Netflix at 25: How Streaming Changed the Way We Have Sex, Fall in Love & Live Our Lives
Over the past 25 years, from DVDs in the mail to original productions, Netflix has
been a driver of cultural change
Netflix turned 25 years old on Aug. 29, reminding us not only of how much the company has changed since 1997, but also how much it’s changed us. From the way to spend our free time to what we talk about to … yes, how we have sex.
If you have any doubt just how profound an impact Netflix has had on culture and commerce, let’s dispel those doubts with a few numbers. First, consider the sheer volume of Netflix subscribers: 220.7 million, worldwide. (That’s after the record subscriber loss in the second quarter of 2022.) Second, there is Netflix’s 2021 revenues: $29.7 billion.
And third, $2.3 million. That’s what singer Kate Bush has earned in new royalties, as of early July 2022, for her 37-year-old song “Running Up That Hill,” following its prominence in Netflix’s Stranger Things Season 4. That’s right, a song from 1985 earned its artist more than $2 million, this year alone, from renewed interest that followed its use in Netflix’s most-watched English-language series of all time.
If that’s not enough to convince you Netflix isn’t merely a streaming platform, but driver of cultural trends, then just chill… and keep reading.
How It Started Vs. How It’s Going
Founded in August 1997, Netflix predated the modern concept of streaming. In an era of dial-up connections, it initially allowed subscribers to use an online queue to rent DVDs (and, later, Blu-ray discs and video games), delivered by mail. Years before the company, and other streaming giants, were squeezing the life out of cable TV, Netflix sounded the death knell for a once-prized institution: the neighborhood video-rental store.
It’s likely little coincidence that video juggernaut Blockbuster – with upward of 9,000 store locations at its peak – filed for bankruptcy a little more than a decade after Netflix’s arrival.
By making it easier for people to choose what to watch, and when to watch it, Netflix’s DVDs-by-mail model helped to condition consumers. They learned to be more selective, and more in control, of their media experience. Why schlepp to the video store, and pay several dollars to rent a movie for 48 or 72 hours? With Netflix, you could select titles on the web, have them delivered to your door, and keep them for as long as you wanted, all for a monthly fee. (Netflix still offers a DVD-only plan, by the way.)
Netflix conditioned subscribers early on to accept the idea of recurring charges. It didn’t matter how many DVDs you ordered each month — five, one or none. You still paid. Today, the system is the same: You can stream Netflix every day, or not use it all month, but you nevertheless pay the same fee. What has changed dramatically is that Netflix is no longer just a distributor; it’s a powerhouse of original productions.
From Stranger Things to Tiger King, Netflix Changed ‘Must-See TV‘
In 1980, TV viewers couldn’t wait to learn “Who shot J.R.?” in the Season 3 cliffhanger of the prime time soap opera Dallas. An estimated 350 million people tuned in, eight months later, to discover the answer. (Spoiler alert: It was Kristin Shepherd, J.R. Ewing’s sister-in-law and former mistress.)
Back then, some TV shows really were truly must-see events. To skip a pivotal episode would be to miss part of the cultural fabric. Viewers tuned in for season, and series, finales, and for big reveals, to enjoy the show, but also so they could be part of the conversation the following day. With its immense success, Netflix has reinvented the concept of “must-see” viewing.
What’s different today is that, when Netflix drops, say, Stranger Things Season 4, viewers routinely binge multiple episodes, or the entire season, in one sitting. The power of Netflix can also be seen in programs like its true-crime series Tiger King, which wasn’t an immediate hit, but instead built an audience through word of mouth on social media.
However, it’s not a simple matter of viewership numbers alone. It’s how those translate into a larger conversation, and into cultural influence.
The resurgence of Kate Bush’s 1985 song “Running Up That Hill,” tied to Stranger Things, is one notable example. But so, too, is the significant rise of interest in big cats, following the release of Tiger King. Audience-intelligence platform Pulsar found that even far less-popular Netflix titles, like the 2020 docudrama The Social Dilemma, can shape conversation on social media.
‘Netflix and Chill’ Enters the Lexicon
Every generation has its lingo for sex — and Netflix became inextricably intertwined with the subtle shorthand of our day. “Netflix and chill,” a euphemism for sexual activity (primarily among teens), began to circulate as far back as 2014. A parent could be told, “We’re just going to watch Netflix and chill,” permitting a teen to disguise what was really going on. Or a potential paramour could be asked whether they wanted to “Netflix and chill,” which discarded pretense, and established intent, from the offset.
For the record, it was always a bit of a tongue-in-cheek expression, meant to be ironic as well as subtle. But it became part of the language, all the same.
Netflix’s influence extends beyond mere sexual slang, however. The streaming service has also altered the very concept of “date night.” It was once a time-honored ritual of going out, to dinner and perhaps a movie. Now, however, it’s only matter of blocking out time to order delivery and settle in together on the sofa. No need to dress up, make a reservation or hire a babysitter. And definitely no trip to the video-rental store.
It’s Netflix’s world now. We only live in, and enjoy, it.