There’s the show in which the protagonist throws a rock at the head of a young woman, follows her to a beach house and shoots her dead. The true story about the brutal sexual assault and murder of a woman in Wisconsin. The recordings of the notorious 1970s man who confessed to killing dozens of women, sometimes having sex with their decomposing corpses.
The group isn’t a listing of cult exploitation videos. It’s a much more mainstream collection — “You,” “Making a Murderer” and “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” a sample of recent hits on Netflix.
As the streaming giant has continued to shower billions of dollars on programming and marketing, it has become one of the most powerful forces in entertainment, putting both Silicon Valley and Hollywood on the defensive. The service has done this in part with the help of delicate dramas such as the recent Spanish-language black-and-white film “Roma,” which won three Oscars last month.
Yet Netflix is also quietly capitalizing on another form of content. More than other entertainment outlets, a number of Netflix’s hit shows spotlight gruesome violence, often committed against women, according to viewership statistics and industry experts. And Netflix is both more popular (some 60 million U.S. subscribers) and more intensely watched (in all rooms of the house, often multiple episodes at a time) than traditional television, raising worries among some media-violence experts.
“I’m concerned about the trajectory we’re on,” said Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University who has studied the effects of media violence, and is one of a number of critics who come not from the more traditional ranks of conservative family groups but are instead academics, journalists and mental-health experts.
“If I worked at Netflix I might say, ‘Well, this is what people want.’ But that doesn’t mean it should be provided,” he said. “The research shows that escalating violence on-screen can make us more tolerant of it in real life; it can leave ‘lingering fear’ that can cause sleep disturbances and other problems.”
“There is,” he added, “an issue of social responsibility here.”
Netflix closely guards its viewership data, so it is hard to make direct comparisons to broadcast and cable networks, which allow themselves to be rated. And Netflix is of course by no means the first content company to offer gore on the small screen. HBO has “True Detective” and “Game of Thrones,” Showtime had “Dexter,” and CBS has long tested the limits of blood appetites on procedurals such as “CSI,” to name a few examples.
But in the data Netflix does release, there are strong hints of the disproportionate role of violence in its top offerings. (Note: The story ahead contains some plot spoilers of previously released Netflix shows and movies; please read with this in mind.)
Netflix recently revealed its most binged shows in 2018 — the shows people spend the most time watching in a single sitting. Of the top three last year, two centered on death or violence, “Making a Murderer” and “13 Reasons Why,” the latter a scripted drama focusing on the suicide of a teenage girl. Netflix provided the eight most-binged of its original productions in 2018. Half of them contained a significant degree of violence or morbid themes.
Then there’s newcomer “You,” about a creepy stalker, which the company touted on a recent earnings call has been viewed by at least 40 million households. And one of the most-watched Netflix movies ever, “Bird Box,” released in December, is a dark exercise in which victims are moved to take their life after encountering a lethal supernatural being. The film was viewed by 80 million accounts in its first month of availability, Netflix executives said.
Asked about both the trend and the criticism of it, a Netflix spokesperson said: “There’s a huge choice on Netflix: dramas, romantic comedies, cooking shows, mysteries, documentaries, stand-up comedy specials, and a whole lot more. Focusing on one genre to the exclusion of all these others simply doesn’t reflect the programming we offer.”
But the company has also boasted of the popularity of programming with these themes. In its earnings call in January, Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told analysts that “One thing this quarter that’s been incredibly exciting [is] when you see a big number like ‘Bird Box’ and ‘You.'” He said the two content offerings “tap into the global zeitgeist.”
While there’s plenty of violence to be found elsewhere, other networks’ shows don’t dwell on these subjects as often. Of the 15-most watched series on HBO in 2018, only three might have been regarded as centering on hard-edged violence
And no broadcast network in 2017-2018 had more than one show in its top five that primarily trafficked in violence, even of the more benign broadcast-network kind. The top scripted series on the biggest networks in 2017-2018 in the adult 18-49 demographic — NBC’s “This Is Us,” CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and ABC’s “Roseanne” — are all preoccupied with other themes.
People who study violence on entertainment platforms say the intensity of the fare on Netflix can also be greater than on competitors. “You” follows the main character as he takes a mallet to a young male victim, locks him in a Plexiglas cage and poisons him. “Conversations with a Killer” has the faces of tortured murder victims flashing across the screen as Bundy explains why someone might commit the horrific crimes.
Other TV shows will certainly spotlight a corpse or murder, but stalkers and serial killers are far less often the show’s central protagonists. Even “Game of Thrones,” possibly some of the most violent content not on Netflix, is frequently focused on power and palace intrigue, with violence more the dependable tool to acquire it.
“I think the decision to show more sensationalist programs is driven by the same thing that makes Netflix give us so little control to stop the next episode,” said Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, alluding to the so-called autoplay feature in which a new episode begins automatically. “That something is ‘success to Netflix.'”
