How Netflix Won Even While It Was Losing

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo Courtesy of Netflix

After nearly a decade of unchecked growth and momentum, 2022 will be remembered as the year Netflix lost its cloak of invincibility. If you’ve been keeping up with the streaming wars, you know the basic story: Subscriber growth stalled, the stock sank, layoffs commenced, an ad-supported tier was created. And yet for all the problems the streamer has faced in the last 12 months, churning out hit shows has (mercifully) not been one of them. Thanks to a string of successes both new (Wednesday, The Watcher, Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Inventing Anna) and returning (Stranger Things, Bridgerton, Ozark), the Netflix binge factory is one part of the company where things are going pretty great, actually.

With the usual caveat that audience data for streaming is not as cut-and-dried as linear TV ratings, both Netflix’s self-reported metrics and information reported by Nielsen underscore the strength of the streamer’s content offering in 2022. As Netflix has highlighted in recent press releases and exec interviews, three of the platform’s ten most-watched English-language series in its decade of original programming debuted in 2022: Wednesday, Ryan Murphy’s Dahmer — Monster, and Shonda Rhimes’s Inventing Anna. In addition, the fourth season of Stranger Things and the second season of Bridgerton did well enough to end up on the all-time top-ten list. And Wednesday, which launched on November 23, has become just the third Netflix series ever to record more than a billion hours of global viewing during its first month of release, joining the aforementioned Stranger Things 4 and last year’s Squid Game.

Since Netflix is an international platform, as well as one that invests heavily in movies and unscripted series, it’s worth noting that there were some big successes in those areas as well this year. Original films The Grey Man and Purple Hearts both did well enough to end up on the streamer’s list of top-ten most popular English-language movies of all time, while All of Us Are Dead and Extraordinary Attorney Woo landed among its biggest non-English series ever. And on the unscripted front, headline-making Harry & Meghan, the tell-all from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, became Netflix’s most-watched documentary debut, while the Love Is Blind and Selling Sunset franchises both launched successful spinoffs.

Netflix’s U.S.-based scripted-series unit, however, continues to be responsible for a huge percentage of the streamer’s buzziest hits. And for the past 18 months, it has been headed by Peter Friedlander, a Netflix veteran who has been working on series development since the days of Lilyhammer (he helped star Steven Van Zandt pick music for the show). We caught up with Friedlander earlier this week for a wide-ranging conversation about the performance of his 2022 slate, what’s ahead for 2023, and the eternal question of how Netflix decides whether its shows should live or die.

For Netflix, 2022 was in some ways what Queen Elizabeth might have called an annus horribilis. The stock price collapsed at the start of the year. There were layoffs and lots of talk about the future of streaming. But on the content side at least, you have to be feeling good about the performance of your slate. 

It really has been, despite the noise, a phenomenal year. And as hard as it’s been, I couldn’t be prouder that we have launched five of our most popular TV shows, and they were so wonderfully spaced out: Bridgerton and Inventing Anna at the beginning of the year, Stranger Things and Ozark more toward the middle, then ending the year with Dahmer — Monster and Wednesday. Viewers are taking to the shows that we’re creating. And it’s not just that they’ve been successful, it’s really — the viewing is just phenomenal. Three so far have crossed the billion-hour mark. That’s a good sign, and the year’s not done yet. A few titles to come I think will be really great viewing plays for us. Emily in Paris is coming back. And The Witcher has its first spinoff with Blood Origin — Michelle Yeoh is in the show, and she is, as we all know, having an incredible year.

It wasn’t just one kind of show that seemed to click either. I mean, Wednesday could not be any more different from Inventing Anna

I think the results of the year are a testament to the diversity of programming that we want to offer, because it speaks to the diversity of interest and what entertains viewers on Netflix. You’re certainly right to notice it, and I have to say I’m still studying it myself, understanding it, and trying to learn from it. That’s always been our strategy, really from day one — figuring out how we can provide all different types of stories and still reach quite broad audiences in various genres and programming categories.

What’s your take on why Wednesday has blown up? Is it the young-adult or genre fandoms totally embracing it like it was a CW show?

