NBC and CBS — diversifying how they provide content, said Thomspon.