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Is Netflix an Ethical Company?

March 6, 2019

by Benjamin Boczulak

The idea for this post came after seeing the latest news from Netflix’s Q4 2018 Earning Report which described they controlled 10% of US television screen time. This is an astounding number and gives Netflix massive control and influence over the what American’s consume. Great control over consumption comes great responsibility. Netflix and other media companies are growing subscriber count and hours watched at the expense of the health and well-being of their customers. Is it ethical for Netflix and other media companies to manipulate consumers to watch television more often and for longer periods of time?

I want to preface this post by saying that Netflix is not doing anything radical by wanting to attract more customers for a longer period. Traditional media has been using strategies to do this for decades. However, with large amounts of data about consumer behavior, companies like Netflix have more insights than ever and can exploit these to influence consumer behavior.

The most influential social trend caused by Netflix and new media distribution is binge watching. The vast availability of on demand content has made it possible to watch massive amounts of television in one sitting, uninterrupted by advertisements. Often, entire seasons are released at once which can be 6+ hours of content. Netflix has popularized the act of watching large portions of these television shows in one sitting, thus the name binge watching. According to research from Cassandra Winland, 25.4% of college students spent 8 or more hours per week watching online content. Another study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that “Higher binge viewing frequency was associated with a poorer sleep quality, increased fatigue and more symptoms of insomnia”. In an age where American’s are sleeping less (only about 68.8% of high school students are getting the recommended sleep time), should companies like Netflix be bragging about record screen time and viewership? I think not.

So, what should companies like Netflix do to address these concerns?

Eliminate auto-play – or at least augment the effort it takes to continue watching a TV series. Auto-play makes it too easy for consumers to watch for extended periods of time and draws viewers to stay watching for longer than they initially planned. Also, many are quick to forget and underestimate the impact of auto-play on children’s viewing habits. It is important that we monitor our children’s TV viewing time and auto-play makes it too easy for children to watch for too long. I understand auto-play is good business, but ethics and responsibility are first and foremost. I want my message to Netflix (and other players in the space) to be that if you take care of your customers, they will take care of you.