Olivia Colman may be the jewel in its crown, but next up on Netflix is nature king David Attenborough… no wonder rivals are rattled
For six decades, Sir David Attenborough’s epic shows have belonged to all of us for the price of a TV licence. But when the legendary naturalist launches his latest blockbuster, Our Planet, on April 5 – a series that is said to have cost £48 million – you won’t find it on the BBC, or on any other terrestrial channel. The only way to watch it will be with a subscription to the streaming giant Netflix. All eight one-hour episodes will be available from April 5, for viewing in any order, at any time, and the audience will be a global one of 139 million subscribers in 190 countries.
‘It’s about having that global moment,’ says Our Planet executive producer Colin Butfield, who points out that terrestrial channels could never provide such a dramatic, synchronised opening day. ‘This show is a pivotal moment in the history of Netflix,’ the company triumphantly declared. ‘It’s about saving the planet but it’s also about promoting Netflix.’
For six decades, Sir David Attenborough’s epic shows have belonged to all of us for the price of a TV licence. But when the legendary naturalist launches his latest blockbuster, the only way to watch it will be with a subscription to the streaming giant Netflix
And that’s significant because, while Netflix may be the biggest beast in the streaming jungle right now, plenty of others aspire to its spot at the top of the food chain.
The chasing pack includes Amazon, Rakuten, Chili and Sky, and it keeps growing. Disney, which recently agreed a £54 billion takeover of 21st Century Fox, has plans to launch a rival service later this year. And tomorrow Apple is expected to announce it will reveal its own competitor.
But it’s Amazon that offers the biggest immediate threat to Netflix’s dominance, its Prime platform having already claimed an estimated 75 million subscribers. The e-commerce titan has made significant investments in content, bringing the old Top Gear boys to front The Grand Tour in 2015 for a sum Amazon boss Jeff Bezos described as ‘very expensive but worth it’. Amazon also has football rights, increasing amounts of original drama and is said to be sinking £350 million into an adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings.
But for now, Netflix has the high ground, and Attenborough’s migration from the BBC is only the latest play in the California-based firm’s relentless pitch for global domination. Its active subscriptions are projected to hit 200 million next year (it already has ten million subscribers in the UK), and it has made inroads into almost every country in the world.
After Life. Ricky Gervais (above, with Roisin Conaty, left) plays a widower who lashes out at the world and everyone he meets
Unicorn Store. An art-school dropout meets The Salesman, an eccentric Willy Wonka figure who promises to fulfil her dream to own a unicorn
Our Planet’s multimillion-pound budget is just a drop in the ocean for a firm that spent a staggering £9 billion on programming in 2018 – a figure expected to rise to more than £11 billion this year. By contrast, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 collectively spent just £2.5 billion on new, UK-made programmes in 2017.
The formula is a simple one, says Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos: ‘More shows, more watching; more watching, more subscriptions; more subs, more revenue; more revenue, more content.’
As recently as 2007, Netflix was just a DVD rental company, posting out discs in red envelopes. A dozen years on, it is one of the world’s biggest media and entertainment companies and is currently valued at £125 billion.
Along the way it has lured some of the biggest stars and directors on the planet, while pumping out hits such as The Crown, Stranger Things, House Of Cards and true-crime documentary series Making A Murderer. And as it grows its ambitions beyond television and pours millions into film projects, TV networks aren’t the only ones who are scared.
Netflix sent its first shot across Hollywood’s bows in 2015 when it commissioned True Detective and future James Bond director Cary Fukunaga to work on Beasts Of No Nation, its first feature film, starring Idris Elba.
Since then, the company has scaled up its efforts. It recruited Angelina Jolie to direct and produce First They Killed My Father; Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro is working on a Netflix version of Pinocchio; and Martin Scorsese is directing a £100 million mob drama called The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, due later this year.
Russian Doll. Natasha Lyonne stars as the birthday girl who ends up dead after her own party, only to wake up and relive it again and again
Netflix has even elbowed its way into the Oscars, ruffling feathers by winning three statuettes for Alfonso Cuarón’s autobiographical drama Roma, including best director.
Steven Spielberg said the film, which played in just a handful of cinemas to make it eligible for the awards, should not be considered a ‘proper’ contender. ‘Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,’ he sniffed.
The next big push will be into original child-and family-friendly programming, and it is launching its first animated feature film this year – Klaus, a Santa Claus origin story set for Christmas release – as it moves beyond its mostly adult user base. ‘If you get them young, they will stay with you for life. That’s the new Netflix revolution,’ one producer told Event.
