Just a little over a month after America began shutting down due to coronavirus, and social distancing became the newest cultural buzzword, Netflix reported its first-quarter earnings. The company added almost 16 million new subscribers globally, more than double the 7.2 million analysts had expected, its biggest three-month gain since launching its streaming service 13 years ago.
But you don’t need an earnings report to know that Netflix has entrenched itself in culture. Just Google Tiger King for that.
Now, a new podcast is doing a deep dive on the company, how it’s disrupted Hollywood and changed the way we watch TV and movies—and how it’s planning for our streaming and entertainment future.
“The Netflix Effect,” hosted by Recode’s Peter Kafka and Rani Molla, is the second season of Recode and the Vox Media Podcast Network’s ongoing Land of the Giants series, chronicling the tech companies that dominate both our lives and news headlines.
The new pod is being created as an evergreen story, looking at the company’s culture, its algorithm, and its future plans, but the effects of COVID-19 on Netflix and its business are also part of the story.
Although the coronavirus has thus far only turbocharged Netflix’s business, it almost derailed this podcast. Kafka and Molla were scheduled to meet with various company executives on March 5, 2020, less than a week before shelter-in-place and work-from-home orders became commonplace. “If it had been a week later, that trip wouldn’t have happened,” says Kafka, who also hosts the Recode Media podcast.
While Netflix is one of the most popular brands and companies in the world, after starting their research last fall, both Kafka and Molla were surprised at how little of the media coverage scratched beyond the surface, save for Gina Keating’s 2012 book Netflixed. “It was one of those things that whenever I was talking to friends, and I’d have some anecdote from whatever episode we were working on,” says Molla, “they’d be like, ‘Oh wow, really?’ That told me that this story isn’t as broadly known.”
The series isn’t a comprehensive company origin story, but one that’s broken up into thematic chunks. In episode one, for example, the spotlight is on the Netflix company culture, its embrace of treating employees as a team—with an ever-evolving roster—rather than a family.
“There are 200 million people around the world consuming billions of hours of this, and that’s a huge deal, so we try to poke a little bit at what it means to have a Silicon Valley/L.A. company as a global entertainment company,” says Kafka. “YouTube is obviously global but not as deliberate in what they have on the platform. I don’t think anyone’s programmed for the globe to this extent ever before, and we wanted to look at that.”
For the first season of Land of the Giants, Jason Del Rey went deep on Amazon, and overall it’s a series aimed at tackling the behemoths of the tech business.
In that sense, Netflix is a bit of an exception.
“Google, Facebook, and Apple [are] companies with their hands in so many different things, a lot of which are morally questionable around selling data, contact tracing, relationships with the police,” says Molla. “Netflix is a bit simpler in that it sells a subscription to content you can watch. It’s not collecting your data, though it does have an algorithm. It doesn’t know I’m a brown woman in her 30s. It just knows I like basic TV. So just by virtue of what the company does, and how it operates—it makes and delivers content—it isn’t as messy as those other companies.”
That has also historically translated into how Netflix executives talk about the company and its ambitions. “Reed Hastings, as far as I can tell, has been pretty straightforward about what he wants to do for a long time,” says Kafka. “In the late 90s, he was saying they’d eventually be an internet streaming service. No one took it seriously, but here we are.”
Another indicator of how seriously people are taking Netflix is how few are now willing to call them out. Back in 2010, then-Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes told The New York Times that Netflix’s success was unlikely. “It’s a little bit like, is the Albanian army going to take over the world?” said Bewkes. “I don’t think so.”
As of yet, neither Bewkes nor any other major media exec would talk to Molla or Kafka on the record about their thoughts on Netflix.
Critics have long pointed to the company’s debt, as well as betting on it suffering in a recession. Kafka says that when they started working on the podcast, Netflix was the fourth most-shorted stock in the United States. Those attitudes have changed somewhat, given that the company has been able to thrive during the pandemic. Hastings and Co. have so far been able to read the future pretty accurately.
Case in point: when Molla and Kafka were at Netflix HQ back in early March. “They’d just started putting signs up in the Netflix building and there was hand sanitizer, and then the next week we were in lockdown,” says Molla.
“For the record, Reed Hastings did not want to shake our hands,” says Kafka.
“And he was right!” says Molla.
Land of the Giants is available wherever fine podcasts can be downloaded.