Ten years ago, when we wanted to watch a movie at home, we headed to a nearby Blockbuster. If we wanted to see our favorite TV show, we had a few other options — DVR, and those awesome DVD box sets — but we were probably going to make time to tune in when it aired on TV. These days, the way we engage with television and film has completely changed, and that’s in large part thanks to Netflix.
The streaming media juggernaut has had its share of ups and downs since it started in 1997. It began as a DVD-by-mail service, an alternative to brick and mortar video stores. For a while, it struggled with its value proposition to members. But over time, it’s worked out some of its kinks, and become an unprecedented player in the entertainment industry.
Over the past few years, Netflix has proven that it’s more than just a streaming service. By offering unique content that capitalizes on our binge-watching tendencies and expanding into the distribution market, it’s made itself invaluable to members — so much so that it spawned an inescapable catchphrase. But by many accounts, Netflix may have had its best year yet in 2016. Here are 10 ways that Netflix absolutely killed it last year.
1. It went worldwide
Though Netflix has been around for almost 20 years, the service was based entirely in the U.S. until 2010. Since then, it’s slowly been expanding its global reach, nabbing lucrative deals in North America, South America, and Europe.
Last year was a game-changer for the streaming service, though. In January 2016, they announced that they would be teaming up with LG to offer services in an additional 130 countries around the world. Their new prepaid offerings meant that for the first time, Netflix was available in much of Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. To date, the only major countries that don’t have access to Netflix are China, North Korea, Crimea, and Syria, but the company is actively working to get up and running there, too. In other words, it likely won’t be long before this once-struggling corporation has achieved world domination; at least, as far as binge-watching is concerned.
2. It ruled the summer with Stranger Things
Stranger Things wasn’t the first Netflix original series — not even close. It wasn’t even the first to find critical acclaim or widespread popularity. But there was something different about the Duffer Brothers’ nostalgic sci-fi thriller. With little fanfare, it arrived at the end of July. Within weeks, it became the most talked-about TV series of the summer. From Barb’s untimely demise to the sheer awesomeness of Eleven, fans young and old were obsessed with Stranger Things. It wasn’t just because the series did such an amazing job of capturing the classic feeling of our favorite 1980s adventure movies, like E.T. and The Goonies. The series felt authentic, genuine, and exciting, and was devoid of a lot of the cynicism we see these days, which made it not just exciting, but fun. By the end of the year, no other series came close to capturing the raw, widespread enthusiasm we saw in those late summer months.
3. It finally started offering up really awesome movies
For years, one of the biggest complaints that users had about Netflix was that its movie collection was subpar. And for a while there, it really was. Sure, B-movies and obscure old films are fun now and then. But compared to services like HBO and Amazon, Netflix didn’t have all that much to offer us in the way of quality movie-viewing. It didn’t help that as they ramped up their original content, they started to scale back the number of titles that they offered us.
In 2016, though, Netflix finalized a long sought-after, high-profile deal with Disney, one that meant they would have exclusive rights to stream the company’s new releases. In September, the agreement kicked in — and viewers started seeing many more exciting viewing options when they logged in. For the foreseeable future, Netflix will be the go-to source for the latest from Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars.
4. It gave us more viewing options
The best companies listen to their customers and adjust their business models when there’s an unmet need. In 2016, Netflix did just that when they announced new offline viewing capabilities. As of November, Netflix users can now download movies and episodes of TV shows to their iOS or Android apps. The move was met with widespread joy from customers who have long wished they could catch up with their favorites when they’re commuting or in other Wi-Fi-free zones.
That meant tons of positive press for the company, even though they were merely catching up with a service that their rival, Amazon, has offered for years. By marketing the offline option, and making sure it made headlines, Netflix did manage to retroactively steal Amazon’s thunder — because it made it seem like something new and exciting, even though it’s hardly revolutionary.
5. It had more original content than ever
It may be hard to believe, but it’s only been five years since Netflix released its first original series, Lilyhammer, and officially entered the original programming game. They’ve certainly made up for lost time, though — and 2016 was a landmark year for their creative output. Netflix released 126 original pieces of content, which was more than any other television network or streaming service. And they branched out in terms of the types of stories they were telling.
