Netflix and the Phoebe Waller-Bridge conundrum
A view from John Keeling

Netflix and the Phoebe Waller-Bridge conundrum

With huge mergers taking place in Hollywood, what's the future for Netflix and how will it affect the long-term development of talent?

With the coming together this year of Hollywood behemoths Disney and Fox, the joining of telecoms giant AT&T with Time Warner and the (un)holy trinity of Comcast, NBCUniversal and Sky, will there still be room in the future for standalone streamer Netflix? 

This was the question on my mind, having just returned from a five-day trip to Los Angeles, when I settled down to catch up on the penultimate episode of Fleabag season two, ahead of its finale. And the reason for thinking it was Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

As expected, the penultimate Fleabag episode was once again a brilliantly written 30 minutes of television – tighter and edgier than anything else recently seen on the small screen, full stop (or period, as my friends in LA might say). And it was back to LA, a city that I last visited in 2014, that my thoughts then drifted.

There had been a couple of standout changes since my last visit. Notably, the appearance of Uber and Lyft negated any need to hire a car and then get lost in east LA (not all that funny 20 years ago). The surprisingly prevalent ads for MedMen ("the Apple store of cannabis products", as it was described to me). And then there was the fact that 90% of the famous billboards that make up the LA skyline now feature shows made by Netflix.

But the billboards that really stood out were for Killing Eve season two.

For it was Killing Eve – not the latest (and, frankly, very disappointing) season of Billions from Showtime, nor any of the slew of Netflix offerings – that was the show everybody was talking about. That’s Killing Eve, the breakthrough drama developed for AMC and BBC America by the UK’s very own Fleabag creator, Waller-Bridge.

Cue two more thoughts. First, is Netflix simply a giant Ponzi scheme (as many of those LA friends surmise)? And how on Earth did Waller-Bridge break through the clutter?

Let’s take the latter point first.

Since the one-woman play Fleabag catapulted her on to the scene at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, Waller-Bridge has gone on to write and create the six-part Crashing for Channel 4 broadcast in 2016, followed by the first season of Fleabag for BBC Three. Close on its heels, Killing Eve season one, developed and written by Waller-Bridge, became one of the most talked-about dramas in both the US and Britain in 2018.

In this short and incredibly productive period, Waller-Bridge has already garnered a Bafta for performance and an Emmy award as a writer.

Back to Netflix, by way of Waller-Bridge.

One of the things that strikes me most when musing over the origins of Waller-Bridge’s success is her journey from fringe festival to digital channel in the UK, to Emmy-winning mainstream success in the US, to billboards along Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

And what I found myself wondering last week was whether we might look back on Netflix as a blip, a moment in time, a bubble that burst, in a few years’ time.

Now, there is no denying that Netflix has created some great content. After all, with the many billions of dollars thrown at it, one would hope that some things would stick. But will it have longevity?

The careful nurturing of talent, the development of ideas across years – and, sometimes, decades  has defined film and television since birth. Yes, Netflix has a good reputation for spotting ideas and allowing creative talent the freedom to operate  in the same way that BBC Three allowed Waller-Bridge to write and take the lead in Fleabag and cast her best friend as her sister.

But will Netflix have the time to nurture and develop enough top-end projects before the big beasts catch up and the debt mountain becomes unsustainable? In short, can it really scale creativity fast?

With the coming together this year of more than half-a-dozen Hollywood behemoths, there is a real risk that those Netflix billboards will no longer be a feature in Hollywood in 2024, but simply an interesting moment in history for us to reflect on. In the US, there are now more people subscribing to streaming platforms than to cable TV, and if you restrict that research to younger demographics the reality for cable TV becomes even starker.

There are now more than 300 video-streaming subscription options in the US, so one might think that the tide has turned in favour of Netflix. That reality is about to change. The merger of Disney and Fox, triggering the forthcoming launch of streaming platform Disney+, will see the start of huge swathes of Hollywood studio content being removed from Netflix. The news last week that the BBC will be selling its landmark natural history shows to a new global streaming service to be run by Discovery in a 10-year deal worth £300m is another indicator that the old guard is fighting back.

Despite the enormous strides made by Netflix since its rapid evolution from a US-based postal DVD rental service to a streaming platform with a global subscriber base of 140 million people over just 10 years, its ability to compete with Hollywood studios, creatively and commercially, remains open to question. It takes more than cash to create great content and it takes relationships built over decades to attain creative scale. 

The heartening thought that I was left with is the way that exceptional talent can still emerge and find its way on to our screens (and into our hearts). Netflix may or may not survive, but from a theatre in Edinburgh to an online channel in the UK to a global success inside five years, natural talent and subversive humour still shine through.

Having laughed (and cried) at the final episode of Fleabag last night, I will always be grateful to Waller-Bridge for an outstanding example of British creativity at a moment when, unfortunately, the rest of the world is laughing at us, not with us.

John Keeling is a partner at executive search company Mission Bay and has worked in senior roles at Sky, Disney, Channel 4 and the BBC