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Netflix has revealed a slump in subscription numbers over the start of 2022 (Ian West/PA)
Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in Grace and Frankie
April 26 2022 06:00 AM
It’s been a bad week for your ex-partner’s brother’s girlfriend. Just as she was starting to get into Peaky Blinders, Netflix has hinted that it’s about to crack down on shared accounts.
So that login you lent her when she was in college may be yanked in the coming months.
She’s not alone. The sprawling ecosystem of friends, neighbours and relations that use your account for their evening’s Netflix-viewing looks to be on borrowed time.
Up to now, Netflix didn’t care that up to roughly a third of its users — 100 million households — watch it using someone else’s account (not just a close family member, but a completely different dwelling).
It was growing really strongly anyway, adding millions of subscribers each year. But its growth has now stalled; it has lost 200,000 subscribers for the first time.
So it needs to start doing a bit of housekeeping. And it’s your cousin, your teenage son’s pal and your mam who look like they may soon be cut off.
Laura Linney and Jason Bateman in Ozark
How might Netflix do this? In some South American countries, it is running a trial that asks people to pay an extra $3 for people outside the household of account holder — such as extended family or friends — to retail access to the content.
The eventual goal here might be to put in place cheaper payment tiers that seem to be less annoying for the ‘sharing’ beneficiaries if and when it does start cutting those beneficiaries off.
As for the machinery to crack down, it has already started to introduce measures such as ‘two factor authentication’, effectively restricting access to whoever owns the mobile number or email address associated with the account.
It could also consider something approximating location-based credentials, possibly involving IP addresses. I’m sceptical of this one, though, because part of the deal with Netflix is that I can watch it on the bus, in a hotel or in a cafe on a lunch break.
It could just do something simple, such as asking current users to reset their passwords in a one-off measure, a move that would almost certainly lock out millions of extended family, former friends and others.
This might annoy people, though, prompting some who were considering quitting to go ahead and do that.
But make no mistake: the era of the Netflix free-for-all (emphasis on the word ‘free’, here) looks to be drawing to a close.
As much of an irritant as that might be for some, it seems worth it to the company.
If just 10% of those 100m households currently skiing off others’ accounts pay up, that would yield somewhere between €1bn (£0.8bn) and €2bn (£1.6bn) extra per annum in fees.
Even for a company set to spend over $19bn (£14.8bn) this year on films and TV series, that’s a very healthy incentive.
But on the larger point of Netflix’s subscriber growth: could it be in real trouble? Absolutely.
It’s not that the company has done anything wrong. But its competitors are now far, far better than they used to be. Apple, which was nowhere three years ago, just won an Oscar for best movie.
Disney+, also not around three years ago, has a guaranteed audience because of its exclusive Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars catalogues. And Amazon Prime Video, while it hasn’t done anything spectacular, has a Tesco Clubcard-like customer retention advantage that’s hard to shift.
Imelda Staunton in The Crown
So far, Netflix has withstood this competition fairly robustly. Last year, it added over 10m subscribers, with similar figures for the year before.
And it still seems that Netflix is the tent pole streaming app, around which there are more cultural and entertainment inflection points than competitors.
Over any given six-month period, Netflix still has more hits — shows or movies that are widely discussed — than rival platforms.
Even still, Netflix can’t avoid the grim and relatively sudden cost of living shock that many of us are currently undergoing. In a year when electricity and fuel bills are rising by a third, it was a little unfortunate that Netflix raised its prices by as much as 31% (over a 12-month period). If it really comes to a choice of turning the heating down or keeping Netflix, I’m not sure the streaming platform will win.
Despite all of this, there is one hot take about Netflix’s current spotlight that can safely be thrown in the bin. That is that streaming platforms, as a genre, are in trouble.
There is no scenario where the world retreats, even slightly, from watching TV and movies online.
If you have a broadband connection, you are going to use a streaming platform. If you’re in a family, you’ll have at least two subscriptions, and more likely three or four.
(Anyone with kids under the age of 12 will know that they don’t have much of a choice when it comes to Disney+)
So whatever else might happen, it’s a fair bet that Netflix will continue to dominate our movie lives for the future.
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