Robert Thompson, a professor of media and culture at Syracuse University, says the reason for this focus may have to do with the fact that viewers often watch Netflix in more private ways and settings than they do traditional television. That can help the service achieve for shows about killers what e-book readers did for “50 Shades of Grey,” plain-brown packaging by way of the company of the red envelope.
In other words, he said, violence fits the delivery vehicle.
“If you look at television history, there’s often a mirror effect,” Thompson said. “In the early days of TV, in the days of ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘Leave it To Beaver,’ families would gather in the living rooms to watch shows about people who gather in their living rooms. And now we’re people who sit huddled alone, looking a little creepy, watching people who are huddled alone looking a little creepy.”
Grisly content also can fit with the type of narrow but deep engagement Netflix seeks; the service’s model is based more on small pockets of high interest than the broad-viewership ambitions of many competitors.
What’s more, some note that the company’s algorithms tend to encourage consumption and production of what’s already succeeding, amplifying the trend.
“Because Netflix bases so much on technology, when something works, you’re going to have a lot of different versions of that same thing. I think that’s what’s happening with this kind of violent content,” said Gina Keating, the author of “Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America’s Eyeballs.” “I would call it a virtuous circle except it’s not that virtuous.”
The service’s interest in violence began early. Netflix’s first original scripted series was “House of Cards,” with its linchpin moment of Frank pushing Zoe in front of a train. Shortly after came “Hemlock Grove,” which opens with two teenage girls violently murdered.
Soon these themes had spread to other narrative forms, culminating in recent months with the raw recordings of “Conversations” and the plot lines of “You,” whose first season Netflix recently acquired from Lifetime as part of a deal in which it will also finance a second season.
“Making a Murderer” was a landmark event for Netflix when it came online in late 2015, with its story of a man accused of murder and sexual assault. It would soon spawn both a second season and other true-crime series such as “Evil Genius” and “The Innocent Man.”
Last week the company released its latest entry in the category, “The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann,” a story of a young British girl who went missing while on vacation with her parents in Portugal. The series has received negative reviews; the Guardian called it “morally and creatively bankrupt” and “a blatant cash-in on the vogue for the true-crime series that have become a staple of Netflix’s output since the success of ‘Making a Murderer.'” The boom is presaged by both HBO’s “The Jinx” and such true-crime podcasts as “Serial,” though the latter form is moderated by its lack of images.
And even before the recent “Velvet Buzzsaw,” a dark horror-comedy that featured admirers of art gorily hanged and burned, and “Polar,” a hit-man thriller with multiple gruesome murders, Netflix was debuting films like “The Babysitter” and “Clinical,” which feature plenty of explicit violence. (It’s worth noting that the tone and quality of all of this content can vary wildly; some pieces have drawn high acclaim while others have been pilloried.)
Some experts say they have particular concerns about portrayal of violence against women.
“There are many studies that show that the ‘rape-myth acceptance scale’ — basically how much male viewers accept a rape myth — goes up with increased exposure to this kind of content,” Sparks said. “The idea for example that women might be ‘asking’ for sexual assaults, or might enjoy them — those are very clearly myths. But consistent exposure [to violence] like this is shown to make more males conclude they’re true.”
The programming’s potential effect on suicide has also come under scrutiny with the popularity of “13 Reasons Why.”
In a large joint study after the show’s debut in 2017, researchers at a number of institutions, including University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the University of Washington found that Google queries about suicide had gone up 19 percent in the three weeks after the show became available.
Both the statistics and anecdotes support the idea the show was glamorizing suicide, experts said.
“I had a dad call me because he found his 15-year-old in her bathtub dressed like Hannah, who had cut herself like Hannah,” said Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist who runs Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a Minnesota-based mental-health organization, referring to the show’s main character. “The research bears this out. The way the show presented the content had real impact.”
Reidenberg, who works with Hollywood on the depiction of mental-health, was called by Netflix to watch “13 Reasons Why” and offers executives thoughts after the first season was shot. He said the company “did listen and hear feedback” but didn’t, in his view, change the season much as a result.
Content providers say that violent entertainment is simply built in to the American consumer experience; it is less a matter of a company creating a desire than meeting one that is already there.
The point does not persuade USC’s Wood, who said that, even though many people choose to watch this content, she didn’t believe that absolved Netflix of responsibility.
“The fact that we don’t have control not only over what’s made but how it’s viewed — that so much of the so-called ‘personalization’ is decided on by Netflix with its algorithms — makes them responsible,” she said.
There is little sign Netflix will turn away from the category. In addition to the investment in “You,” it’s firmly in the Bundy business — it recently acquired the scripted “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” starring the teen-friendly star Zac Efron. Fans have already buzzed online.
“Of course a lot of this is going to be popular,” Sparks said. “But just because people like it doesn’t mean Netflix always has to foster the appetite. McDonald’s used to make French fries with beef tallow because it tasted good. That didn’t mean they should continue serving it.”