Dirt: Infinite Content & the end of niche

How Netflix is reviving the mainstream.

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Boxing Day, 2020 (December 26, for non-Brits). Feeling bloated and rudderless, the cumulative effects of turkey and lockdown, I needed something easy to watch. “I heard Bridgerton is supposed to be good,”offered my wife from the next room. When I clicked the search tab, Netflix was as prescient as ever with its first recommendation, in the top left.

My instinctive reaction was: Corsets? Nope. I swiftly navigated away to the familiar haven of Peep Show. The following day I was flipping through Netflix again when I noticed the same typeface: BRIDGERTON. But it took me a second to register it as the same show. The image framing it was entirely different. 

Intrigued, I clicked through and settled in. It turns out I didn’t mind corsets so much.

Fast forward a few weeks and Bridgerton has become a runaway success. Along with other worldwide hits like Money Heist and Tiger King, Netflix proved again its capacity to shape global culture in 2020.

The streaming platform became famous by offering thousands of titles on demand to serve every conceivable niche. But what’s more interesting is its growing knack for creating shows that go massively mainstream. And this is by design. As Melanie MacFarland pointed out in her review of Bridgerton, the producers deliberately targeted multiple audiences.

This is a show devoted to casting the broadest of broad nets… A touch of the staid nature that crispens past films and BBC productions based on Austen's work remain in play here, but Van Dusen gussies things up to appeal to the "Gossip Girl" constituency.

Netflix doesn’t deploy classic market segmentation to think about its audiences. Rather than frame people in fixed psychographic terms (Millennials, Empty Nesters), the streaming giant analyzes “Taste Clusters” which can transcend a variety of people that you wouldn’t normally group together. As executive Ted Sarandos told Vulture:

It’s just as likely that a 75-year-old man in Denmark likes Riverdale as my teenage kids.

The truth is a singular “mainstream audience” doesn’t really exist. Rather, hits successfully unite a range of different tastes which encompass a range of different people. And that’s how a huge viewership is built.

Bridgerton, then, is an example of what I call Infinite Content: entertainment media in which multiple meanings are intentionally cultivated and surfaced through algorithmic technology — like Netflix’s recommendation feeds — so the same content simultaneously appeals to a variety of different audiences.

This article lays out how the Netflix algorithm optimizes its thumbnail artwork to sell Stranger Things to different taste clusters. And this is precisely what I experienced with the disparate Bridgerton thumbnails: The service was trying to pitch me the same show from multiple angles, figuring out which one will make me watch it.

But alternative artwork is just the tip of the iceberg. Infinite Content is enabling Netflix to offer less real choice. The number of shows the service hosts is actually reducing over time as it optimizes towards fewer titles that appeal to the broadest audiences (or, rather, the largest collection of niches). What ever happened to the Long Tail?

Chris Anderson published his Long Tail article in 2004, 3 years before Netflix launched its video streaming service. His thesis was groundbreaking and prescient. For the first time niche content would become a viable business model as the internet reduced distribution costs to zero: 

Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.

For Anderson the Long Tail would fundamentally reshape culture as well as business. But the resilience of big, mass market hits — despite endless choice and zero friction — receives less attention. I want to draw our attention to what we might call the Fat Head of Anderson’s Long Tail.

Netflix, then pre-streaming, is a key case study. The book compares the 25,000 DVDs it offered at the time to the 3,000 one could find in the local blockbuster. For Anderson, the availability of niche content would catalyze a cultural renaissance as consumers, for the first time, could discover what they truly enjoy.

As [consumers] wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture).

13 years later, evidence of the Long Tail abounds. Easily available content has ballooned. 500 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube every minute. Spotify makes over 50 million songs instantly available. And there are countless instances of obscure creators and hidden content finding new audiences because of the internet. But what is perhaps more surprising is that mass culture has remained so resilient. We may not be watching Bridgerton at the same time, or for the same reasons, but millions are watching it nonetheless. 

Or take music. When you have millions of tracks at your fingertips, Anderson predicted many of us would wander “further from the beaten path” and disperse into niches as we became free to discover our true tastes. Yet despite hosting over 3 million artists, Spotify revealed last year that just 43,000 account for 90% of global streams. Put differently, 98.6% of artists account for just 10% of listening. 

And like Netflix, Spotify has experimented with new forms of discovery that connect content with more diverse audiences. Mood driven playlists surface latent meanings within music that were previously obscured by reductive artist-centric framings. The platform controls the context in which we consume.

The Long Tail thesis was that growth in the future would come from serving small, niche audiences. This holds. But what Anderson missed was how technology would enable platforms to exploit the Long Tail within pieces of content, as well as across it. Bridgerton is emblematic of this Infinite Content, uniting a diverse range of audiences to create a new global mainstream. — By Tom Hoy (@thoy / @stripepartners)

The Dirt: The mainstream is dead; long live the mainstream.