How Netflix Transformed the Peak TV Terrain in the 2010s

December 19, 2019, 5:00 PM UTC
Netflix Viewer
Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix blew the doors off television this past decade. But first, it knocked.

Five years ago, the sound of Frank Underwood’s knuckles rapping twice against the presidential desk, his vicious declaration of triumph after reaching the Oval Office, made for a memorable end to season two of House of Cards. But there’s a reason Netflix felt strongly enough about the moment to still reference it in their logo animations today.

House of Cards, the first Netflix original, arrived on the scene in 2013 as a change agent in the TV landscape. Popping up in a content library populated by old episodes of Friends and Adam Sandler comedies, it brought two movie stars to television at a time when such gambits were far less commonplace than they’d go on to become, and did so with the help of an acclaimed, Oscar-winning director. The combined star power of Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and Zodiac helmer David Fincher made audiences lean forward and raised many an eyebrow in Hollywood.

House of Cards
Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards” gave Netflix its first hit—and signature sound effect.
David Giesbrecht—Netflix/courtesy Everett Collection

But even as House of Cards found a receptive viewership, few could have recognized it as a sign of things to come, a harbinger of the Peak TV era that would subsequently take shape, transforming the face of small-screen storytelling.

Like a fox in the henhouse or a megalomaniac in Washington, D.C., Netflix arrived on the scene as a fringe player with lofty ambitions and little in-industry support. It was at first regarded with skepticism and suspicion from the Hollywood establishment, including the big four TV networks (ABC, Fox, NBC, and CBS) and movie studios.

From 12 million U.S. subscribers at the decade’s beginning, Netflix has slowly but surely become a fixture of American culture; in 2019, it now has more than 60 million subscribers stateside. But Netflix’s ultimate endgame is global domination. Though U.S. audiences still account for more than a third of its subscriber base, the company has 158 million subscribers worldwide. And with its creative maneuvering to increase broadband speeds and ever-swelling amount of international coproductions, that figure is sure to climb even higher next year. As a new decade dawns, Netflix’s impact on popular culture, and particularly the TV industry, has been seismic and indisputable.

Fast-disappearing are the days of appointment television, the Losts and the 24s. Though some series—like AMC’s The Walking Dead and HBO dramas Game of Thrones and Succession—have managed to conjure some of that old magic to create communal viewing experiences, they carry all the regal bearing of an aristocrat without heirs, the last of a dying breed. Netflix’s all-at-once release model has popularized binge-watching while placing a premium on personal flexibility. This past decade, the best series weren’t reserved for Sunday nights—they were at your fingertips, whenever and wherever you wanted them.

And the way we watched them changed, too; instead of gathering around the TV for one hour a week, we watched episodes half-a-season at a time, blowing through seasons until our eyes closed or the main question of the streaming era was asked one time too many: Are you still watching? Gone, too, is the commercial break, forcing marketers to become more creative than ever in order to reach consumers increasingly sequestered within their own content bubbles.

Different shows for different audiences

One perhaps unintended consequence of this approach is audience segmentation; families that gathered around the TV set once a week now have the options of spending their evenings separately, each watching their own favorite show on a laptop in their bedroom. This decade, media became more personalized than ever, from curated news feeds that prioritized what an algorithm already calculated you’d what to know, to streaming-service library lineups that reflected your past viewing preferences.

“They brought the idea that a consumer can watch a video on their own terms, when they want, to the mainstream,” says Dan Rayburn, Frost & Sullivan principal analyst, who notes that Netflix didn’t create any streaming technology but did pioneer a model of it that worked.

Netflix, seeking to become more than a storehouse for Hollywood’s best series, endeavored to create some of its own. Aiming to impress with high-budget efforts out of the gate, like the pricey historical epic Marco Polo and a series of mostly ignominious Marvel superhero tie-ins, it sometimes stumbled badly. But with some early hits, especially Emmy-winning Orange is the New Black, Netflix remained watercooler talk throughout the decade. The key to success with Netflix’s original programming involved abundance; for every dozen projects that debuted, two or three would break big.

Big Mouth
“Big Mouth,” as told by Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg, brings an animated spin to the glorious nightmare of puberty.
Courtesy of Netflix

In 2019, Netflix is best known for originals like Stranger Things, The Crown, Bojack Horseman, and Big Mouth. It has passed a major test of any TV network, the death of its freshman class, with flying colors. House of Cards, even before it was rushed off the air after Spacey’s ousting as an alleged sexual predator, had by its fifth season ceased to control the conversation as much as it had early on. The same can be said for Orange is the New Black, which finished its final season just earlier this year far from the pop cultural lightning-rod it was originally.

Continuing to dominate the conversation, for Netflix, has meant raising the bar in terms of its programming’s complexity and artistic ambition, competing with Peak TV series across networks like HBO, AMC, FX, and Showtime.

Creative partnerships and the rise of ‘streaming wars’

Increasingly, Netflix has done this by getting in business with those networks’ foremost creative architects. The streamer has signed a lucrative pact with Ryan Murphy, whose brilliantly oddball entertainment has, in addition to heightening the presence of baroque TV (especially in American Horror Story), complexified the visibility of marginalized communities on screen. (Of particular note is FX’s Pose, his splashy canvas for the queer New York ball scene.) Netflix is also making shows with Shonda Rhimes, reigning sovereign of the primetime soap; Kenya Barris, sitcom king behind Black-ish; and Ava DuVernay, who’s worked fiercely to imbue authentically black stories with an artist’s vision and crackling social charge.

