Netflix created a monster with its Cloverfield stunt, and Altered Carbon won’t be the last victim

Joel Kinnaman in Altered Carbon (Photo: Netflix)
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This piece was originally published February 08, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018

This past weekend saw the release of a big, expensive, attention-getting science fiction spectacle on streaming service Netflix, one that had people talking throughout the subsequent week. Unfortunately for the people behind it, that spectacle wasn’t Altered Carbon.

Despite creating a 10-episode series whose visual design looks like it easily crossed over into the higher end of eight figures (guesstimates place it as arguably the costliest first season of television in history, comparable only to something like Game Of Thrones—not that Netflix is telling), the company derailed basically all the promotional steam the show had built up by unleashing the surprise reveal of The Cloverfield Paradox during the Super Bowl. And while the stunt worked, in the sense of Netflix’s brand getting another big shot of publicity right in the media-attention arm, it also pointed out the true problem with the Netflix model of constant content production. It could only call attention to its sci-fi movie at the expense of its sci-fi series—and at this point, some variant of that narrative is true across the board for nearly all of its properties. This is merely the most glaring example of a flawed business model that can’t see the forest for the trees. Netflix has poured truly staggering amounts of money into its programming, but is building a system where almost none of those shows and movies have room to thrive.

The reason is as simple as it is something Netflix wishes weren’t true: There’s only room for one big streaming release in the average media cycle. This is the same reason movie studios don’t release more than one film the same weekend: They don’t want to cost themselves money by forcing people to make a choice between two different movies, i.e. sources of revenue. In the case of a streaming service, the metrics are different, because Netflix arguably doesn’t care whether you’re watching Altered Carbon, The Cloverfield Paradox, or hell, even the godawful Rob Schneider series Real Rob, as long as you’re a paying subscriber. They want steady customers, and it doesn’t so much matter the reason new people sign up, as long as they keep doing it.

Only, that’s not really true. Netflix very much cares about the “why” of how it gets new subscribers—or keeps the current ones—and media coverage and water-cooler conversation make up a big part of that qualitative equation. Just as a favorable Q score means more to celebrities and the studios in business with them than a slightly bigger payday, so too does the hard-to-penetrate world of the zeitgeist offer more long-term benefits to a company like Netflix than a few quietly well-received hits. The cultural conversation that surrounds its monster hits like Stranger Things means more people are talking about Netflix, which means more people are likely to sign up for Netflix to see what all the fuss is about… and ultimately means more people will hang on to their subscriptions to make sure they don’t miss the next season. (Just ask HBO how excited it is about Game Of Thrones coming to an end.)

In the case of Altered Carbon, things were looking good for the service to potentially have another hit on its hands, à la Orange Is The New Black, Black Mirror, or its Marvel superhero shows (well, maybe not Iron Fist). Twitter mentions on Friday and Saturday were abuzz with references to the ambitious cyberpunk adaptation, indicating a lot of people were at least aware of it and curious to check it out, if not yet diving into a binge watch. Reviews were generally positive, if cautious—including our own. Reddit was awash in debates over its merits. But come Monday morning (Sunday night was dominated by the Super Bowl), much of that discussion had been replaced—both on social media and in the media more broadly—by Netflix’s clever Cloverfield coup.

None of this is to suggest that lots and lots of people won’t eventually watch and enjoy Altered Carbon. Plenty of series get a slow burn, in terms of total eyeballs that find them, and Netflix is nothing if not determined when it comes to shoving its most ambitious programs in customers’ faces. (It’s no coincidence that as soon as the credits for The Coverfield Paradox begin rolling, you’ve got about five seconds before it automatically takes you right into the first episode of Altered Carbon.) But in terms of having a chance to linger in the public consciousness in any meaningful way—as generated by the same opening-weekend buzz that propels other movies and series into an ongoing dialogue among fans and in social media, entertainment news, and more—the window is rapidly closing. The streaming service sacrificed a potentially more rewarding and lucrative series for the quick-fix rush of its Cloverfield marketing gimmick (with a much less positively reviewed product, at that), and like many who buy into the hype for J.J. Abrams’ mystery-box style of storytelling, they may soon find it empty at the center.

And that method of doing business—of sacrificing awareness of numerous other programs on the altar of carefully selected potential blockbusters—is the real tragedy of the service’s business plan. As Netflix rushes more and more shows, comedy specials, documentaries, and films onto its site every week, many of these promising forms of entertainment are falling victim to the streaming service’s chosen few highlights. Sure, it makes sense on a certain level to program a romantic comedy for fans of that genre, an action movie for the adrenaline junkies, and a thoughtful period piece for those seeking more highbrow fare, but in terms of actual attention—or opportunity to be introduced to these programs in a way that engages our attention more than just the next still image of some new series we’ve never heard of, as we idly scroll through the list of options on the home screen like bored Tinder users—that chance to make an impression disappears.

One could argue that watercooler conversation—as a barometer of success—is an outdated metric. That in a world where a devoted audience of YouTube stans can make the Paul brothers millionaires without most of the world noticing, whether or not people are talking about a Netflix series online or at the bar doesn’t matter so much. But the lack of transparency from Netflix makes those discussions even more vital. Anyone can look right below an idiotic Logan Paul video and see exactly how many people have watched it or given it a thumbs-up, and see the number of attendant comments. By not giving any of its numbers away, Netflix has nothing but the public sphere to rely on for driving attention. And when it overwhelms its own sea of other titles with a sparsely curated push for wannabe hits, when there’s only room for one or two to poke their heads above the scrum of pop culture and gain notice, the real victims are the remainder of its own programming.

Netflix wants to eventually be an entire medium unto itself, a parade of TV channels that usurps the need for the rest of TV altogether. But that’s not going to happen, at least not for a long time. We have too many other outlets from which to get our visual fix, and we know it. Netflix, you have our attention long enough to show us one, maybe two things to check out over the course of a weekend. Stop wasting it by running roughshod over your own content in the quest to be all things to all people. Give us all some time—and more importantly for the people who make them, give your own lavishly expensive creations the space and attention they deserve.