Netflix’s Secret Weapon

Overcoming the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles

Itaewon Class image from

Netflix has become an everyday staple in this pandemic. How else would we fill the unending blocks of time unlocked by the lockdown? It is the rabbit hole that keeps on giving, promising escape with thousands of hours of entertainment, waiting to be discovered and devoured.

Over the last two months, I don’t recall a day when I did not turn on the streaming service. And yet, the more content I watch, the more I feel I have left to watch.

Here are the last ten shows in my viewing history:

  • The Last Dance (US sports documentary)
  • Extracurricular (Korean thriller series)
  • Andhadhun (Indian dark comedy)
  • Scams (Japanese drama series)
  • Wandering Earth (Chinese sci-fi movie)
  • Love is Blind (US reality TV)
  • Marriage Story (Oscar-winning US movie)
  • Terrace House (Japanese reality TV)
  • Hunter X Hunter (Japanese anime series)
  • Itaewon Class (Korean drama series)

What jumped out to me here is the diversity of genres and languages these shows represent. Most of these are shows I would not care to watch if not for Netflix’s all-you-can-eat setup.

The never-ending feast

Because I already have a subscription, it takes practically zero marginal effort to select the next show. This makes me stick with Netflix rather than going through hoops to download a series. The mindset shifts from “Where do I find the shows that interest me?” to “What is the next most interesting show I can watch on Netflix right now?” UI nudges like Autoplay and Skip Intros erase the friction to start or sample that next show. When I run out of stuff to watch within my usual taste range, the ease of using Netflix makes me expand my taste range.

These last two months have opened new horizons of entertainment that I did not even know existed. The Japanese reality TV show Terrace House, for example, has been one of the biggest revelations so far. It’s a show where you just observe the everyday lives of six ordinary folks. Not much is happening on the surface, but it exposes the subtleties and gray areas of human interaction in a way that is so gripping to watch.

The K-drama gold mine

Of all the diverse genres Netflix is introducing to the world, the biggest winner is arguably the K-drama. Netflix recently released a new feature that surfaces the Top 10 most-watched movies and shows in that country. The snapshot below was taken on May 3 — clearly ‘The King’ lords over all of Asia right now.

Image from The King K-drama’s Twitter account

This is not an anomaly. To take another example, the snapshot of Netflix Singapore below is telling. 4 out of the top 5 are of the top 5 list are K-dramas, and the one outlier there is not even in English but in Spanish — the crime drama Money Heist.

Image from Nestia

This phenomenon brings to light the now-famous line from Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-Ho:

“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

This is where Netflix’s advantage is most evident. While its competitors like HBO and Disney Plus are still fighting over American content, Netflix has quietly amassed a treasure trove of global content. With its mastery of data and the long tail, Netflix understands that the world has slowly but surely outgrown its Hollywood-centric ways. People around the world are now keen to explore a wider diversity of content, and Netflix is doubling down.

Content Overload

The more this happens, the more we are all playing straight to Netflix’s hand. By widening the range of appealing content, Netflix lowers its chances of ever exhausting its library, compelling customers to keep their subscriptions.

By design, Netflix wants you to be slightly overwhelmed and never keep up. From media analyst and VC Matthew Ball:

…Netflix’s optimal operating pattern is one where its subscribers finish each subscribing month feeling overwhelmed by all of the “stuff on Netflix” they have left to watch and plan to watch. This keeps these subscribers from both unsubscribing from Netflix and subscribing to a competing service.

…Again, Netflix’s best-case scenario is that each month, it’s subscribers watch more than they did the last month, and have even more to watch in the next one.

This approach is paying huge dividends for Netflix. At a time when we are all stuck at home surrounded by screens, Netflix is raking it in big time.

Competing with Sleep

The company is not resting on its laurels. Netflix knows the pandemic tailwind will not last forever, so it is widening that lead even further while it’s ahead — allotting a mind-boggling $17 billion on content this year. They are making all these investments so that you can actually spend all your waking hours streaming shows for the rest of your life and still not run out of content to watch.

Ultimately, Netflix does not see itself as just a streaming service for TV shows and movies. It sees itself as a steward of human attention. Competition for Netflix is not just Disney Plus or HBO, but any activity that consumes attention. That includes video games, social media, and even the last frontier — sleep. This line below encapsulates Netflix’s relentless ambition in a single tweet. It recognizes that it is competing over the world’s most fickle resource, and it has to earn its keep each month.

Let a thousand flowers bloom

Netflix blazed the trail by being the first company to nail down the business model for TV in the internet age. It’s an elegant equation — make X dollars in monthly subscription revenue by investing Y dollars in content. In a world dominated by piracy, this model gave a lifeline to storytellers and content creators in America, and it’s now extending that to the rest of the world.

This is creating a strange global crossover where a Spanish-language TV show could hit a home run in Asia, or a Bollywood masterpiece could make it big in South America. We are witnessing a world where audiences in every continent can now enjoy the magic of a Studio Ghibli film or the romantic thrill of a K-drama.

By overcoming the barrier of subtitles, Netflix is also breaking down geographical divisions while putting up a formidable wall of its own against competitors. By broadening the spectrum of appeal, quirky and experimental content are rising to the surface. By creating an ecosystem where everyone wins, Netflix is ushering in a new golden age of television and film that is more inclusive than it’s ever been. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

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