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What 'The Queen's Gambit' says about Netflix's dominance

Daniel Roberts
·5-min read

Just one month after the Netflix original series “Queen’s Gambit” debuted, it’s the service’s most-watched limited series ever, Netflix (NFLX) said last week, after 62 million households viewed the show in its first four weeks.

The honor comes with several major Netflixian caveats: Netflix in January tweaked its definition of a “view” to make it even looser than it was before, now counting just two minutes watched as a view (previously, it was 70% of a series episode or movie); and the “limited series” label is for shows with just one season (76 million households watched Season One of “The Witcher” and 64 million watched Season Three of “Stranger Things,” bigger numbers than “The Queen’s Gambit,” but those are not limited series).

Read more: Can we trust Netflix viewership numbers?

Regardless of the asterisks, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a huge success for Netflix, and it’s all the more impressive considering it’s a 1960s period piece about chess, based on a 1983 Walter Tevis novel.

But the show’s instant popularity will likely be fleeting when the next hit Netflix original show drops—and that’s the point.

According to streaming hub ReelGood, the top three shows Americans were binging over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend were “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, “The Mandalorian” on Disney+, and “The Undoing” on HBO Max, in that order.

Each of those shows is a textbook representative of their platform.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is a high-gloss period drama in the vein of “The Crown” (which was No. 5 on ReelGood’s Thanksgiving rankings, by the way); “The Mandalorian” is a “Star Wars” spinoff and Disney’s first original streaming show, and Disney+ has built its entire first year and 73.7 million subscribers on the show’s shoulders; “The Undoing” is very HBO, a realist domestic thriller that feels a lot like “Big Little Lies,” which premiered in 2017 and has been a big hit for HBO. (Separate from original shows, WarnerMedia will further boost HBO Max subs by putting all 2021 Warner Bros. movies on the platform on the same day they hit theaters.)

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit on Netflix. (PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX 2020)
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit on Netflix. (PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX 2020)

Those three shows all premiered in the final week of October. According to data gathered for Yahoo Finance by social media tracker Sprout Social, Twitter mentions of “The Mandalorian” from Oct. 1 through Dec. 1 far outpaced mentions of the other two shows: 2.86 million for “The Mandalorian,” 365,200 for “Queen’s Gambit,” and 233,300 for “The Undoing.” Social media data from Talkwalker from just the past seven days shows the same trend: mentions of “The Undoing” spiked on Nov. 30, the day after the show’s finale aired, but otherwise, mentions for “The Mandalorian” have consistently remained far higher than the other two.

That’s just fine for Netflix and its kitchen-sink content strategy.

Read more: Why Netflix is poised to keep winning amid ‘Golden Age’ of TV

Think back to when “Tiger King” was the show of the moment. That show premiered on March 20, at the start of the pandemic. To many TV fans, it feels like eons ago. In the time since, Netflix has already cycled through “Unorthodox” (March 26), Season 3 of “Ozark” (March 27), “Never Have I Ever” (April 27), “Indian Matchmaking” (July 16), and “Emily in Paris” (Oct. 2). Each of those shows, to varying degrees, became brief cultural sensations. And the genres run the gamut from reality shows to family dramas to thrillers to comedy.

During all that time, Disney+ only had one original series for people to buzz about, “The Mandalorian.” But it’s been enough, because Disney is a merchandising machine. The company has made “Baby Yoda” (a social media nickname for the creature, who is called “The Child” in the show) a viral, instantly recognized character and a red-hot holiday gift item for two holiday shopping seasons in a row.

In November 2019, just days after Disney+ launched, Netflix content chief (and now co-CEO) Ted Sarandos, speaking at a Paley Media Center event, said that Disney has “a few universes they’re bound by,” a reference to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars, and that he was glad Netflix does not have “universes we feel bound by.” That’s the same knock some analysts had on Disney’s streaming strategy: that its library is almost entirely its own (old) content.

Ted Sarandos accepts the Milestone Award at the 31st Annual Producers Guild Awards at the Hollywood Palladium on Saturday, January 18, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Salangsang/Invision for the Producers Guild of America/AP Images)
Ted Sarandos accepts the Milestone Award at the 31st Annual Producers Guild Awards at the Hollywood Palladium on Saturday, January 18, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Salangsang/Invision for the Producers Guild of America/AP Images)

The truth is that Disney (DIS) is perfectly happy to be bound by its universes. The company’s acquisitions of Pixar (in 2006, for $7.4 billion), Marvel (2009, $4 billion), Lucasfilm (2012, $4.05 billion) all look brilliant in hindsight and have helped its share price surge over the last decade. Its $71.4 billion Fox deal last year brought franchises like “The Simpsons,” “Avatar,” and “Deadpool” into the portfolio.

Read more: Disney is Yahoo Finance’s Company of the Decade

An entire streaming platform just for “Star Wars” content would probably be a hit, but Disney+ also has the Disney Animation library, Pixar, Marvel, and National Geographic shows. Disney doesn’t urgently need to pump brand new stuff onto the platform. When it does, its Disney+ original content strategy will likely continue to center on “Star Wars” and Marvel spinoffs, and many will be huge hits. (“WandaVision,” based on the Avengers characters Wanda Maximoff and Vision, hits the service in January.)

Netflix, in contrast, will have another sudden hit series that will push “The Queen’s Gambit” out of the water cooler conversation, and that works for Netflix—as long as Netflix can afford to keep spending mountains of cash ($15 billion in 2019) on original content.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers the streaming wars. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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