In 2016, Netflix brought us new documentaries, original films, and TV series that span just about every genre. From historical drama with The Crown to irreverent animation with BoJack Horseman, the network proved that it could offer up something for just about anyone.
6. It made a statement about social justice
There’s no question that Netflix has brought us some of the most entertaining new programs in the last few years. But they’ve also started to dabble with offering up thought-provoking documentaries. In 2016, the network released several documentaries that focused on hot-button social issues.
Audrie & Daisy followed the aftermath of three separate sexual assault cases in America and looked at how the victims’ lives were forever changed by the response (or lack thereof) of local law enforcement. 13th, from acclaimed director Ava DuVernay, examines the role that mass incarceration has played in the United States since slavery was abolished. Both films earned rave reviews and inspired conversations about social justice. By releasing these films, Netflix proved that they’re not just in the business of entertainment, but also prepared to tell important and uncomfortable stories.
7. It raked in awards and nominations
Accolades aren’t everything — but they don’t hurt, either, right? In the past few years, Netflix has enjoyed a handful of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Bloodline. In 2016, though, it saw a rise in the number of accolades it received.
At the Emmys, it led the number of nominations for streaming networks, thanks to nods for its mainstays, as well as for Making a Murderer, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and even A Very Murray Christmas. In December, the network enjoyed another suite of Golden Globe nominations thanks to big nods for Stranger Things and The Crown. Additionally, 13th — which Netflix acquired for distribution earlier in 2016 — picked up a Critic’s Choice Award and is a front-runner for a Best Documentary Oscar. It all goes to show that for Netflix, the increased quantity of original programming hasn’t led to decreased quality by any means.
8. It snagged some big movie distribution deals
With our tendency to binge-watch TV shows, it seems like Netflix would be safe to put most of its eggs in the streaming television basket. But the ambitious network isn’t taking any chances, and made some big moves in 2016 to flex its movie distribution muscle.
Alongside Amazon, Netflix was a huge presence at many major film festivals this year, and became one of the top buyers at Sundance. It picked up sought-after indies like Tallulah, The Fundamentals of Caring, and Under the Shadow. By doubling down on their investment in a solid, creative motion picture catalogue, Netflix showed its users that it’s more than just a platform for quality TV.
9. It successfully revived some old favorites
As we learned from Mad Men, nostalgia is a powerful force. In 2016, Netflix found the perfect way to tap into our own yearning for the past by bringing back three enormously popular TV series. It wasn’t the first time it tried resurrecting long-lost, beloved shows — to date, it’s rebooted or revived almost a dozen series, including Arrested Development and The Killing.
But Netflix really hit the sweet spot in 2016, because they managed to not only un-cancel series, but truly recapture the excitement around them. In February, they brought ’90s sitcom dramedy back in full force with Fuller House. While the series hasn’t been a huge hit with critics, it’s been exactly what fans were looking for — and sometimes, that’s all that matters. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life revived interest in the former WB series and finally gave fans the “last four words” resolution they’d been waiting for.
With its third season of Black Mirror, the BBC dystopian anthology series, Netflix wasn’t really going for nostalgia. But it did tap into the primal paranoia many of us have been feeling in our increasingly technology-focused world. And with its October release, just before an election that was driven by social media conversations, it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.
10. It took some big risks (and they paid off)
All in all, 2016 was a year in which Netflix not only expanded its presence, but took some big risks. For the first time in years, they raised prices on existing members — but because they’d given us enough reason to stick around, it didn’t backfire. And they experimented with how to roll out new series; Stranger Things saw relatively little media coverage prior to its release, but strong word-of-mouth made it a success. Likewise, the December sci-fi drama The OA hit Netflix with even less marketing behind it — and that fact alone, as well as its off-the-wall premise made it big news.
Netflix has positioned itself as a leader in entertainment distribution, an essential part of our media consumption. But it didn’t do that by playing it safe, and that method continued to pay off last year. We can’t wait to see what 2017 holds.
Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox
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