I have a couple hypotheses that I’m kicking around, although we’re still learning from the success of it and unpacking it. It’s funny — people do talk about the YA audience, but I think that’s probably too simplistic because of the diversity of tastes within that demographic. But to speak to Wednesday in and of itself, I think the question you’re asking really is “What’s the secret sauce there, or what’s the secret?” I don’t know that I can identify one thing. I do feel like it’s firing on all cylinders. When you look from every angle at that show, you’re seeing extraordinary creative performances. Jenna Ortega is just so singular in that performance and has become a breakout superstar, and that’s one angle. You have the storytellers, as you mentioned: Al Gough and Miles Millar combined with the legend Tim Burton. You have the visual specialists, whether that’s the Colleen Atwood-of-it-all costume design, and Danny Elfman with the music. It’s just the most brilliant craftspeople coming together to create this experience. And maybe part of it was launching at Thanksgiving — a period when there’s a lot of co-viewing and gathering.

You did a lot of marketing for the show, which isn’t always the case with Netflix series. 

I have to give credit to the marketing team. They really did a bang-up job reintroducing this IP into the world — from the teaser really early on to this fun video where Wednesday breaks the fourth wall. I don’t know if you’ve been traveling recently, but there’s ads in the TSA bins. It was very clever to have marketing inside where we’re traveling at the busiest travel times in the U.S. They really tried to understand the humor of the piece and fill the marketing campaign with this very specific tone that’s only Wednesday Addams. The storytelling being so spot on matched with a killer campaign has led to this level of results and this unbeatable word of mouth.

The way the Wednesday dance has exploded on TikTok has been impressive. 

It’s astonishing how that just spread like wildfire and how it helped fuel more and more viewing. It was, I guess, lightning in a bottle.

It’s clear how effective Netflix marketing can be when it goes all in on a project like Wednesday. But a lot of smaller shows, or less expensive ones, don’t get the same push it got — or any real marketing at all. What do you say to showrunners who are sometimes disappointed their projects don’t get the same sort of attention? 

Our shows are loved all over the world, so it’s not a “one size fits all” approach to our campaigns. What we aim to do is connect with audiences where they are, so that could be anything from out-of-home advertising to activations, experiences, or social media — those are very effective marketing tools that allow us to engage directly. So whether it’s Wednesday or From ScratchStranger Things or Ginny & Georgia, our goal is to create the biggest and loudest conversations for our shows with a bespoke approach.

You haven’t yet announced a season two for Wednesday. I assume there will be another season of the show, but what’s the trajectory for this franchise? Do you anticipate an entire new Addams Family universe expanding again now that you’ve had this entry?

I wish I could tell you more. I’m optimistic but have nothing to say right now.

But you would like to have more.

I would.

Your company’s co-CEO, Ted Sarandos, has said that he’d like to see Netflix have a Squid Game–size hit every month. You certainly moved closer to that in 2022, but it seems sort of unrealistic to expect, doesn’t it? Even at the height of their success, linear networks like NBC or CBS didn’t crank out that many hits shows every year or even every three years. How are you interpreting the mandate from Ted? And isn’t there a risk by putting too much focus on developing megahits?

Speaking as somebody who’s been here from day one on the original-programming side, you don’t know when the hits are coming. What we spend our time focused on is really quality storytelling, characters that we are passionate about, worlds that we want to explore. It isn’t a business of manufacturing hits. It’s about inspiring storytelling. It’s about tapping into authentic voices and going on different storytelling adventures. I don’t think this is anything you don’t know, but I do think it underpins what we actually do. It is how we think about programming.

When we have experienced the thrill of seeing unexpected hits, you have to recognize that they could come from anywhere. Again, we have to really lean into people who we think are capable of telling quality stories. That can be very experienced storytellers or it can be new storytellers. I try to keep our options open in order to get to the hits. I think our audiences want to be surprised. Our audiences want to have their expectations exceeded. And that’s what the job is.

You have talked in the past about wanting to take big swings in your new job at Netflix. Something like Wednesday is obviously a huge hit, but to me, it doesn’t feel particularly risky: It’s proven IP with well-known auspices. Tell me how you define taking swings, and how are you trying to make sure you’re not playing things safe?