This rapacious assault on our screens has left terrestrial broadcasters terrified. The BBC has revealed that almost a million people a year are cancelling their TV licences and switching to streaming services. The threat is judged to be so grave that the BBC and ITV have put decades of habitual rivalry behind them to team up on a joint streaming service, named BritBox, due to launch later this year, stocked with classic TV such as Doctor Who and Blackadder, as well as original series.
Netflix’s 58-year-old CEO and co-founder Reed Hastings doesn’t appear too scared of the growing army of competitors. He famously claimed that, given the potential for late-night binge-viewing, Netflix’s main rival is sleep. ‘And we’re winning!’ he gleefully adds. And so is he – Hastings now has a personal fortune of £3 billion.
Netflix introduced streaming in 2007, but it was 2013’s House Of Cards that truly burst the company out of its niche, with Oscar-winning director David Fincher and star Kevin Spacey reinventing an Eighties British political thriller for the US, releasing its own version a full series at a time. The tsunami it unleashed among mainstream viewing habits has yet to die down.
The company took out huge loans to fund the series and continues to borrow heavily to pay for its content, but Wall Street analysts do not mind that the company has yet to turn a profit. ‘The goal of Netflix is to dominate the market,’ said one. ‘They may not be making money yet, but Netflix will only become more dominant. Then the billions will roll in, and keep rolling in.’
With monthly subscriptions, Wall Street money on tap, and no need to fill cinemas, Netflix has big bucks to spend. And that appeals to writers, directors and stars.
‘When they woo you, they don’t just offer the best salary,’ says one Netflix insider. ‘They offer creative control. It’s a very seductive package. Steven Spielberg and other Hollywood traditionalists might be criticising Netflix now because it is a disruptor. But Netflix is very persuasive and it has the deepest pockets in Hollywood.’
By Caroline Graham
15 great TV shows to streams
The Grand Tour
While Top Gear stalls on the grid, the unholy trinity of Clarkson, Hammond and May roar off in cruise control with their tried and tested formula of messing about in cars and giving it top bants. Amazon Prime, Season 3 now streaming
Natasha Lyonne stars as the birthday girl who ends up dead after her own party, only to wake up and relive it again and again. So far so Groundhog Day, as this existential fantasy mystery plays out with panache and inventive weirdness. Dead good comedy. Netflix, now streaming
A mythological deity, played with relish by Ian McShane, and an ex-convict (Hollyoaks’ Ricky Whittle) embark on an epic road trip to battle the new gods on the block. A visually arresting, startling fantasy, adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel. Amazon Prime, Season 2 now streaming
Ricky Gervais (above, with Roisin Conaty) plays a widower who lashes out at the world and everyone he meets. With Gervais’s sensitive side to the fore (think Derek) and Extras’ Ashley Jensen at its heart, this is as charming as a comedy about depression can be. Netflix, now streaming
A businesswoman falls for a conman, embarking on a whirlwind romance and refusing to take heed of her daughters’ warnings. Adapted from the hit podcast, it stars Eric Bana as the sociopathic Dirty John and Nashville’s Connie Britton (right, with Bana) in an addictive eight-part thriller. Netflix, now streaming
If Netflix wants its own Planet Earth then that’s what Netflix gets. Sir David Attenborough and the Blue Planet team hook up again for a series showcasing our most precious species and the world’s last remaining wildernesses. Expect a strong emphasis on conservation and the impact of climate change. Netflix, April 5
Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina
Lightweight Nineties comedy Sabrina The Teenage Witch takes a walk on the dark side in this supernatural reboot. Netflix, April 5
Scandi thriller centring on a tragedy at a prep school in Stockholm’s wealthiest suburb, where a seemingly well-adjusted high-school student finds herself on trial for murder. Netflix’s first Swedish original series comes from the writer of The Bridge. Netflix, April 5
An art-school dropout meets The Salesman, an eccentric Willy Wonka figure who promises to fulfil her dream to own a unicorn. Brie Larson (above) directs and stars in this sweet comedy, alongside Samuel L Jackson. Netflix, April 5
The end of the world is nigh. So a fussy angel (Michael Sheen) and a loose-living demon (David Tennant) overly partial to earthly delights, form an alliance to prevent armageddon. The Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett adaptation also features Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of a 400ft Satan. Amazon Prime, May 31
Those Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling are back in the ring for a third season of the hit comedy starring Alison Brie and Marc Maron. This time, the big-haired Spandex queens head for Las Vegas to put on a live stage show. Netflix, June
