Netflix and TV’s Nine Lives

What do shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Bones, Criminal Minds, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Supernatural have in common? Besides all being shows that premiered in 2005 and are still in production, all five are currently streaming their past seasons on Netflix. The über successful entertainment company has received praise lately for their original series like Stranger Things and The Crown, but perhaps its biggest accomplishment is its revitalization of cable TV for a younger, nostalgic and binge-crazy generation.

Ask nearly any television consumer in the 15-25 age demographic who Meredith Grey is, and one will most likely be met with a response that includes keywords like “Shonda Rhimes,” “Derek Shepherd,” and “TGIT,” all in reference to the hit, 12 season medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy. Yet, the steamy plotlines and not-for-the-faint-of-heart medical scenes would have one wonder how any parent would let their 3 to 13-year-old watch such a show, which is in fact how old these viewers were when the show premiered. In short: they wouldn’t. In reality: these teens and young adults most likely got their first taste of Grey’s Anatomy from this streaming platform that went mainstream in recent years, when they were much older. In what has been coined, “The Netflix Effect,” television programs have been able to extend their expiration dates by constantly appealing to a new age demographic as the current ones grow and move on.

This phenomenon can also be seen in cult classics like Friends, which aired from 1994-2004, yet has still retained its relevance in pop culture today, thanks in part to its popularity on Netflix. Especially as the ‘90s make a comeback in fashion and millennials flock to the city, Rachel Green is a style icon and Joey’s struggling acting career is understandable. Kids are watching and relating to shows on-demand that their parents watched weekly during their original runs. Friends was able to make it on its own during its initial run without the help of platforms like Netflix. However, times have changed and with the variety and vast array of television shows being spun out today, combined with a culture that is consistently hopping from one trend to the next, staying power in cable television is a rarity.

With the ability to binge watch all the popular shows, commercial-free, consumers can easily catch up on ten years worth of content in a few months (or maybe even less), and then make the transition to watching the show as it airs weekly. In this way, Netflix invests a viewer into a story, which then transfers viewership back to cable programs once the binging is over. There is no time to get bored or wait for a new episode in the streaming universe, so viewership is retained and then passed back over to live television once the bond has been formed between a viewer and a beloved show. While it seems like TV comes down to a science, it is true that viewership can lack once the love affair with a show has passed and a viewer finds it too hard to keep up with tuning in weekly. But, if one finds it too hard to keep up during the season, he or she need not wait more than a few months to find that whole season make its way back to Netflix, where the affair can resume.

This idea of watching season-by-season and releasing all 20-something episodes at once is part of the reason the Netflix Originals have become so popular. They allow viewers to adopt one show at a time and then when the season is over, they devote their time to another show until the next season is available and the cycle continues. It creates a loyal following that finds itself staked in many different shows, but for seasons at a time, instead of episodes. This is good news for showrunners. The royalties they receive from airing their shows, past or present, on streaming platforms is incentive enough to keep production rolling, even if live, weekly viewership doesn’t quite match what it used to. The message is clear: you don’t have to be the biggest, brightest, and most star-studded show on air to maintain ratings and viewership. Give your audiences the convenience and solid plotlines they desire and you’ll find the longevity to last all nine lives.

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