Believe it or not, today — August 29, 2022 — is the 25th anniversary of Netflix. That’s the day the company was founded by Reed Hastings and Mark Randolph.
Back then, obviously, it was not the streaming video powerhouse it is now. In 1997, streaming video did not exist, unless you count my grandfather’s collection of VHS tapes about fly fishing. Instead, the company was built sending DVDs through the mail.
Originally, Netflix sold and rented DVDs through the mail, but they became famous for their rental business. Customers paid for a monthly subscription and in return they got all the DVDs they could watch delivered straight to their mailbox. The standard plan was three discs out at a time. Each time you sent one back in one of those little red envelopes which used to be everywhere but now are borderline nonexistent, the company sent you back a new movie to watch from the top of your queue of titles you wanted on their site.
Their big sales pitch at the time was that unlike renting from a chain like Blockbuster, Netflix charged no late fees if you forgot to return something. (Of course not; you were paying a monthly subscription fee.) Here is a vintage commercial from 2004 that shows how things used to work:
This poor man in this commercial apparently lives on a couch across the street from a big video store? Feels like he should have higher priorities than getting DVDs shipped to his home by mail? If he wanted to, he could just get off his couch, walk across the street, and rent anything he wanted from the video store! But whatever.
Netflix first began offering streaming movies through the internet in 2007. By 2011, that side of the business had grown so large, that they announced plans to spin off their DVD by mail business into a new company called Qwikster, a name so silly and so widely ridiculed it sounds like something I would make up as a joke. A few months later, Netflix reversed course and decided to keep the DVDs-by-mail going. If you’re so inclined, you can still get DVDs from Netflix to this day. (The company now owns the DVD.com website and uses that as their disc rental hub.)
What does the future hold for Netflix? The streaming business they pioneered has now become one of the competitive spaces in all of entertainment. (Netflix recently posted a quarterly subscriber loss for the first time in years.) They’ve also expanded into new areas like streaming games, but at least so far that business hasn’t exploded in the same way their streaming video concept did in the late 2000s. Maybe hearing that Netflix is now 25 years old will make people so nostalgic for those little red envelopes that they’ll dust off their DVD players and start renting discs again.
Here was a video Netflix made to celebrate their anniversary:
Netflix’s Most Popular English-Language TV Shows Ever
These are the most popular TV shows ever on Netflix (in English), based on hours viewed in their first 28 days on streaming.