Netflix started releasing its own “original” TV series in 2013, and since the start, it’s been obvious that subscribers loved its delivery method: Full-season drops of on-demand bliss. Watching was convenient — stupidly so. But the question still lingered: In the age of scattered viewing, would Netflix ever replicate the water cooler talk that live TV perfected? Could the king of streamers make you feel culturally deficient if you didn’t subscribe?
There have been moments over the past few years when I thought Netflix was inching toward that, from its first splashy original “House of Cards” to the slow build of its cult hit “Stranger Things.” But it was the runaway success of two originals last month, “You” and “Bird Box,” that finally convinced me that Netflix had begun to define the next phase of water cooler conversation.
“You” and “Bird Box” had very different origins — one as an original movie and the other as a TV show picked up after being discarded by Lifetime — but both spread through the internet and social media thanks to Netflix’s massive reach (139 million paying subscribers and counting). Engaging with the online cultural conversation feels like the 2019 equivalent of chatting at the water cooler at work, and I really felt I wouldn’t understand an important chunk of the internet if I wasn’t familiar with this one movie and one show. And it wasn’t because they were groundbreaking pieces of art, it was because they were so easy to watch on Netflix that everybody — or what felt like everybody — did.
The avalanche of “Bird Box” jokes and memes on social media was so overwhelming that people accused Netflix of using fake accounts to help spread them, though there was no proof. And in the end, it didn’t really matter. The phenomenon was real.
Both “Bird Box” and “You” became a thing and made you feel a bit left out if you hadn’t consumed them. And expect that to keep happening with Netflix originals in 2019, especially since the streamer has become the top entertainment platform for teens, beating everything from cable TV to YouTube.
Netflix’s head of content, Ted Sarandos, addressed this very feeling on the streamer’s Q4 earnings call.
“For part of your Netflix subscription, you are in the zeitgeist,” Sarandos said. “You’re watching the programming that the rest of the world is loving at the same time.”
‘Kimberly like everyone in the world’
“Bird Box” did not get off to a particularly auspicious start, leaving critics unimpressed when it became available to stream on December 21. The movie currently has a 63% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes.
But there was something intriguing about the movie, which follows Sandra Bullock as she tries to stay alive and avoid an evil that kills using sight — hence the blindfold.
Master of horror Stephen King tweeted that he was “absolutely riveted” by the film and urged viewers to ignore the lukewarm reviews, which he said might have been caused by “Netflix Prejudice.”
Whether or not they listened to King, viewers flocked to the film. On December 28, Netflix took the unusual step of releasing a view count, saying that over 45 million accounts had watched over 70% of the movie in its first week, a record for the service.
By that time the memes were in full swing, and the movie’s omnipresent blindfold had inspired the “Bird Box Challenge,” which led at least one person to crash a car and may have prompted YouTube to ban dangerous pranks and challenges.
When Kim Kardashian tweeted on January 1 that she liked the movie and asked who had seen it, she was relentlessly teased.
“Kimberly like everyone in the entire world,” Chrissy Teigen tweeted in reply.
Though “Bird Box” was clearly great fodder for memes, Netflix’s ubiquity and ease of use allowed it to enter the cultural conversation like a tidal wave. And the ascension of “You,” a Lifetime series that hit Netflix less than a week after “Bird Box,” showed again how powerful the platform had become.
“You,” a creepy series starring Penn Badgley as an obsessive New York City bookstore clerk, debuted to rave reviews when it aired on Lifetime in September.
Writing for Time Magazine, Judy Berman called the show a “wicked satire of social media, self-proclaimed ‘nice guys’ and the twisted ideals of romantic fiction.” It currently has a 91% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes.
But even with the good critical buzz, “You” wasn’t a hit on Lifetime. The show got a live viewership of 611,000 on Lifetime, and though the network had secured the option to renew it for a second before its release, it decided not to move forward. Netflix picked up the show, giving the green light to season two and branding the first season a “Netflix original.”
When the first season dropped on Netflix December 26, it quickly entered the internet hive mind. Though it didn’t spread as intensely as “Bird Box,” its success was equally notable because the show had already been out since September and had garnered such good reviews.
Here you can see the relative search volumes on Google of “You Lifetime” and “You Netflix” over time:
On January 14, IMDb tweeted that “You” was its top-trending show.
But it’s not simply that “You” became more popular when it hit Netflix, something has been dubbed the “Netflix Effect” and has happened to shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Riverdale.”
The actors and characters also immediately became topics of internet chatter.
Take supporting character Peach Salinger, played by “Pretty Little Liars” star Shay Mitchell, for instance.
On January 7, Vulture published a post titled, “Now That You Is on Netflix, You Should All Worship Peach Salinger.” Then on January 11, BuzzFeed followed with, “This Post Is For Anyone That Is Team Peach Salinger And Demands Justice For Her.” And on January 14, TV Guide raised the stakes by declaring, “Every Character on YOU Is Trash, but I Would Still Die for Peach Salinger.”
Peach Salinger had officially become a thing. Before I started watching “You,” I had even wondered myself why the heck they named a character Peach Salinger.
But if you look back at when the show aired on Lifetime, there was no Peach Salinger internet buzz. Here is a chart of Google searches that illustrates that:
Similar charts show the same trend for search interest in the names two main characters, Badgley’s Joe Goldberg and Elizabeth Lail’s Guinevere Beck.
And like “Bird Box,” the characters on “You” have inspired lots of quality memes.
But it’s not just the “You” characters. Penn Badgley is enjoying a renaissance in public awareness, with Google search interest surging and his Instagram hitting over 1.2 million followers.
Badgley has also participated in some of the fun internet shenanigans around the show that have popped up as it has gone viral on Netflix, including wading into the debate over people crushing on his serial-killer character.
“The amount of people romanticizing @PennBadgley’s character in YOU scares me,” Twitter user @darrenglitz wrote.
“Ditto. It will be all the motivation I need for season 2,” Badgley replied.
Lifetime execs must be pulling their hair out watching a show they took a chance on becoming a cultural force for someone else — and Netflix of all places. It shows the sad reality of the cable TV business today.
But Netflix is uniquely positioned to launch something into the zeitgeist, and not just compared to cable.
Netflix says 40 million households watched “You” in the first month on the platform (defined by watching 70% of at least one episode). Sure, there are caveats, but that means more Netflix accounts watched “You” than the entire subscriber base of Hulu, which recently announced it had reached 25 million.
And at 80 million views and counting, over three times Hulu’s entire subscriber base watched at least 70% of “Bird Box” on Netflix.
It’s hard to imagine any other platform getting that kind of instantaneous reach, and cultural impact, from scratch. Welcome to the worldwide water cooler.