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The Year Netflix Ended the Streaming Wars

After a shaky 2022 in which it seemed like the competition was finally getting to Netflix, the company proved time and time again in 2023 that it has a hold on viewers like no other

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The critics have spoken and they mostly agree: Succession was the TV show of 2023. But if the lists tell one story, the numbers tell another. When it came to commanding attention spans, Jesse Armstrong’s withering HBO tragicomedy couldn’t compete with a different portrait of sharply dressed yuppies exchanging witty barbs in Manhattan office buildings. The defining television event of 2023 was actually a defunct cable drama that appeared on Netflix just two weeks after Succession came to an end.

Since it hit the streaming service in June, millions of people have watched billions of minutes of Suits, the legal procedural that aired on USA Network for nine seasons from 2011 to 2019. Chronicling the caseload of a brainy, deceptive legal wunderkind (Patrick J. Adams) taken under the wing of a shark attorney (Gabriel Macht), the show was a late pillar of the “blue sky” era, when USA was churning out character-driven, case-of-the-week prime-time dramas like Monk, Psych, and Burn Notice—shows that scream “2010s weekend hangover fodder” more than “2020s mass cultural event.”

Of course, a broadcast hit enjoying a second life on streaming is nothing new; network sitcoms like Friends and The Office experienced similar years-later spikes when they hit streamers in the early 2010s. But this past summer’s Suits boom was unprecedented in the magnitude of its reach: Available on both Netflix and Peacock (where its ninth and final season remains exclusively), the show repeatedly surpassed 3.5 billion viewing minutes in a single week, setting a new record for acquired titles. By October, it had broken another record, going 12 consecutive weeks as the top streaming show, according to Nielsen.

There’s one pretty obvious question to ask here, and I won’t be the first to ask it: Why? Some have cited the Meghan Markle of it all; before leaving showbiz for the British royal family, the future Duchess of Sussex played paralegal Rachel Zane for seven seasons. There’s also the show’s unexpected ubiquity on TikTok, though that was arguably driven by its exploding popularity as much as the reverse. And plenty have seen something attractively familiar in the Suits formula: It’s small-screen popcorn, the kind of comfort food that never goes out of fashion, a surprisingly natural fit in the modern bingeing era, when people are often just looking for something to put on while they scroll through social media.

Still, there’s an easier explanation for the Suits-aissance, one that has less to do with what or why and more to do with where. Simply put, the show became available on Netflix. In 2023, that can be enough to drive huge numbers of viewers to almost anything. In fact, the success of Suits is less a new gain for Netflix than further proof of its current dominance of the industry.

With nearly 250 million subscribers, Netflix has a big lead on its competitors. (Amazon is next with closer to 200 million—though some of that has to be attributed to streaming being offered with a Prime shipping subscription—while Disney+ trails with some 150 million and services like Max, Hulu, Apple TV+, and Paramount+ lag behind with under 100 million.) More than that, Netflix has a reputation as the industry leader in creating new phenomena from an original or acquired title. “Netflix has emerged this year as the clear winner of the streaming wars,” says Matthew Belloni, founder of the digital media company Puck and host of the weekly Ringer podcast The Town. “There’s a sense around Hollywood that Netflix can make something a hit more than any other service. It’s not even close.”

Suits may be the ultimate example of what’s often referred to as the “Netflix effect”—the boost in visibility and viewership some established programs experience when moving to the platform. After all, the show was already available on Peacock—and, before that, Amazon Prime Video—when Netflix shelled out between $25 million and $50 million for the streaming rights. But only after arriving on Netflix did its popularity explode. That has a lot to do with “scale”—which is to say, the size of the subscriber base. But it also might have something to do with how people use Netflix. While some streaming platforms appeal to consumers looking for a particular title or franchise (think Marvel or Star Wars fans flocking to Disney+ or Bravo junkies signing up for Peacock), Netflix has the reputation of being a service for browsers—the place to go when you don’t necessarily know what you want to watch. For that reason, “the Netflix homepage is the most valuable piece of real estate in Hollywood,” says Julia Alexander, director of strategy at Parrot Analytics.

