On July 26, the seventh and final season of Orange Is The New Black went live on Netflix. A global sensation since its debut in 2013, the show is Netflix’s all-time most-watched series, with 105 million subscribers having watched at least one episode. Most fans will have already digested all 13 of its final episodes. The majority will have binged it the very same weekend it was released.
With the streaming market set to splinter, we may not see such a special and strongly participated online TV sensation as Orange Is The New Black again. It has been widely reported that for the first time, Netflix reported a drop in subscribers. This, it is being said, is an early symptom of an anticipated demise — the end of the so-called “golden age of streaming”. Just as serious have been reports that international distributors are set to disrupt the status quo, taking back their profitable content to be housed on their own subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) sites like NBCUniversal, HBO Max, Disney+, Apple TV+ and more.
Suddenly, all of this easily accessible — and affordable — content will be dotted across the web on multiple platforms, each with its own subscription fee. It is expected that the fragmentation of the streaming market will be disastrous for the profit margins of established SVOD services — which, if hit too hard, will also rock the budgets of original content.
It’s tempting to attach an “end of an era” narrative to any modern TV finale — and with the conclusion of series like Game of Thrones, Broad City, and Veep, 2019 has provided plenty of opportunity — but for Australian viewers, Orange Is The New Black really did mark the beginning of the golden age of streaming.
The third ever Netflix Original, it was the first that we got to experience, en masse, at the same time and in the same way as US viewers. And, as the only one from before 2017 that is still airing, it is our sole remaining throughline across the entire era. Now, with the release of its final season, it may also come to mark the end.
It’s easy to forget how we got here. The most notable early influx of Australians to Netflix began in May 2013, two years before it actually launched here, when the pop culture website Junkee brazenly published a step-by-step on how to get around the platform’s geo-filters for Arrested Development’s fourth season. (A wonderful side effect of this was a spike in the number of new Netflix customers “living” in Beverly Hills — 90210 being the only US zip code that most of us knew offhand). Within a month, and despite not even being legally accessible, Netflix’s share of the Australian paid media subscription market jumped from 13.81% to 16.32% — the biggest increase it had yet experienced. There had, of course, been earlier adopters of the platform, but where once there were snowballs, here was an avalanche.
Season four of Arrested Development dropped on May 26. Orange Is The New Black premiered 46 days later, perfectly timed to captivate this newly dedicated audience in need of another series to commit to, and heavily — mercilessly — promoted on every spare inch of the homepage. It was broadly accessible in a way that the first Netflix Original, House of Cards, wasn’t. It was vastly better written and conceived than the second, Hemlock Grove, and it was intentionally made with bingeing in mind. There had never been anything like it. It was the first time I ever clicked on, and watched, a show that I knew nothing about. Now, I do that maybe once a week.
The Australian experience of the golden age of streaming is one of persistence and reward, effort and entitlement. Restriction, relentlessness, and a sheer bloody-mindedness that would see us trigger a world-first overhaul of the federal classifications system, because we wanted our telly shows now.
While viewer behaviour the world over has changed in the show’s six-year run (who could believe that we ever sat through the long slog of its 71-second intro sequence?), for Australians, it’s our viewing expectations that have fundamentally morphed.
Memories of that early time feel so innocent now. We’ve gone from jumping through hoops to pay to access overseas content — our IP addresses apparently flying across oceans in a matter of seconds — to now expecting nothing less than easy access to content at the same time as the rest of the world. We’ve gone from propping up a popular VPN that we would later find out made us all genuinely complicit in real and malicious acts of cyber-crime, to learning in 2016 the sobering truth that all it took to defeat our clever, foolproof method was for platforms to simply stop turning the other cheek.
We let Presto die, but we’ve kept Stan in good health. We forced Netflix’s hand, making them finally give us our own local platform years ahead of plan in 2015 — one that, due to regional distribution agreements, we found so lacking in content that we immediately eschewed it for the international libraries to which we’d become accustomed. The local platform did eventually get better, and we’ve finally accepted it as our own. How disappointing that it may be so short-lived.
All good things must come to an end, but the reckoning feels like it has come too soon. This era of streaming earned its golden moniker — so what are we going to do now?