Like almost every deprived sports fan these days, I’m avidly keeping up with The Last Dance—the Netflix documentary about Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls. Aside from featuring two ex-presidents, the miniseries uses tons of exclusive footage of one of sport’s greatest legends to rake in universal acclaim. But the more I watched, the more I realized that it’s not just the subject matter that drew me in, but also the way in which it is told—and a big part of this narrative power stems from Netflix’s business philosophy.
Within two decades, Netflix has risen from a net-loss DVD rental business to a global leader in the movie industry. It single-handedly revolutionized the film market by making movie streaming viable: both as a distribution channel and as a vehicle for new content. And while figuring out the ingredients to its success formula on the fly, it has tirelessly expanded.
Netflix is now available in every single country on the planet aside from China, North Korea, Syria, and Crimea. While it spearheads the industry in raw subscription numbers with a whopping 180 million paying users, it also leads the charge on international outreach, with two thirds of its subscribers residing outside the U.S. Its main competitor: Walt Disney, having racked up 55 million subscribers in just six months through Disney+, and another 35 million strewn across its subsidiaries Hulu and ESPN+. Still, it seems unlikely that Disney will catch up to Netflix anytime soon. But what exactly makes it so successful?
At its core, Netflix’s formula is composed of three basic components: its business model, its use of data and recommendations, and its content.
Starting with the business model, even when solely relying on DVD rental (which they still offer), Netflix was known for one thing: bang for the buck. For only $7.99 a month, you would get unlimited movies, one DVD at a time. The cheapest streaming option now sits at $8.99, offering infinite attempts to master the site’s notorious endless scroll. No hassle of mail delivery, no need for DVR, and no more annoying intros thanks to the power of machine learning—what’s not to like?
But all the streaming convenience is no good if you can’t find what you're after. This is where Netflix gained an early edge over its competitors: it excels at tailoring recommendations. By allowing separate viewing profiles for account sharers, it is able to keep track of a number of inputs: what is being watched and for how long, what ratings users give, and which parts they skip. The company even goes as far as to display different thumbnails depending on which one might appeal most to the individual viewer. Netflix works like an all-you-can-eat restaurant where all the mouthwatering dishes are served right at the start, with fresh delicacies brought in for every new guest.
Now of course a restaurant is only as good as its produce, and this is where the final building block comes into play: the content. What guarantees Netflix’s success more than anything else at this point is the exclusive content that it provides. In February 2013, House of Cards became Netflix’s first original show, earning seven Emmys and two Golden Globes throughout its six-season run. In July of the same year, Orange is the New Black followed, eventually becoming its most-watched show to date.
In 2017, Netflix received its first Oscar for the documentary short The White Helmets. Despite efforts to disqualify streaming films for such awards by the likes of Steven Spielberg,
Roma’s three wins in 2019 and the cascade of nominations this year speak to the power of new distribution channels in shaking up the industry. Today, Netflix productions have earned a total of 8 Oscars, 12 Globes, and 93 Emmys, now rivaling HBO, Sony, and Disney in the number of annual award nods.
There is no question anymore whether Netflix produces high-quality content, but so are its competitors. Unlike them however, the Los Gatos giant has an uncanny feel for what its current and potential viewers are craving. Among its most-watched content is a fantasy drama (The Witcher), a literal Murder Mystery, a sci-fi horror show (Stranger Things), and a Spanish-language crime series (Money Heist), truly covering the entire range of human emotions. But aside from the resurgence of trash and an all-time high for documentaries, the one thread that is more pervasive than all others is that of crime—and if it manages to swallow up the other two, even better.
Since its release, Tiger King has become one of Netflix’s most popular shows ever. If you read the last paragraph carefully, the reasons for this should come as no surprise: it’s a documentary that features a mullet-wearing polyamorous redneck running a big cat zoo in the middle of Oklahoma, all while trying to have his arch nemesis—herself implicated in a mysterious disappearance case—killed off. It’s as if they tried to blend Barry, Blackfish, and the “Florida” episode of Big Mouth into a new whole—and it’s strangely satisfying.
The Last Dance can’t quite live up to the garbage-filled piñata that is Tiger King, simply because there isn’t much trash to be found in MJ’s career aside from a gambling habit and his reluctance to be politically outspoken because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” What it does however have is an edge of true crime, even when there’s nothing illicit to be found.
Every episode introduces new characters and reveals new conflicts between them, whether it’s the overarching rivalry between Bulls GM Jerry Krause and Michael or Jordan’s clash with a recalcitrant Pippen in their last joint season. Even the clear hero of our story doesn’t get to wear a white vest. Instead, from week to week we’re left wondering whether he can keep his enterprise going just long enough to triumph, or whether his adversaries will get the best of him.
What makes The Last Dance so satisfying is the same thing that keeps us subscribed to Netflix: at the end of the day, despite the occasional setbacks and miscalculations, they always deliver. The only difference is that, unlike Michael, Netflix doesn’t have an expiration date—but if it did, there would be no late fees.