This is the Netflix Effect, in a single image:
The above is a screenshot from Google Trends, one of the many makeshift workarounds to take the place of traditional ratings in the streaming era. The blue line represents searches for “You Lifetime,” the wickedly irreverent drama that’s got way more basement prisons than a typical love story and way more jokes about Brown grads than a typical crime show. The red line represents searches for “You Netflix.” It’s the exact same show, just on a different platform—and apparently, way more popular.
You is hardly the first show to receive a boost from gaining a distributor with a lower barrier to entry than conventional cable. A half-decade ago, Breaking Bad was a canary in the coal mine for the coming era of Netflix dominance, with its closing chapters on AMC bolstered by the preceding ones becoming available with a few clicks of a mouse. More recently, Riverdale, a creative cousin of You in Greg Berlanti’s sprawling TV portfolio, quintupled its ratings among teenagers between seasons. This uptick wasn’t because Riverdale doubled down on the underage sex and arch one-liners with which it was already saturated, but because Netflix made it easier to get those one-liners in front of their target demographic.
But as Netflix’s hold on our attention, and therefore the cultural conversation, has intensified, the relationship between networks and streaming has evolved from a mutually beneficial symbiosis into something more complicated. The Good Place, for example, hasn’t experienced any dramatic spike in its NBC viewership despite its back catalog landing on Netflix—where, anecdotally, almost everyone I know who’s a fan became one. This might be specific to the show: Despite technically being a broadcast sitcom, The Good Place is also a densely plotted, long-term narrative particularly well-suited to a binge. But both The Good Place’s experience and You’s sudden relevance are evidence of consumers getting wise. Why watch something live for the sake of a water cooler that doesn’t exist anymore when you know you can simply wait it out and take a show in on your own schedule?
You is an even more particular case, because it’s a show that isn’t just functionally a second-life-on-Netflix show; starting with its upcoming second season, You actually will be a Netflix original, following a tepid ratings performance as well as Lifetime’s announcement that it plans to focus on original movies instead of series moving forward. (In a similar move, the network had previously offloaded the final season of erstwhile critical hit Unreal onto Hulu.) You now joins the likes of The Mindy Project, The Expanse, and Designated Survivor in the ranks of series reborn from tech companies’ largesse.
The ensuing response to You’s first season, which went live on Netflix the day after Christmas, indicates the change of venue may be for the best. Makeshift live-tweets have begun to accrue, followed shortly by traditional media headlines. “Everyone Is Finally Freaking Out Over You,” TV Guide declared. “Thanks to Netflix, You, a Show From 2018, Is 2019’s First Hit,” Complex observed. And, because we live in interesting and sexually fraught times: “People Are Thirsting Over Joe Goldberg in Netflix’s You and It’s Problematic AF.” In the absence of hard statistics, is there any better indication of a post-antihero show’s success than the internet lusting after its reprehensible leading man?
Lifetime’s role in bringing You to air seems fated to become a distant footnote in the show’s Wikipedia page and is already on its way to being buried under an avalanche of screenshots. A show skewering New York City millennials already feels more at home on an account five of them are sharing a password to than an old-school TV channel. In the process, You has become yet another data point in just how much power Netflix holds over the viewing habits of 2019 audiences, particularly younger ones. This one just happens to include an obscure J.D. Salinger descendant named Peach.