The problem with Netflix isn’t wokeness

Woman watching Netflix on her laptop
(Image credit: Shutterstock / wutzkohphoto / TechRadar)

If you’ve ventured onto the internet this past week, you’ll know that Netflix discourse is flavor of the month.

News of the company’s massive subscriber losses has sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry, with many – including those on Wall Street – heralding the end of Netflix’s decade-long reign as the streaming service supreme.

Netflix itself has blamed the downturn on a handful of factors, including its failure (and subsequent need) to both crack down on password sharing and diversify its subscription packages in light of increased competition from rival platforms like Disney Plus and HBO Max – but social media commentators have thrown their own reasoning into the mix. 

According to some, Netflix has fallen victim to so-called wokeness – or, in other words, a supposed over-commitment to politicized programming. Critics are bemoaning the streamer’s peddling of forced diversity, its fondness for social justice, and uniformly “boring” new movies and TV shows. As Tesla CEO (and new Twitter owner) Elon Musk put it in a recent tweet: “The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable.”

Naturally, Musk’s 83 million-plus Twitter followers responded in kind. At the time of writing, his tweet has garnered more than 300,000 likes, with many users echoing his criticism of the streamer’s “obvious” social and political agenda in a lengthy string of replies. 

“You mean you don't enjoy Viking shows where the biggest/baddest warrior is a woman (eye-roll -- no, those didn't actually exist); or horror films that turn out to be actually be social justice commentary; or shows that make 'cutesy' references to devil (Sabrina)?,” one account replied sarcastically. 

“I have been waiting for this moment for a while. Every single thing on Netflix that’s recent is just propaganda. It’s unwatchable at this point,” another wrote (of course, this roster of “unwatchable” new Netflix content must include its recent documentary on Musk and his space program, right?).

The point being, a fair few folk aren’t happy with Netflix and its uniquely politicized approach to modern storytelling. Even though it doesn't exist. 

Woke ≠ broke

Let’s be clear: Netflix does have a content problem. For starters, too many of its recent movies and TV series have been caught in the ‘style over substance’ trap. 

Genuinely interesting shows like Squid Game and Stranger Things have become outnumbered by melodramatic soap operas dressed up in HBO-quality clothing (looking at you, Anatomy of a Scandal), while many of the streamer’s recent movie offerings (consider the starry emptiness of Don’t Look Up) have likewise failed to live up to their billing. 

Netflix has also become a cesspit of mindless reality television. The relentless addition of series in the Sexy Beasts and Is It Cake? mold suggests the company’s annual $14 billion content budget no longer provides the quality assurance we once thought it did. And to make matters worse, these trashy, overproduced game shows seem less likely to face the chopping block than many of the genuinely genre-pushing projects that Netflix occasionally strikes gold with (the likes of Archive 81, Sense8 and The OA have all fallen victim to the streamer’s now-infamous cancel culture in recent years).

Following news of the company’s subscriber losses, CEO Ted Hastings did admit a need to improve the quality of the platform’s programming – a process that has already begun with the stripping back of several upcoming projects – though Netflix has a long way to go if it hopes to compete with the IP-heavy offerings of its burgeoning competitors. 

But none of the above is a consequence of wokeness. Is Netflix any more woke than Disney Plus or HBO Max? The latest Marvel movies and TV shows propping up the former have been equally lambasted by the same critics, while two of the most popular series on the latter – Euphoria and Our Flag Means Death – revolve around queer teens and gay pirates, respectively. 

Heck, the most popular English-speaking Netflix show of all time, Bridgerton, is a standard bearer of wokeness if ever there was one (and the same goes for the equally brilliant Sex Education).

It’s abundantly clear, then, that Netflix hasn’t suffered because of a penchant for political correctness – and even if it had, we wouldn’t be seeing its biggest rivals profit from fishing in the same woke-filled pond.

Levelling the playing field

Instead, the reasons behind Netflix’s woes are much more obvious. 

Just three years ago, the streamer stood alone as the world's foremost on-demand entertainment platform, with only Amazon’s Prime Video service for company (and, by extension, competition). In 2022, though, that competition has increased tenfold. The aggressive expansion of the IP-rich Disney Plus and HBO Max is well-documented – the former is projected to overtake Netflix for subscriber numbers by 2024 – but the likes of Apple TV Plus, Hulu, Showtime, and Paramount Plus have also begun to eat into Netflix’s pie.

With such a wealth of options across the board, it’s no wonder that Netflix no longer boasts the same one-stop-shop appeal to subscribers as it once did. Consider the most talked-about TV shows of the past year: Squid Game and Bridgerton notwithstanding, the likes of Euphoria, Yellowjackets, The Mandalorian, Succession, and Severance have dominated the online conversation. Sure, Netflix still has its golden geese – but the platform has never faced such high-quality competition in its decade-long stint as the streaming king.

What’s more, that competition heated up at the same time Netflix began flirting with unwelcome price increases for its customers across the globe. As the cost of living continues to rise and interest in streaming wanes following the steady lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, consumers have proven themselves unwilling to sit back and accept higher tariffs for lower-quality products.

Netflix has expressed an intention to mitigate these price increases by offering a wider range of subscription options – which look set to include a cheaper, ad-supported tier akin to that which is already available on HBO Max – but the internet has misread this strategy as yet more proof of the streamer’s fall from grace (“If I see ads on Netflix I'm canceling,” seems to be the current Twitter consensus). 

For Netflix to recover its status, then, it will need to battle against factors beyond its control. The competition from rival streamers will only increase in the years to come, and company bosses must pull together an attractive range of bespoke subscription packages – unlike any others available elsewhere – to rebuild customers’ faith in the once-indomitable Netflix machine. 

Yes, the platform’s content must improve – but it certainly doesn’t need to become less woke.

Axel Metz
Phones Editor

Axel is TechRadar's UK-based Phones Editor, reporting on everything from the latest Apple developments to newest AI breakthroughs as part of the site's Mobile Computing vertical. Having previously written for publications including Esquire and FourFourTwo, Axel is well-versed in the applications of technology beyond the desktop, and his coverage extends from general reporting and analysis to in-depth interviews and opinion.  Axel studied for a degree in English Literature at the University of Warwick before joining TechRadar in 2020, where he then earned an NCTJ qualification as part of the company’s inaugural digital training scheme.