They’re all big swings to me. I don’t want to sound simplistic with that answer, but it’s slightly reductive to think that Wednesday isn’t an enormous swing. What goes into making these shows and making the best version of them — the execution could go sideways at any point. I do believe that swings can come from execution, from concepts, from a new storyteller, from an unproven cast or a lead. I look at all those elements when I’m thinking about risk-taking.

I think storytelling innovation is another swing. Being on a streaming platform, there are very few rules around storytelling, and we get to upend them — whether that’s doing a Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a Love, Death & Robots, or even the upcoming Kaleidoscope. Part of the responsibility of my job is to know that the more we are pushing boundaries in storytelling and in risk-taking — you’re going to see a brilliant new storyteller be inspired by something that they didn’t know was possible, then come in with a whole new iteration of it. That’s what I’m hoping to seed out into the storytelling universe in many ways.

When Netflix was first starting out doing originals, it was almost assumed that every show would get two seasons, and in fact, Ted talked about how audiences want to see stories completed. That’s not the case now, obviously. But even shows you deem a success now often last no more than three seasons. How do you figure out how many episodes a show should run these days? Is it just how many people watch versus how much the show cost you to make? 

I get that you hear the same answer from us, and it still continues to be that: It is not metrics alone. There are many components considered. It is a multifaceted decision, but it’s one that you can’t apply the same analysis to every title. We have to look at every title specifically — what are the creative hopes for the project? What is the opportunity for the future of the storytelling? It’s more complex than it’s often painted to be. I imagine my competitors experience the same level of complexity. But no matter what, it’s obviously the most painful decision to not move forward with a show when there’s been the investment in time — not just from the storytellers and the artists but from the executives and the folks at Netflix. One of our greatest challenges is making those decisions, and hopefully, we’re making the right ones on behalf of our viewers. We certainly try.

Completion rate really is a big deal, isn’t it?

We certainly know when people are completing, and it’s great to know when they complete, because that’s often a sign that they’ve loved every minute of it.

Let’s talk about comedy. For all the success you’ve had with drama this year, comedy has been a tougher genre for Netflix. You brought on your new head of comedy, Tracey Pakosta, about two years ago, and her development is just starting to filter onto the service. But what does 2023 hold for you with half-hours? I know you have high hopes for That ’90s Show

I’m glad you brought up comedy, because I do think we are teeing up some excellent new shows from Tracy’s team. You mentioned That ’90s Show, but I would encourage you to check out some new ones coming up. Freeridge, which is the On My Block spinoff, is a really bold and funny show. There’s Unstable, which is the Rob Lowe show that’s coming out. We have the Michelle Buteau show, Survival of the Thickest, and one with Vince Staples. So there’s a whole new slate of programming that I am very bullish on.

The Upshaws is a multi-camera comedy that has gotten some traction and feels like it could go for 100 episodes. Do you want sitcoms that produce that many episodes and that build up a huge library? 

I know that there’s some question about what our longevity goals are, but it is truly about the best creative experience. And if it’s a shorter run, it’s because the showrunner felt like that was where the story needed to end. I am open to shows running as long as they’re creatively fulfilling and creatively soaring. There isn’t, like, a set goal in mind. It’s certainly great when an audience falls in love with a show, which can then continue delivering creatively, but again, it’s not prescriptive.

I was surprised when Amazon Studios announced it had signed a big deal with Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy, who’ve had a lot of success with shows like The Haunting of Hill House under their deal with Netflix. What happened there?

Mike and Trevor and Netflix have made a lot of shows together, and at a certain point, the needs of the deal can shift, and it can shift on both sides. I think that’s what’s happened here.

When Ryan Murphy signed with Netflix, he still ended up making a lot of spinoff shows based on his past hits for FX and Fox. Do you see any extensions that are in the offing for Flanagan and Macy?

They have one new show coming out called The Fall of the House of Usher, which we’re in postproduction on, and I’m very keen on it and think it has real potential. We’ll see what happens with that one.

Speaking of deals, there’s actually a law that says I have to ask about the status of Murphy’s agreement. But whatever happens when that deal is up next year, he has certainly made a lot of noise for you in 2022. I imagine it’s your goal to keep him at Netflix? 

I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about the success of Ryan’s year. I only started working with Ryan about a year and a half ago, when I started this job. We were all very optimistic about what Monster could become and The Watcher, then being able to launch them in such close proximity and to have them both be successful is a total thrill. We’ve renewed both shows, so there is a real enthusiasm behind continuing to explore the next Monster story and the next iteration of The Watcher. We have some good business in front of us.

