The problem with Netflix’s ads that no one is talking about

Netflix may interrupt your next binge-watching session with ads for its original programming—and it could care less what you tweet about it.

Multiple reports surfaced on Reddit over the weekend that Netflix is inserting ads in-between episodes of popular shows. One user in the U.S., for example, reported seeing a trailer for Insatiable while watching Shameless; another claimed a teaser for I Am a Killer appeared during episodes of Bob’s Burgers (because nothing compliments an animated sitcom like a docuseries about death row inmates).  

The move follows another recent unpopular tweak: adding autoplaying videos—with unmuteable audio—to Netflix’s main menu.

It’s unclear how many subscribers are being shown the trailers—users in the U.K. and Australia also reported the issue—but Netflix confirmed the experiment in a statement to Ars Technica: “We are testing whether surfacing recommendations between episodes helps members discover stories they will enjoy faster.” (Netflix, presumably, did not comment on why it reportedly recommended I Am a Killer, its documentary series about death row inmates, to a member watching animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers.)

Netflix clarified that the ads will only feature its original content and that they’ll be skippable after a few seconds, not unlike what occurs on YouTube, but the company’s response to user frustration—and the underlying purpose of the experiment itself—illustrate a much larger problem for the company: a deluge of middling original content.

1) Netflix has more original content than it knows what to do with

Netflix plans to release more than 80 original titles in 2018. By the Daily Dot’s count, more than half of those releases—47 to be exact—are arriving this month.

Even when you cross out children’s programming and international offerings with limited U.S. appeal, there’s still more new content arriving daily than anyone could possibly watch—and more than Netflix could effectively market.

That issue is compounded by the fact that Netflix doesn’t invest much in traditional advertising. With the exception of a few TV commercials for its biggest hits, the company relies almost entirely on YouTube trailers, word-of-mouth exposure, and its internal content recommendation features to drive audiences to new shows.

When a show fails to organically find its audience, that forces Netflix’s hand if it wants to recoup on its investment—and it’s often going to be at the expense of other programming. Chris Osterndorf recently tackled this concern for the Daily Dot through the lens of GLOW season 2:

It’s become undeniably clear that Netflix doesn’t care what you’re watching, as long as you’re watching, period. In an effort to grow the subscriber base, it’s made sure viewers have as many options to choose from as possible. But the company’s ongoing obsession with providing new content every week has forced some of its best content to take a back seat.

Netflix is already coming off a big month. With GLOW following the premiere of the Sens8 finale, revamped version of The Staircase, a second season of Luke Cage, along with an excess of other original shows, specials, movies, and other notable additions to its library, your queue is loaded. And because GLOW arrives at the end of the month, it’s sandwiched in between Netflix’s big June releases and its big July releases, including new seasons of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Kohan’s own Orange Is the New Black.

It’s not that GLOW doesn’t have space to breathe—it’s that nothing on Netflix does.

It’s clear that Netflix has a content marketing problem, but I’m more concerned about the content itself.

2) Most Netflix originals just aren’t that good

The problem for Netflix isn’t that not enough people have seen the trailer for Insatiable. The problem is that, by nearly all accounts, the show is an unmanned fire hose. (Our review called it “almost unwatchable.”) Running commercials for Insatiable in-between more popular programming isn’t going to change that.

That’s an extreme, of course. Critics are calling Insatiable Netflix’s worst original series to date. (Apparently, they’ve forgotten about Bad Samaritans, a show so bad Netflix actually scrubbed it from the service.)

But the hard truth is that the vast majority of Netflix originals are hardly essential. We’ve reviewed nearly every Netflix original release in 2018, and while we have no problem recommending many of them, few if any rise to the level of can’t-miss TV. The only notable exception, from my perspective at least, is the German drama Babylon Berlin, but its subtitles will likely prevent it from receiving the U.S. audience it deserves.

There are some other exceptions. Netflix has strategically cornered the market on standup specials, but those don’t have the same broad appeal or weight as a series or movie. No matter how good one is, you’ll always be through with it in an hour (unless, like me, you find yourself returning to Ali Wong’s specials time and again).

Likewise, Netflix’s investments in Hollywood A-listers have yet to produce meaningful results. Every Adam Sandler-led movie—not counting 2017’s solid The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which is not part of his eight-movie Netflix deal—has been a dud, though his latest, The Week Of, passed his admittedly low bar. And at last, Bright, Netflix’s $90-million blockbuster starring Will Smith, has a rating of 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Simply put, the company has yet to produce a breakout hit for the year on par with Stranger Things or even Making a Murderer—shows that you need to see if you don’t want to be left out of watercooler conversations.

It’s too bad that won’t stop Netflix from blasting you with commercials for shows you don’t want to see.

3) Netflix doesn’t care what you think

I bet Netflix will roll out advertising by the end of the year. The company is desperate to recoup on its original content, and frankly, it doesn’t seem that interested in the negative feedback its received thus far.

Here’s how Ars Technica put it:

In response to recent outcry at Reddit’s Netflix community, which has largely been negative, Netflix’s spokesperson indicated to Ars that the company was mindful of ‘chatter on social channels’ but is focused far more squarely on how users interact with these new video ads. In other words, if users engage with these promotions, Netflix will likely roll them out to many more users.

There’s little doubt that this strategy will be effective. Enough people will add a new show or movie to its queue based on these trailers for Netflix to justify the change, not unlike its recent homepage change or its video previews a couple of years ago.

Netflix caters to the masses (and its shareholders). That’s how we’ve somehow ended up with Iron Fist season 2 and a sequel to Bright.

It’s just a shame for the rest of us.

For more on Netflix’s new commercials, check out the author’s segment on Cheddar