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Could a global Netflix usher in cultural uniformity?

Streaming service will need content to be successful worldwide to recoup expenditures.

netflix, 3%, cultural uniformity

3%, Netflix’s first original Brazilian series.

Netflix Cultural Uniformity:

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Netflix this week posted some big numbers, reporting a total of seven million new subscribers in its fourth quarter, well ahead of the five million Wall Street analysts had expected.

A good portion of the total – five million – were international subscribers, which raises an interesting question. Netflix is spending a ton of money on content – a planned $6 billion (U.S.) in 2017, up from $5 billion last year – to serve nearly 100 million subscribers across 190 countries. How is it going to get a return on that expenditure when its subscribers are so different in terms of culture and tastes?

Put another way, is the streaming service going to have to acquire and produce content that is universally appealing in order to get the most bang for its buck? If so, is there a risk that it becomes the McDonald’s, to the point where people across disparate countries end up liking the same kind of uniformly produced entertainment?

The answer, according to executives I spoke to last year, is that Netflix is already doing this to some extent.

“Great storytellers tend to resonate across markets so it wasn’t as if we went to Korea and licensed content only for Korea and nowhere else,” said Elizabeth Bradley, vice-president of content acquisition.

“It’s pretty consistent in the type of offering we’re going after. There’s differences in what’s available, but we’re pretty conscious of having shows that resonate everywhere. You can buy something like Breaking Bad and be sure that’s going to work in every territory.”

The company reiterated this strategy while announcing its latest results.

“Gratifyingly, our first Brazilian original series 3%, a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic thriller, premiered as one of the most watched originals in Brazil and played well throughout Latin America,” Netflix said.

“Moreover, bucking conventional wisdom, millions of U.S. members have watched the show dubbed and subtitled into English, making 3% the first Portuguese language television show to travel meaningfully beyond Latin America and Portugal.”

In many ways, this is a good thing since content creators can now shoot for a larger, more global audience. But there’s also a downside as evidenced by the video game industry, which has experienced a similar globalization-driven homogenization.

Game producers have in recent years shifted toward large, proven blockbuster franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed and away from risky titles that might appeal to smaller niches. Smaller indie studios have filled those holes to some extent, but it’s still not the same as previous big-budget efforts that took chances. Games are now dominated by sequels and remakes as a result.

On the other hand, Netflix also believes it’s helping nurture diversity by bringing more foreign content to audiences who may not have had previous access to it. The company serves up far more content than any traditional broadcaster, which means it can cater to niche tastes – even with the same household.

“If you think of any one channel or network or broadcaster in any particular country, it’s very homogenous. It doesn’t address a broad audience. It addresses a subset of that audience,” said chief product officer Neil Hunt.

“Look at an HBO and you can tell what theme it has. It’s gritty and it’s a mid-age audience. It’s not kids and it’s not 50-year-olds. That’s great, but Netflix is a platform that can deliver that content, and kids content and Grace and Frankie and Bloodline to the slightly older audience.

“By using the recommendations, we can present one set of content to you and another set to your parents and another set to your kids, so we can address all those markets.”

Is Netflix an unintentional agent of cultural uniformity or is it the opposite, a force for increased artistic diversity? The jury is still out.

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