Not long ago, I found myself staring at my laptop at 3 am with bleary eyes, knowing I should stop but unable to. I’d fallen deep down the Netflix rabbit hole, and I couldn’t climb out.
I’d landed there binging on Terrace House, a Real World-esque Japanese reality show that throws Millennials into a house together. I was hopelessly hooked. Not because I thought the show was particularly good—I thought the opposite, in fact.
The premise isn’t that imaginative: You watch six twenty-somethings try to date each other, and they flirt, fight, judge, commiserate and confide in each other. “There is no script,” the show’s description promises. And it’s so addictive seeing the drama unravel it makes you feel kind of unhealthy—like you’ve eaten way too much candy. Part of the curiosity is the peek you get into the cultural differences of courtship in Japan. (“Now that you guys have kissed, are you in a relationship?” one guy asks another roommate after the latter finally mustered the courage to make his move on a girl.) But Terrace House also pushes some, uh, plainly outdated gender stereotypes.
Terrace House, in short, is pretty terrible. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Which is why, at 3 am, instead of sleeping, I started obsessively Googling what happened after the last season available on Netflix ended. A quick search told me nine more episodes exist, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to track down every possible spoiler so I could be done with the show.
Turns out, I couldn’t quit Terrace House so easily. The show’s Wikipedia page is in Japanese. So are most fan sites. The actors’ social media profiles are incomprehensible. I stopped searching for video clips when I realized the futility of it—I’d watched the show with English subtitles, possibly Netflix-supplied.
At 4 am, it finally dawned on me that if I wanted another Terrace House fix, I’d have to count on Netflix to deliver it. Which is exactly what Netflix wants. It wants to hook me on a Japanese reality show I can’t find anywhere else and never would have found if its algorithms hadn’t determined that this obscure overseas morsel was exactly the kind of video junk food I’d compulsively devour. Welcome to the future of global television, which isn’t about exporting Hollywood to the world. Clearly, when TV is truly global, the world will come to you.
Local Content Goes Global
Netflix makes no secret of its goal for global domination. But, a little paradoxically, one of the most effective ways of achieving that is by going local. After launching in 130 more countries in January, one of the best ways Netflix can attract new subscribers is by offering them shows they already know. Netflix pushed that tactic especially hard after launching in Japan in September. As Bloomberg reported, local shows typically comprise 10 to 20 percent of the programming in most Netflix territories. Japanese content—including Terrace House—made up 40 percent of Netflix’s offerings in Japan.
When TV is truly global, the world will come to you.
But grabbing up regional content can do more than attract subscribers in those regions. It can keep Netflix fresh everywhere else. This bidirectional benefit is perhaps most clearly seen with Narcos, an original drama that was targeted specifically at Spanish-speaking audiences but became one of the most popular shows on the platform. Netflix is employing the same strategy with the Mexican telenovela Club de Cuervos. More recently, it ordered its first original series that will be made in Spain, and its upcoming series Marseille features French-speaking actors, including Gerard Dépardieu.
So it turns out, as Netflix becomes available in most parts of the world, all of the TV already being made around the world has the potential to find its way onto to Netflix and into my apartment. When it does, global TV could start to look a lot less like the Americanization of global entertainment and more like a cultural exchange.
“I haven’t seen any reliable data on the split between, say, US titles and international titles on Netflix, but I would assume it’s vastly biased towards US titles,” says Tony Gunnarsson, a TV and video analyst with market research firm Ovum. He estimates that around 75 percent—or more—of Netflix’s collection is currently comprised of American movies and television. “For local productions, I think Netflix has only just gotten started.”
A Network Without Limits
Television networks have for decades imported shows from abroad and made them accessible to their own audiences. Sometimes the adaptation doesn’t take much work—think PBS airing Downton Abbey. But sometimes these cross-border TV deals require hefty post-production. Growing up in the Philippines, my friends and I watched Koreanovelas and Taiwanese dramas on local networks, the audio meticulously dubbed in Tagalog, perfectly synced to the actors’s speech.
The extra work is justified by the potentially huge payoff. My friends and I were fanatics of these shows (hey there, Meteor Garden). We would wait up for them, record them, binge on them, and pass them around so others could watch them too. If Netflix can foster similarly obsessive behavior in its current user base, well, that’s very good for Netflix.
Netflix has invested heavily in the crucial backend tech it needs to stream as many as 125 million hours of video every single day.
As a truly international platform, Netflix has a distinct advantage over any network limited by national boundaries. It has immense reach, immense recognition, and, most importantly, immense infrastructure. As we’ve reported, Netflix has invested heavily in the crucial backend tech required to stream as many as 125 million hours of video every single day without literally breaking the Internet.
Michele Hilmes, a professor emeritus of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, points out that the DVD market went a long way toward breaking language barriers by providing subtitles and dubbing. What Netflix can do that DVDs can’t is provide an instantaneous global push.
“What’s new is the idea that an American-based digital distributor could be the one picking up this content and making it available everywhere,” she says. “To use old terms, it’s like this broadcaster that has a giant antenna that broadcasts all over the world. All of a sudden, what does Netflix become? Does it become a global broadcaster?”
The Global Binge
Yes, Netflix still faces hurdles that depend on the rules and cultural norms of a given market. In France, for instance, laws meant to protect theaters prohibit streaming of any movie within three years of its theatrical release. The Japanese are accustomed to getting television for free. And Netflix still isn’t officially in China.
Still, as Netflix hurtles toward truly global TV, it could upend the world’s expectations of entertainment.
For now, television trends around the world remain largely dictated by Western norms. When Netflix drops something like Making a Murderer or House of Cards, you can bet the binge-watching isn’t happening only in the US. But what if we all got hooked on something like Terrace House? “Why not?” says Ovum’s Gunnarsson. “The split between US and international Netflix subscribers is rapidly approaching fifty-fifty. In a decade or two, Netflix’s library may appear to be more international than US-centric.”
Gunnarsson says such a reality may lie “in the very long term.” But it doesn’t seem outlandish. Netflix is, after all, well on its way toward realizing that vision, one bleary-eyed Terrace House binger at a time.