And in terms of the deal, when do you think you’ll know what will happen?

I can’t really say.

Some of your most viewed content is stuff that did well on broadcast TV — like NCIS or Grey’s Anatomy. And you’ve had a lot of success with shows you’ve “rescued” from linear networks — like Manifest and Lucifer. Are you starting to put a greater emphasis on shows that can be broadly popular even if they aren’t likely to win Emmys or appear on end-of-year critics’ lists? 

I would refer back to what we were talking about earlier — the spectrum of storytelling. Because I do look at them as all different types of stories. Sure, they could have a feeling that they would be on a broadcast network, but I think for our viewers, they’re interested in all different types of stories and not just one. I am constantly looking to make what I would hope is the best version of any of these categories of programming. I guess our goal has always been to provide programming for everybody. That includes all types of viewing, and that’s kind of been the strategy from day one. That hasn’t shifted.

Although early on, Ted famously said he wanted Netflix to become HBO before HBO could become Netflix. That whole battle is over, so are you now trying to be a better version of CBS and NBC the same way your counterpart in unscripted is trying to out-Bravo Bravo?

That is what we’re doing. We’re trying to do the greatest variety of must-watch TV shows. That’s the goal. That’s the challenge, and that’s the opportunity. It’s not shifting the lens. It’s just continuing to broaden it. By broadening, I mean really broadening the spectrum of storytelling that we’re providing.

You had a lot of commercial hits in 2022. Do you think that will be matched by a similar level of success in terms of awards recognition? Do you care about whether you get more Emmy nominations than last year — or more than HBO does? 

I always hope our talented partners get celebrated by their peers and colleagues for their incredible work. So much passion and work goes into every frame of these series. I know how rewarding that recognition can feel. It’s just too hard to predict what will happen in awards season. I think there is extraordinary groundbreaking being done and am optimistic that it gets celebrated.

One more thing on this topic: Since you’re making shows that might feel at home on network TV, why not serve them to viewers the way networks do — with lots of episodes every season and a weekly rollout? If you’re flexible on content categories, why be so dogmatic in terms of presentation? 

Our shows have succeeded because we’ve given our viewers what they want, when they want it. It has led to these Zeitgeist hits, whether that’s most recently from Wednesday or a year ago from Squid Game, and it’s how our business model works. It’s what our viewers expect of us. So I appreciate the question but …

… but we can move on! [Laughter] You oversee acquisitions of TV shows for Netflix, so I have to get in a question about library content: specifically, why there’s so little TV from before the 1990s on the platform. I’ve heard from other streamers that it just doesn’t play with subscribers, but a lot of older folks have jumped into streaming in the past five years. Do you ever think of expanding the classic-TV content on the service? 

What show are you looking for, Joe? What have I not provided that you want? [Laughter]

There are so many! Moonlighting is one. WKRP in CincinnatiKate & Allie is a great show that isn’t available anywhere. There’s Rhoda. There’s so much from the ’70s and ’80s that just isn’t streaming.

To be honest, I don’t really have an answer for that. I do know that when we look at licensing older shows, we’re always looking across the board at what’s available and what are some programming opportunities that we may not be filling with some of our original shows. It’s a moving target.

Tell me what you’re most excited about on your 2023 roster. What should we keep an eye on?

Kaleidoscope at the top of the year is going to be a heist experience like none other. I’m very excited for what Lee Sung Jin has created with Beef, which is the Steven Yeun and Ali Wong dramedy. That is a signature one-of-a-kind experience. Queen Charlotte from Bridgerton is an exceptional new entrant into the universe, and I am so eager for everyone to experience it. I think that Shawn Levy’s All the Light We Cannot See is an emotional and heartbreaking saga. Sofia Vergara in Griselda is unlike any performance you’ve seen from her, and she is extraordinary. Keri Russell starring in The Diplomat from Deb Cahn is an exceptional political character drama. I’m also really proud of the number of season twos we have coming out next year. It’s a great year for some of our sophomore shows: Vikings, Sweet ToothGinny & GeorgiaThe Lincoln Lawyer.

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