Content is king: Squid Game’s global tentacles

This post is the text of my winter 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text, which sets the success of Squid Game in the context of Netflix’s strategy and programming, has been updated from the published version, not least in the context of the market capitalisation figures quoted in the final paragraph, while some links have been added.

Squid Game

Few readers (even those of us without televisions) can have missed the impact that Netflix’s Squid Game has had not just on the UK audience but globally.

The nine-part series, featuring severely-indebted and desperate South Korean men and women competing against each other in updated, deadly versions of children’s playground games to win a substantial cash prize – of which there can only be one winner – was released on 17 September and was an immediate success. It attracted a global viewing audience of 142 million people within the first four weeks; and is the first Korean drama to break Netflix’s top 10 weekly most-watched shows across the globe, reaching in the process No. 1 in 90 countries, including the UK.

These figures are all from Netflix itself. There are very good reasons not to take the company’s word alone (indeed, figures for October 2021 from BARB, the body which measures the TV audience – and whose figures now encompass streaming – show that the BBC’s Countryfile had more viewers). Nevertheless, on the company’s own metrics ‘Squid Game’ has been phenomenally successful. Netflix expects to make some $900 million from it – not a bad return on a series that cost only $21.4 million.

What is more interesting than this, however, is, firstly, the theme: essentially, Squid Game is an allegorical critique of winner-take-all capitalism, economic disparity and inequality; and secondly, that the script, originally written (as a film) in 2009, was then regarded as too grotesque and unrealistic to be filmed.

Little more than 10 years later, and set against an exacerbation of Koreans’ personal debts and the reality facing the poor of Covid-19, as well as our own increased hunger for dystopian drama, it is clearly no longer so. The writer, Hwang Dong-yeuk, has created a resonant series which conveys a message about ordinary people’s awareness of the unfairness of a global economic order built on inequality. The success of Squid Game – and the patency of that message – highlights that this was unlikely to have been lost on viewers.

Netflix

Netflix is open to criticism. Its modern history as a programme streamer is sustained by venture capital. While profitable, it has experienced cash flow problems over several years and has not only never declared a dividend but will openly not be doing so in the foreseeable future. In that situation, the ‘dividend’ for its backers, like in much of the modern online world, of course, lies in obtaining and then processing detailed, individual information about viewers, the programmes they watch and their viewing habits. Venture capital, as with Deliveroo and Uber, is prepared to sustain a lack of returns (or even losses) simply to build and entrench market share to the point where, in Netflix’s case, people do not question their monthly subscriptions. Not least when these go up (and by more even than inflation).

In that, of course, lies a quid pro quo: ensuring subscribers see value for their money means making precisely the sorts of programmes they want to watch. And Netflix does make programmes – some 40% of its offer is original, in-house programming. Ultimately it will build the data it is collecting on viewing habits into its programme making at micro level – and its investment at Shepperton should probably be seen in that light – but, for the time being, the metric available is a familiar one: that a particular programme’s success is likely to lead to similar ones being made. That might be a Squid Game sequel (now confirmed, even if only in outline as yet, and with clearly a long road between here and transmission); it might be more Korean drama, building on the global success of the K-wave; it might be more captivating drama whose content focuses on inequality.

Venture capital

The idea of venture capital sustaining programme-making with that sort of message is not exactly a win-win situation; but it is a highly entertaining one.

Squid Game hasn’t been good news for everyone: SK Broadband, a Korean communications company, used the success of the programme for another round in its legal battle with Netflix about who funds the infrastructure over which streamers deliver their programmes. It is a familiar, but probably losing, battle to telecom companies the world over in which the ultimate lesson is that the concept of ‘net neutrality’ might alternatively be written as ‘content is king’.

Netflix’s current market capitalisation – some $166bn at the time of writing, having topped $300bn in November last year prior to January’s earnings announcement highlighting low forecast subscriber additions in these (nearly) post-pandemic times – set against, to pluck one possibly unfair example out of thin air, that of BT (c. $25bn), is also contemporary proof that there is plenty of life in old adages.

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