Bloom: Shondaland’s Peerless Audience Pleasers Deliver in Crucial Quarter, But What's Next for Netflix?

Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma and Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton in Netflix's 'Bridgerton'
(Image credit: Liam Daniel/Netflix)

Rather than go out Saturday night, a friend confided to me, she “had a date with Anthony Bridgerton,” the eldest son (played by Jonathan Bailey) of the eponymous clan presiding over one of Netflix’s most popular shows ever.

David Bloom

(Image credit: David Bloom)

She’s not the only one with a secret online flame. Bridgerton just closed out its second season of eight episodes, topping Netflix’s English language TV top 10 list for most of the past month.

The Bridgerton primacy continues, and by an extremely wide margin. Netflix’s April 4-10 list showed Bridgerton Season 2 was viewed for nearly 116 million hours that week; The Ultimatum, at No. 2, was viewed for less than 44 million hours.  

Also read: Shonda Rhimes Just Delivered Over 1.3 Billion Hours of Streaming in Just Two Months - Netflix Global Top 10 

It’s also worth noting the show at No. 3 on the list: Bridgerton Season 1, which debuted in 2020 and is getting a second life (and 35 million hours of viewing that week) as newcomers catch up and fans circle back. Netflix says Season 2 is in the top 10 in 91 countries across the world, from Argentina to Finland to Vietnam; Season 1 is back in the top 10 in 86 countries. 

All time, the two seasons have attracted about 1.86 billion hours of viewing in their respective first 28 days of viewing, a key Netflix internal metric. Those are crazy numbers, even by Netflix standards. The two seasons sit atop the top 10 all-time list of English-language shows, separated only by the third season of Stranger Things, which ranks No. 2.  

Still to come, an immersive live experience built on the Bridgerton world, to debut in Los Angeles (another friend’s sister is breathlessly headed to that one). There’s also an untitled spinoff based on the almost certainly complicated back story of Queen Charlotte, Bridgerton’s Regency-era English monarch of who not so incidentally happens to be black. 

Further worth noting: No. 5 on Netflix’s all-time English-language TV show list (and still on the most recent weekly list after more than two months) is the limited true-crime series Inventing Anna, about fraudster Anna Delvey. Tying together three of the most successful TV seasons in Netflix history is one name: Shonda Rhimes. 

And lest we forget, the show that first made Rhimes a big name, Grey’s Anatomy, is about to launch its 18th season on ABC, on May 5, which makes it about as old as teens a few months from starting their senior year in high school. 

Grey’s stars Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr. have now been part of a rather astounding 401 episodes each. It’s hard to know how that pencils out to billions of hours watched, but it’s probably a vast number too. 

The same May night on ABC (and afterward, Disney-owned Hulu), Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Station 19 also returns for its fifth season. Rhimes has been an executive producer on about two-thirds of that series’ 75 episodes. Before that, Rhimes also presided over long-running hits Scandal, Private Practice, and How to Get Away With Murder on ABC.  

All of which makes Rhimes’ Shondaland empire (Rhimes is an executive producer of Bridgerton, which long-time lieutenant Chris Van Dusen writes and produces based on Julia Quinn’s novels) worthy of great celebration as the premier story teller of this generation of TV creators. 

It’s difficult to think of another producer in the past decade capable of successfully crafting such wildly different shows (the Dick Wolfs of the TV business certainly deserve their fame and money, but typically work and re-work the same narrow genres they’ve plied for decades).  

Netflix originally wooed Rhimes away from Disney in 2017 with a then eye-popping contract worth more than $100 million. It re-upped the deal in 2021, adding new formats and revenue opportunities, including games, virtual-reality experiences, live events and merchandise. 

It’s clear Netflix is getting its money’s worth, even though it took a while for the big shows to arrive. The first quarter of 2022 might even be termed Shonda Time, given that shows tied to her attracted something well over 1.5 billion hours watched during the three months of 2022.  

All of which makes the impending Netflix earnings call Tuesday afternoon all the more interesting. Netflix itself has said it expects to add only 2.5 million new subscribers this quarter, almost all of them overseas, to the 220 million it already has. An upside surprise amid war, inflation, competition and changing viewer habits seems unlikely.

Wall Street, meanwhile, has been reconsidering its enthusiasm for tech companies with rich valuations, including Netflix, which has seen shares plummet from $679 a share in mid-November to Thursday’s year-low of $341. That’s a drop of almost exactly half in five months. 

Once again, outside observers are wondering if it’s time to re-evaluate the Netflix business model and future direction. 

Ben Thompson, the influential brain behind the Stratechery website, made a case for why Netflix should sell ads. The biggest reason: it needs the money. But also, in a reversal of long-held Thompson positions, an ad-supported tier plays into Netflix’s strengths these days.

Thompson cited a report by The Information noting that company officials in two separate meetings in recent weeks “cautioned employees to be more mindful about spending and hiring,” which jibes with comments about a financial squeeze at Netflix that I’ve heard too.  

At the same time, the company is experimenting with a crackdown on password sharing, which suggests what once was a long-term audience builder now is an uncomfortable source of eroding margins. 

With market penetration in North America reaching saturation, and high prices a forbidding obstacle for uptake in growth territories such as India and Africa, Thompson suggested the company needs to consider other ways to bring in substantial sums and build on strengths such as its ability to provide a lot of disposable, low-attention entertainment. 

Netflix’s commercial-free streamed content is no longer a unique differentiator. What is a differentiator: Unique shows such as Bridgerton, Inventing Anna and Stranger Things. Building an ad-based tier would provide the resources to scoop up more hot titles that can be audience attractants, while giving churn-prone marginal customers a reason to stick around. 

And Thompson isn’t the only influential outside observer suggesting changes are needed. Laura Martin at Needham Partners said the company lacks some of the accoutrements that its many new competitors are now providing, including news and sports, as well as ad-supported tiers. 

“Originals and entertainment content is no longer enough,” Martin told The Guardian. “Our thesis is that you must have news and sport. You must have breaking news because that brings in people when, say, Russia invades Ukraine or sports because when there is a really good game then people flock to you and stay there.”

The analysts at LightShed Partners, always willing to stir things up, acknowledge that ad-supported tiers can generate more revenue, though they question at what cost to broader brand strategy: 

“There is no question that offering a lower-price subscription streaming service bolstered by advertising can expand an SVOD’s total addressable market (TAM),” LightShed said in a recent post focused on Disney Plus’ decision to build an ad-supported tier. “The far larger question is whether it is the ‘right’ long-term strategic decision in the intensifying war for time and attention.” 

And that is the crucial question facing co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos as they prepare to roll out Netflix financial results for the quarter brought to you by Shondaland. 

Clearly the company bet right in its pricey deal with Rhimes. As conversations about Netflix’s direction continue, however, can the company count on even the peerless creations of Shonda Rhimes to keep it atop the streaming heap? ■

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.