A big part of that homepage is the Top 10, a side-scrolling carousel that Netflix introduced in February 2020 to promote its most-watched titles every week in every country. Since its inception, the feature has both measured and perpetuated popularity, creating a kind of internal word-of-mouth for movies and shows on the platform. The weekly chart takes into account minutes spent watching something relative to running time, an equation that some of the other streaming services, like Disney+, are said to have adopted.

A spokesperson from Netflix is quick to insist that the company doesn’t “put their thumb on the scale,” that the Top 10 is an entirely unaltered reflection of internal viewing metrics. Alexander, for one, believes that explanation. “I don’t think they’re manipulating data,” she says. “I don’t think they have to.”

The Top 10 is, of course, a great advertising tool, regardless of whether the charting titles are original content or licensed fare. Popularity drives more popularity. “Most audiences, by human nature, want to participate in something that other people are participating in,” says Alexander. “So they check out the Top 10, which is directly in front of them.” That’s partially how a sensation like Suits happens: The impression of lots of people watching one show creates more interest in it. If the habit of viewers switching on Netflix to “see what’s on” sounds an awful lot like how people watch cable TV, that’s not an accident—nor is it a new development. “Netflix in 2023 is just Netflix in 2013,” says Alexander, pointing to the year the company began developing its own programming with shows like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and the Arrested Development revival.

Before that, Netflix’s whole library was licensed. Going back to shows like The Office, acquisitions have always played a major role in the company’s strategy, even as they’ve moved into original hits like Stranger Things and prestige award magnets like Maestro. What has ebbed and flowed is the willingness of other studios to license to their biggest competitor. Is the amount Netflix is willing to shell out for a Suits worth the further advantage a Suits might provide? Alexander sees a “misconception” in what the other services took from Netflix’s success: Maybe it’s not about the specific titles available so much as the allure of having a bunch of generally appealing titles under one roof. “Most viewers—and I include myself in this—are lazy by definition,” says Alexander. “They just want one system. That’s what cable did really well. Cable is expensive and trying to cancel it is a nightmare … but everything was in one place.”

Still, for as much as Netflix’s library can look like a block of syndicated reruns, Belloni rejects the notion that it’s all nostalgia fueling the streaming comeback of Suits and other stuff like it. “The thing Netflix has pulled off is making these shows feel fresh and new even if they are not,” he says. “People go to Netflix to discover something they’re going to like, and the algorithm does a good job of serving that to them. They don’t look at Suits as Nick at Nite programming. They look at it as a cool show they’ve never watched.”

There was, of course, a shortage of actual new shows for people to watch this summer, as the Hollywood release calendar was scrambled by both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. With studios (including Netflix) spacing out their releases to account for a production halt, and with essentially no fall TV season in sight, something like Suits was ideally positioned to fill the void. “The mainstream audience that typically watches broadcast TV in the fall? That’s the Suits audience!” says Belloni. “And they didn’t have those shows back, so they were maybe on Netflix looking for something in their wheelhouse.”

But the strikes didn’t just potentially drive audiences to Suits. The show’s massive success also became a linchpin in the writers’ fight for better residuals in the streaming age. Suits writer-producers Nora and Lilla Zuckerman used the show’s sudden resurgence to demonstrate the vast difference in what they were paid for TV re-airings versus streams. Meanwhile, another writer-producer on the show, Ethan Drogin, penned a piece for the Los Angeles Times in which he revealed his own paltry payout for the Suits episode he wrote.

Residuals are addressed in the agreements reached between the studios and the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, but a show has to perform very well for those involved to receive the new “success-based bonuses.” And under the current deal, which applies only to original programming, no one involved in a second-run phenomenon like the one Suits experienced this year would get a bigger slice. The WGA deal does grant greater access to internal numbers, even if they’ll be shared only between studios and creative teams and not publicly. Netflix, along with the other streaming services, has been historically cagey about revealing specific viewing metrics. Alexander thinks that’s less about controlling the deals the companies strike with creators than projecting a constant image of success. “They’re so protective about it because they don’t want a negative story that affects Wall Street, that affects their stock,” she says. “Especially with these companies, like Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery, that have relatively low stock right now and are trying to climb back. If they don’t have to, they’ll just showcase what does look good.”

