The most important television show of this unusual moment may just be one whose last new episode aired in 2013.
“The Office” was, in its first life in the U.S., a beloved workplace comedy (based on a British series) that ran for nine seasons on NBC. In its protracted afterlife, though, it was known to many as a beloved workplace comedy whose every episode is available all at once on Netflix. NBCUniversal’s announcement this week that it will to reclaim the rights to the series for exclusive streaming on a future NBC-owned service starting in 2021 upset the general sense among the viewing public that “The Office” was, as much as “Sex Education” or “The Crown,” a Netflix show. Its absence will provide hardcore fans, those whose casual viewing has given “The Office” a new burst of zeitgeist relevance, one fewer reason to subscribe.
That’s bad news for a streaming service that’s also likely to lose “Friends,” that other NBC sitcom that makes for soothingly easy and familiar binge-viewing. (That show, which has had a similar renaissance among young fans at Netflix, is owned by Warner Bros. and might eventually end up on the planned WarnerMedia streamer.) The general viewing public is not necessarily acquainted with the reasons why these shows are shifting platforms, and those reasons don’t really matter; if you’ve subscribed to Netflix primarily because it is the thing that delivers you “The Office” after you get home from work, that show’s disappearance is something of a betrayal, and a loss that might make it worthwhile to switch streaming loyalties.
Which isn’t to say that every “Office” fan, or even many of them, would necessarily drop Netflix in favor of the planned NBCUniversal service. But while household streaming budgets may have room for multiple subscriptions, viewers can only watch one thing at a time. Time spent watching “The Office” on an NBC service is time not spent within Netflix’s ecosystem, potentially discovering new favorite Netflix originals after a few hours spent with the gang at Dunder Mifflin.
In the years ahead, as contracts expire and as companies like NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia try their hands at streaming, Netflix will be forced to rely more on its suite of original programs, one about which no reliable or standardized viewership information is known but that necessarily lacks many programs with the penetrating brand recognition of “The Office.” Netflix original series, ideally, appeal deeply to some portion of the audience, so much so that their presence on the service makes a subscription necessary. Such passionately followed shows are often quite niche.
But not every potential customer will find something for them in the collection of niche shows, or cares to spend the time figuring out which less-heralded Netflix original is for them. What Netflix wants — to be a must-have service for every consumer in the way a cable subscription was a decade ago — requires tentpoles. And it’s hard to tailor a big, broad hit on par with an NBC smash from a decade ago; indeed, Netflix has so far not really had to. When it has, as with “Stranger Things,” an elaborate and time-consuming production that, when its new season drops in July, will have released 25 episodes in three years, it’s required more muscle than simply putting forward a familiar and complete property, as well as more tolerance for risk. There was no reason “Stranger Things” would have hit big other than that it did, and there are plenty of shows on its scale that flailed on Netflix; we already know “The Office” is a beloved smash.
Losing “The Office” doesn’t mean that Netflix is losing a property that has been a huge part of its appeal to many; it signals the need for Netflix to get working on a show that doesn’t just attract viewer attention once users are logged in but has “Office”-level reach in attracting subscribers. The only ways for Netflix to continue to grow are to begin running ads, to continue raising prices or to attract more subscribers; if we assume those first two are not attractive, then the need to find shows with the power to convert non-subscribers becomes all the more pressing. Netflix can spend the time between now and the end of 2020 relishing the hours fans of Jim and Pam spend reliving their office romance; surely, too, they’ll be spending time working to find a show that has “The Office’s” elemental mass appeal. If anyone could do it, it’s them, but the distance between there and here suggests that the streaming wars are far from settled.