In 2019, as it faces heavy losses to its library of acquired series—comfort-food caviar Friends is set to leave in early 2020, and The Office isn’t far behind—Netflix will rely increasingly upon its ability to create interesting, zeitgeist-harnessing original series that truly move the needle—as well as win awards.

Olivia Colman goes royal in Netflix’s “The Crown.”
Sophie Mutevelian—Netflix

It will have to do so within an industry that, radicalized by Netflix’s arrival, has molded itself around the streamer so as to better compete. Hulu and Amazon Prime were the first competitors to take hold—Hulu thanks to high-profile dramas like The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon more notably garnering attention for comedies The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Transparent, and Fleabag. But the “streaming wars” are only just beginning.

Attacking Netflix’s storehouse model, which offered it a last-of-its-kind safety net above which to slowly grow originals, studios have clamored to regain ownership of their most beloved series, the better with which to launch their own competing services.

Apple, keen to get in on the content gold rush, has poured millions upon millions into Apple TV+, a glossy and competitively priced streaming-service option, albeit one that cannot yet boast programming strong enough to rival Netflix. (But with virtually unlimited resources and plenty of time, that day may soon arrive.) Even imperial Disney has mirrored the Netflix model, launching its Disney+ service and clocking an early knockout with The Mandalorian, a space western extension of the Star Wars universe that let the streamer warp-speed from streaming upstart to conversation-controlling megaforce in two words: Baby Yoda.

Still incoming: WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, the new home of Friends and countless other beloved series, including a number of the decade’s most attention-getting; NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock, to house The Office and same-era sitcoms; and the quasi-mystical Quibi, from Disney veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg.

According to Rayburn, the biggest way Netflix will compete with these streaming-wars entrants isn’t in terms of spend or content distribution but audience attention. “The biggest way all of them will have to compete is for our time in the day,” he said.

He adds that rumors Netflix will perish under the pressure of a crowded marketplace seem a little histrionic. “Most of these services always act as a complement to each other,” he said. “That’s what people miss. They don’t replace them.”

What’s next?

The future of Netflix is uncertain. The get-big-fast approach applied, a la Amazon, in its early years has not exactly played off; that economics of scale would eventually justify its lavish spending seems like an increasingly filmsy defense now that subscriber growth has stalled, with debts never higher.

“They’re at 160 million subscribers now,” says Rayburn. “At what point are we going to say they’re at scale, and that there should be a profit?”

In some ways, says Rayburn, Netflix is “a victim of its own success,” having forced up what it costs to make exclusive content in the market and competing with the likes of Amazon to create it at an unrivaled volume. Now that deeper-pocketed competitors are emerging, Netflix will have to rely on its own original programming—not acquisitions.

It can’t, according to some, monetize its service through putting ads on the platform. “The backlash from consumers would be so bad,” Rayburn notes. “Netflix is all about the experience, which is no ads, and they highlight that. They’ve been doing it for so long, that [incorporating advertisements] is just going to be so negative. They were always the service that didn’t do that.”

While their stock in the market would likely rise $100 in a day, says Rayburn, the trust Netflix has built with consumers would be broken; cancellations and serious churn would surely follow.

Netflix hit Hollywood like a bandit over the past decade, popularizing streaming as the new preferred entertainment medium of the American consumer and bending the intention of juggernaut studios toward itself. It’s done so even while working to prove the artistic merit of Netflix originals to the film industry’s biggest power players, diverting hundreds of millions toward ambitious, often theatrically dubious projects by star filmmakers.

When Alfonso Cuarón stood on the Oscar stage last year to accept a Best Director trophy for Roma, his picaresque black-and-white ode to the live-in housekeeper who raised him (which also won Best Cinematography and Best International Film, then Foreign Film), it was the greatest vindication yet of Netflix’s value within the artistic community.

The Irishman
A still from “The Irishman” with Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons), Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Courtesy of Netflix

There may be more ahead. In theaters this fall, audiences could watch Marriage Story on screens, with that two-beat Netflix intro logo—”ba-bum”— projected on massive screens. Noah Baumbach’s insightful look at love and divorce is expected to be yet another Netflix title competing for Oscars; it will go up against an even bigger Netflix title in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a three-and-a-half-hour organized-crime opus that no other studio would let the acclaimed director make.

Even as it challenges Hollywood studios with such projects, Netflix’s most stated triumph remains the popularizing of its own platform. With its unparalleled content delivery system, the streamer has a size and scale in terms of its subscriber base that no other company, even Disney, can hope to match anytime soon.

“Even if Netflix didn’t grow at all in four years,” said Rayburn, it’ll still be lapping the field in terms of subscriptions; Disney+, even with its massive cultural footprint, aims to reach at least 60 million subscriptions by 2024. That still leaves it trailing Netflix.

On a pop cultural level, Netflix has also controlled the watercooler conversation, leading cultural discourse with issue series like When They See Us and Unbelievable, and turning quirkier options like sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson and dystopian sci-fi parable Black Mirror into viral sensations. Making a Murderer, riding the true-crime wave that podcast Serial helped to form, resulted in new attention to a real-life case.

No entertainment option has greater ubiquity in recent years: look at “Netflix and chill,” as firmly a part of the consumer-capitalist lexicon as “I’ll google it,” “Venmo me,” and “Ubering.” The greatest test of Netflix’s role in defining television over the past decade may simply be, that at the end of the day, it’s nigh impossible to remember the medium without it.

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