Netflix is more transparent than most, but maybe only because “its numbers are strong,” as Alexander puts it. “If you look at the [other] streaming services, a lot of the programming probably would not be considered super successful.” And this week, the company got even more transparent with the introduction of an unprecedented engagement report that will be published publicly twice a year; the enormous, 1,300-page PDF reveals viewing hours for nearly everything on Netflix—almost 18,000 titles—over a six-month span. (Season 1 of Suits lands at no. 73 on the list with 129 billion total hours viewed, slightly below fellow acquisitions like the final season of The Walking Dead and the fifth season of PAW Patrol.)

It remains to be seen how the sudden availability of these metrics will affect the deals Netflix makes or what creators earn from them. But it’s a hopefully influential move away from the secrecy that’s long surrounded streaming numbers—and a far cry from the days when the impression of a show’s popularity was shaped by press releases touting something as “the biggest debut in Netflix history.”

If Suits creator Aaron Korsh has any complaints about the residuals, he’s keeping them to himself. Maybe he’d rather just bask in the glow of having a hit series twice over. “I’m just living my life, and suddenly things are exploding,” Korsh says of finding out that Suits was back in a big way. “It was very satisfying.” The writer-producer, who’s never been involved in the licensing decisions around his show, attributes its new wave of fans partially to Markle’s enormous celebrity, but more so to its latest streaming home. “You have to give Netflix a lot of credit,” he says. “I don’t think it’s solely subscribers. I think it’s also their ability to entice people to watch a show.”

Korsh, who also created the short-lived Suits spinoff Pearson, says that “it feels harder to get a show made” in the streaming age. “But it’s always been hard to get a show on the air,” he adds. “Since this Suits revival, it appears it might get a little easier for me.” His phone is ringing more these days, and things are moving a little faster with some of the projects he already had in the works. “I haven’t gotten a call from the president of a network offering a five-year deal or anything,” he says. “But it’s better than it was.”

One of the projects he’s discussing is another return to Suits, currently going under the working title Suits L.A. “It’s a script I wrote years ago,” Korsh says. “It was not originally intended to be a Suits project. It was a different law show. But the sensibility is similar. I’m the same human being who wrote Suits. I’ve described it as being like a cousin of Suits. It fits nicely in the world. The idea is to put it in the same universe, and allow for potential interactions with Suits characters.”

Whatever direction the new show takes, don’t expect to be able to watch it on Netflix—at least not initially. That’s part of the upside to getting in bed with the enemy: Studios can license their originals to Netflix, then reap the benefits on broadcast TV or their own streaming platforms once they’re suddenly hits. That’s what happened with Breaking Bad, which quintupled its audience over a single season thanks to people discovering it on Netflix. Would there be a Better Call Saul without the bump this deal gave the Albuquerque franchise?

Belloni thinks negotiations will get interesting. Rights holders might hold out for $10 million or $20 million more, arguing that they “know how valuable a show can be if it becomes the next Suits.” Or maybe Netflix will argue they should pay less. “We’re the only place that can rejuvenate a tired property!” Belloni imitates. “Look at all the value NBC is getting off of Suits.”

Regardless of how those negotiations play out, other studios are licensing to Netflix again. It’s a surprising shift back toward a status quo that seemed endangered just a year ago. The forecast for Netflix was much gloomier in 2022, when the company reported its first loss in overall subscribers in a decade and saw its market value dive as a result. The introduction of the ad-based plan, priced at only $7 a month (pointedly lower than many of the competitors’), felt like a Hail Mary to cover for its suddenly stalled growth. So, too, did this past summer’s big crackdown on password sharing.

It was the emergence of major new streaming platforms like Disney+, HBO Max (now Max), Paramount+, and Peacock that really threatened Netflix’s hold over the market. The fear wasn’t so much that any of these new services, which cropped up between 2019 and 2021, would outpace Netflix in overall subscribers (they didn’t). It was the hemorrhaging of licensed titles, as the major entertainment conglomerates reclaimed the rights to their own hits—including reliable rerun juggernauts like Friends and The Office, the bread and butter of Netflix’s comfort-watching.

