In the documentary miniseries Tiger King, Netflix (NFLX 0.85%) got a show that was perfect for its moment. At the time of its release on March 20, the COVID-19 crisis had already pushed many Americans indoors. For the bored and the stressed-out, Tiger King offered gloriously trashy drama that seemed divorced from their everyday lives and contemporary problems. Perhaps just as importantly, Tiger King was what everyone else was watching. It was what everyone else was talking about on social media. We were all alone, but we were sharing something all the same.

A big hit is always a good thing, and Tiger King was certainly a big hit. But what sort of hit was it? We don't know how many people subscribed to Netflix because Tiger King was a hit, but it seems awfully likely that the primary dynamic was the reverse: Rather than get Netflix because they wanted to watch Tiger King, people were watching Tiger King because they had Netflix.

A tiger lying on sand.

Image source: Getty Images.

Netflix builds a hit

It's important to remember that Netflix has a history of creating viral hits and that these stars tend to burn bright and burn hot -- and burn fast, too.

Critics didn't much care for Netflix's Bird Box, but viewers found it quickly after Netflix released it, without fanfare, in December 2019. By the end of the week, Netflix claimed that Bird Box had been viewed by 45 million different accounts, which probably didn't reflect the number of viewers who actually finished the flick, but which nevertheless helped communicate the scale of the out-of-nowhere hit.

Netflix gets pretty cagey about the role its algorithm plays in pushing its own original content, so we can only speculate as to how many people saw Bird Box displayed prominently on their Netflix home screen that December week. But we don't have to guess about Tiger King, which debuted after Netflix created its top 10 list, a user-facing feature that shows the most popular titles on Netflix at any given time. Tiger King got to the top of that list fast and stayed there for three weeks. That means every single Netflix subscriber who logged into an up-to-date Netflix app during a three-week period following the release of Tiger King saw the series in their app, sitting atop the top 10 list.

Netflix as cultural default

Netflix isn't the only streaming service that can create an original program and push it, using its algorithms or some other method to surface the suggestion for huge numbers of users. Disney-controlled Hulu or the company's Disney+ could theoretically do this, too. Amazon's Amazon Prime could as well. But these services lack an important part of Netflix's viral toolbox: They don't have the massive market penetration that Netflix does.

It's certainly not true that "everyone" has Netflix, but Netflix's penetration in the United States is remarkable, with 61 million paid memberships at the end of last year, and its sway with the people most important to creating a viral cultural phenomenon -- social media power-users, media writers, and so on -- is likely even greater. Within the group of people who create, care about, and respond to a pop culture phenomenon like Tiger King, virtually "everyone" really does have Netflix.

Taking this view, it's easy to imagine that it's Netflix -- not Tiger King -- that is most important here. That's not to say that Tiger King wasn't something special, because Netflix certainly doesn't grab this many headlines and run up streaming totals like this with every release. But Netflix does tend to get press like this whenever we're all watching the same thing, because when "everyone" on Netflix is watching the same show, that comes pretty close to meaning that "everyone" in the pop culture sphere is watching it.

Who makes who?

The importance of Netflix in this equation has major implications.

With over 5 billion streaming minutes consumed, Tiger King is the sort of spectacle that you'd expect competing services to wish that they'd made first. And while execs at those services probably wouldn't say no if you gave them a chance to go back in time and make Tiger King before Netflix did, those same execs probably also understand that Tiger King wouldn't look like the same cultural phenomenon if it had dropped on Hulu or on Amazon Prime instead of on Netflix. Though we'll never know to what degree it could have pulled in new subscribers to such services, we can say with certainty that Netflix's hit-making machine -- its top ten list and its massive market penetration -- played kingmaker for Tiger King in a way that Hulu or Amazon Prime Video just wouldn't have been able to.

Another thing about this particular understanding of the Netflix-Tiger King dynamic is that it suggests that Netflix itself needs to be smart about how it understands its own hits.

When Game of Thrones came off the air, we could have supposed quite plausibly that it would cost HBO millions of viewers and parent company AT&T millions of dollars. And the end of Game of Thrones really did lead to some subscription churn at HBO, proving that Game of Thrones had been actively winning over new customers for HBO. By contrast, the fleeting Tiger King probably didn't change Netflix's subscriber base much in either direction. It got Netflix some good press and devoured some serious viewing hours, and then -- a follow-up "aftershow" episode notwithstanding -- it moved on to the big roadside zoo in the sky.

Does Netflix need more enduring hits?

It's certainly not a bad thing to chew up viewer hours, but this understanding of Tiger King supports concern with Netflix's fleeting hits.

Netflix's formula elevates shows to pop culture status and then (usually) lets them disappear just as quickly. Netflix doesn't typically end up beholden to any one hit in the way that HBO was to Game of Thrones, and Netflix gets to use up viewer hours on content it made and owns, saving it the trouble of spending big on licensing. But this cycle hasn't necessarily given Netflix many difference-making shows of the sort that would help it maintain its position on top, should that position be seriously threatened.

The fact that Tiger King looks like the kind of hit that Netflix makes, rather than the kind of hit that could "make" Netflix won't trouble the streaming giant anytime soon. But it is nowhere written that Netflix subscriptions are mandatory. If Netflix ever loses ground in an increasingly fractured market, viral-style hits like Tiger King may not be enough to keep it on top.