Stranger Things 3
The Spielbergian sci-fi horror returns with most of the original cast intact, including Winona Ryder and Millie Bobby Brown. The Duffer Bros’ retro-fest has reached the summer of ’85 and Hawkins, Indiana, faces an unexpected new threat. Netflix, July 4
The latest project from Glee writer Ryan Murphy stars Benjamin Platt as a wealthy Californian with political ambitions. It’s a topical comedy with lashings of social commentary – and musical numbers, too. Support comes from Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange and January Jones. Netflix, 2019
The Man In The High Castle
A dystopian America is ruled by Nazi Germany in the East and Imperial Japan in the West, in this ambitious, at times disturbing alt-history thriller adapted from the Philip K Dick novel. Addictive and eminently bingeable. Amazon Prime, Season 4 (final), autumn
The Marvellous Mrs Maisel
Rachel Brosnahan takes all the plaudits (and two Golden Globes) as Fifties New York housewife Midge Maisel, who takes the plunge to become a stand-up comedian. Heart-warming, and with immaculate period detail, it’s Amazon’s biggest hit to date. Amazon Prime, Season 3, 2019
And five fab Netflix films to catch
A mystery force is decimating the population… and if you see it you die. A blindfolded Sandra Bullock and kids take to the woods on a survival mission to see no evil. Taut, slow-burn, post-apocalyptic thriller from The Night Manager’s Susanne Bier. Now streaming
Ben Affleck leads a team of Special Ops vets turned mercenaries into the remote South American jungle in a daring raid on a drugs baron. Rollercoaster soldier-of-fortune heist thriller with a tasty script from The Hurt Locker’s Mark Boal. Now streaming
Does movie hype get any bigger than this? Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a mob movie directed by Martin Scorsese. De Niro plays the Irish hitman who confesses to the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) in Scorsese’s budget-busting passion project, ten years in the making. The dream cast includes Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin. Available this autumn
Holy smoke! Another clash of the heavyweights as Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce play politically opposed popes Benedict XVI and Francis in an intriguing tale of the Vatican’s latest pontiff power struggle. Scripted by Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody writer Anthony McCarten. Available later this year
Steven Soderbergh’s exposé drama follows the journalists who broke the Panama Papers tax-avoidance scandal implicating several world leaders. Boasts a killer cast headed by Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. Available later this year
By Mark Wareham
How pay TV big guns stack up
What you get Over 900 box sets plus movies such as Oscar-winning satirical horror Get Out and classics like The Big Lebowski.
How you get it Download the app to watch on any connected device, including TVs, PCs, mobiles, tablets and games consoles, or you can use a set-top box or streaming stick (£40).
How much does it cost? From £5.99 per month, netflix.com
Amazon Prime Video
What you get Over 80 unique shows including Jeremy Clarkson’s The Grand Tour and sci-fi drama The Man In The High Castle. You can also catch up on TV series including Catastrophe and The Night Manager and more than 8,000 films.
How you get it Download the app to watch on any connected device, including TVs, PCs, Blu-ray players, mobile, tablets and games consoles, or you can use a set-top box or streaming stick that plugs in to your TV (£40).
How much does it cost? From £5.99 per month (or as part of its Prime shopping service for £79 per year), amazon.co.uk.
What you get Sky’s offshoot service allows you to buy ‘passes’ to watch Sky channels, with packages of sport, entertainment, movies or kids. You can delve into over 300 box sets including The Wire and True Detective or blockbusters such as Avengers Infinity War.
How you get it Download the app to watch on a connected device, or via a Now TV stick or set-top box (from £14.99).
How much does it cost? From £3.99 per month, nowtv.com
What you get Over 450 Disney movies, including the 1940 classic Pinocchio and the more recent Moana. Plus over 5,000 Disney Channel TV episodes. A much bigger, Netflix-rivalling Disney+ service is due later this year.
How you get it Download the app to watch on any connected device.
How much does it cost? £4.99 per month, disneylife.co.uk
What you get Watch Tom Hardy’s dark superhero Venom in Standard Definition from £3.45 or pay more to watch films in Ultra HD, such as Bohemian Rhapsody for £4.99.
How you get it Download the app to watch on any connected device.
How much does it cost? No monthly fee, just pay for what you watch. rakuten.tv
What you get Hollywood films, from Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald. Chili also offers TV series such as Breaking Bad for £7.99.
How you get it Download the app to watch on any connected device.
What does it cost? No monthly fee, just pay for what you watch, uk.chili.com