In all likelihood, the imminent loss of those licensed pillars pushed Netflix to diversify its portfolio, investing hundreds of millions of dollars into original programming and chasing international markets. It also helps explain the company’s general indifference to theatrical grosses. When the murder-mystery sequel Glass Onion was pulled from theaters after just a single successful week last autumn, many wondered aloud whether the company was leaving millions in revenue on the table. But the decision reinforced Netflix’s unwavering commitment to the platform and its investment in streaming as the future of the industry.

The Suits phenomenon shows that licensed titles are still crucial to Netflix’s prosperity. And seen from the other side of the equation, there’s an element of surrender to Netflix’s competitors opening up the licensing conversation again. Facing “massive deficits” and “bleeding money,” as Alexander puts it, these companies—like Warner Bros. Discovery, which just opened up the HBO library to Netflix, beginning with five seasons of Insecure—have abandoned the exclusivity of their streaming strategies and made a deal again. And why not? If Suits can’t become a hit on Peacock, NBCUniversal can still get a quick payday (and maybe breathe fresh life into the franchise) by loaning it to Netflix.

Regardless, the reversion to those old arrangements—and/or some version of them—says a lot about Netflix’s lead in the streaming wars. And the success of Suits on the platform is simply the most high-profile recent illustration of the hold the service has over the public’s wallets and eyeballs. Maybe it doesn’t matter what high-profile titles you have sole access to when your major competitor can make a Game of Thrones–sized hit out of your apparent leftovers.

So will Netflix look to develop the next Suits in-house? Alexander doesn’t think so. “Why invest in a bunch of procedurals, most of which probably won’t work because most of them don’t work on broadcast?” she asks. Suits was a fluke acquisition that paid off for both the seller and the buyer, but it makes less sense as a Netflix original. For one, the sheer volume of episodes, which was probably part of what drove the show’s success this summer—at last, something on Netflix longer than three seasons of 10 episodes each!—wouldn’t be as viable for a streaming service without syndication options.

At the same time, Netflix can’t give up on original programming. According to Alexander, it’s crucial to gaining subscribers in international regions, which now make up more than 70 percent of the customer base. “The way they think about it in streaming is that original shows bring people in, the library content is what keeps them there,” agrees Belloni. “If Netflix wants to continue growing and bringing in new customers, they need to have original shows. You can’t just have a service based on old library content.”

Still, in the aftermath of the Suits craze, the company will probably focus a little more on licensing and a little less on original programming. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos promised as much recently, citing that aforementioned seesaw between desire and reluctance on other companies’ part to lend out their media inventory to the industry leader. News also broke earlier this week of a deal, being finalized now, between Disney and Netflix that would grant the latter short-term access to a bunch of the former’s library titles … including White Collar, another USA Network favorite in the Suits vein.

The real future of Netflix may essentially be two platforms, Alexander speculates. On the one hand, you’d have a “premium product” that will charge higher rates—maybe $20 to $25 a month, if Netflix’s position at the top holds—for ad-free access to the platform and its big originals, like Wednesday and Stranger Things. On the other hand, you’d still have the recently introduced ad-supported plan for those more casual viewers just looking for an old episode of, well, Suits, or something similarly bingeable to throw on in the background.

For now, the company’s position is enviable. “What Netflix quickly realized is that, at the scale they have, if they can offer most of what most people want, they’re going to be the dominant platform even as audiences experiment with others,” says Alexander. “The question is whether Netflix will always have the scale.” Its competitors are thinking of new ways to shrink that lead—but they might have to settle for just being the other service Netflixers splurge on.

As for everyone’s favorite soapy, slick law drama of 2011 and 2023, Netflix subscribers shouldn’t get too attached. There’s no telling how soon Suits will leave the platform—or whether Netflix will even fight to keep a show whose moment in the Top 10 sun has passed. In other words, binge quickly, or prepare for the next “cool show you haven’t watched” from the prime time of five years ago. So long as Netflix is around, there will be another one.

A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor based in Chicago. His work has appeared in such publications as The A.V. Club, Vulture, and Rolling Stone. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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