By David Z. Morris
August 12, 2018

Netflix has released 88% more original programming so far this year than it did during the same span in 2017. The surge in new content is aimed at weaning the streaming platform from shows and movies licensed from other producers—but that old content may be what many subscribers watch the most.

The growth of original content on Netflix was measured in a new, independent survey by the Los Angeles Times, which tallied the number of new shows and movies released on the platform. It lends credence to previous projections by Goldman Sachs that Netflix could spend as much as $13 billion on programming this year instead of the $8 billion the company had publicly projected (that discrepancy may also be a matter of accounting). Netflix spent $6.3 billion on content in 2017, and about 85% of that spending goes to originals, according to the Times report of a recent conference appearance by Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos.

Some outside data, though, suggests most viewers spend the bulk of their Netflix time watching programming Netflix didn’t make itself. Research firm 7Park Data found that more than 80% of Netflix streams were for licensed content—that is, shows like The Office or Shameless that originally aired elsewhere. Forty-two percent of subscribers watched little or no original Netflix content.

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However, that data was gathered way back in the first quarter of 2017, when Netflix’s content strategy was still ramping up. Sarandos, in his recent conference appearance, did seem to confirm that licensed content is still viewed more than original content on the platform. But even early last year, demand for original content had already jumped, growing from 12% of streams in 2016.

It’s also debatable exactly how such numbers should be interpreted. One studio executive opined to the Times that while most Netflix viewer time is spent on licensed content, “it’s the originals that drive subscriptions.” Sarandos has argued that older TV shows get higher volume simply because of the depth of their back catalog of episodes. At the same time, Netflix has never released its own data on viewer behavior, and argues that outside analysis is inevitably imperfect.

The drawing power of original content will play a decisive role in the Netflix story over the next few years. Now that the streaming service has proven its premise, legacy players are launching their own platforms—and pulling their licensing deals with Netflix. That includes, most notably, Disney, whose various deals with Netflix start sunsetting in 2019.

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