Netflix’s recent decision to add Pokémon to its list of shows not only reveals a brilliant awareness about the desperate nostalgia of its main customer base (adult children, often students, with a keen desire to ironically revisit the youth they don’t really remember), but also illustrates an interesting shift in the relationship between supply and demand in the TV business. Many Netflix subscribers, including myself, have experimented with Pokémon: Indigo League – to give it its full title – and have revelled in the adventures of Ash, Misty and Brock, three overwhelmingly 2-dimensional characters in what is, if I abandon sentiment, a sub-par TV adaptation of a video game.
Who am I kidding? I got chills.
Viewers’ attitudes towards Pokémon, and indeed many other shows on Netflix, seem to have come to a point resembling George Mallory’s views on Everest. Why watch all 52 episodes of Pokémon: Indigo League as quickly as possible? Because they are there.
Netflix’s success in recent times has been largely because of the quality of their flagship TV shows. Purchasing the rights for shows such as Breaking Bad, Arrested Development and Homeland have been master-strokes, pulling in viewers and increasing popularity. This has enabled the site to produce their own creative content, which has been a huge boon for the TV industry, with original shows like Orange is the New Black and the incredible House of Cards finding an excellent home in the online streaming market.
But it is what goes on behind the flagship that is most interesting. The still somewhat limited supply of TV and film on the site means that to some extent, Netflix is able to dictate what shows or films come back into fashion. The vogue for Pokémon is entirely due to its being on Netflix.
Does this phenomenon exist elsewhere in culture? The example that springs most immediately to mind is Spotify, the music version of Netflix. Spotify’s coverage, unlike Netflix’s, is almost universal, with artists like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Tool being notable for their absence from the service. Though Spotify is far more complete than Netflix, we can see the same effect. Artists not on Spotify are quite simply not going to get as much attention as those who are. Furthermore, Spotify offers some albums to their Premium customers to stream before release, showing another way in which, like Netflix, the supply of media dictates the actions of the consumer.
The Kindle is another prime example. Many classics are available for free on Amazon’s e-reader, meaning that the first thing many people do upon buying a Kindle is to fill in the gaps in their classical bibliography. As e-readers grow in popularity, books not available in the format will – it is certain – struggle to be successful.
As these new ways of accessing cultural content grow, it is inevitable that those who do not move with the times will fall by the wayside. The retailer seems to have more power than they used to, with the ability to dictate what cultural content moves into the mainstream. But in fact this has always been the case. Radio and television schedules define what we watch, and anything on at prime time will do well purely because of its timing. The internet democratizes this process, and actually puts the consumer back in charge. Netflix is still in its infancy, but it is not difficult to imagine it arriving at the same place as Spotify, a service through which it is far easier to find alternative, obscure artists than ever before, and where each artist has an equal chance for success. On the Kindle, there are no tables in bookstores full of the new John Grisham book. Instead, numerous options to find your next read are available.
So it seems that although Netflix has the power to make a whole generation turn back to Pokémon, it also has the capacity to pander to more diverse interests than the idiot box. Just as Spotify opens up a whole new world of music completely separate from the charts and the radio and as the Kindle reignites the world’s passion for reading, so Netflix and its increasingly powerful competitors will facilitate the discovery of lost but brilliant TV and film, excite a more discerning screen audience, and strike ever more fear into the heart of an already declining live market.