Netflix has lately made headlines for its forays into original programming: “House of Cards” was nominated for multiple historic Emmy awards, and “Orange Is the New Black” has already gained a devoted following. With these two flagship programs plus the new season of “Arrested Development,” Netflix has been increasingly compared to HBO, which enjoyed a run of premium television series of its own.
This comparison makes sense up to a point, but it obscures a more interesting facet of Netflix: that it is thriving in the niches, in the highly targeted genres and content categories that are enjoyed by relatively small groups of voracious watchers.
Indeed, Netflix appears to be building stockpiles of certain genres that are typically thought of as niche plays. Are you a standup comedy fan? Come for the Aziz Ansari special, stay for the hundreds of other standup comedy videos available for streaming. Like documentaries? Sign up to catch "The Square" (a buzzy doc recently acquired by Netflix), stay subscribed for the endless variety of nonfiction programming in the Netflix library. Can’t get enough Canadian made-for-TV movies? Well, you get it.
Admittedly, standup specials, documentaries and CBC original films may not immediately sound like categories worth owning, especially for a service that built itself up as a superior alternative to video rental places (if you remember those). We’re talking about specialized fare that’s more likely to be found on the high end of the cable dial than in a theater near you.
But in the manner of an online publication establishing new sections that convert what seem like narrow interests into centerpieces, Netflix seems to be looking to build its increasingly mass customer base niche by niche.
In other words, instead of merely competing with HBO, Netflix is becoming an on-demand, long-tail alternative to cable itself — minus the time-sensitive categories like sports, news, and weather. Netflix already makes its “Kids Only” section notably prominent on its home page, and just entered into a huge content deal with DreamWorks Animation. That hardly seems relevant to being the next HBO, but it does make sense in the context of explicitly serving a specialized slice of the marketplace.
And it’s interesting to browse Netflix’s current genre lineup and speculate about what future deals it could strike to raise its profile as a go-to source for other categories. An independent fiction film seems like a natural move. But there’s also music, for instance: How about a concert film produced by Netflix? And it’s at least notable that anime gets a surprisingly prominent spot in the service’s genre hierarchy.
Bundling together a bunch of niche audiences isn’t a new idea of course — it’s how cable itself was sold in the long-ago days when an entire channel devoted to old movies or music videos seemed fairly exotic. Since then, the cable landscape has become far more vast and, frankly, chaotic: There’s not much music on MTV, and propositions such as the Learning Channel have devolved into venues for dubious reality programming.
One result: To many cable customers, the bundle seems needlessly bloated — and overpriced. Obviously I’m not suggesting that at this point Netflix is anything like a substitute for cable. But you have to admit that on a bang-for-your-entertainment-buck basis, it already looks pretty good — and those headline-grabbing original deals, however niche-y, are only making it looking better.