Higher Ed Lessons from Netflix's Bird Box

On alternative online credentials, Sandra Bullock, and university brands.

January 7, 2019

Have you watched Bird Box on Netflix yet?

Netflix does not release viewing statistics for subscribers for faculty or staff or students, but if the campus buzz is any indication, then the movie is even more popular in academia than in the real world.

According to Netflix, 45 million of Netflix’s 137 million subscribers watched at least 70 percent of Bird Box between December 21st and December 27th.  That many viewers would equal $400 million in box-office revenues if each viewer had purchased a ticket to see the movie in a theater.   

While everyone in academia and lots of other people besides have been watching Bird Box, the movie has received mostly mediocre reviews.  The headline of a HuffPo piece neatly sums up the disparity between audience enthusiasm and critical reception:  ‘Bird Box’ Is A Bad Movie, So Why Do So Many People Like It?

A better question would be, what are the lessons of Bird Box for higher ed?

Where the critics get Bird Box wrong is that they are reviewing the movie from the perspective of artistic achievement.   This is the wrong lens to make sense of Bird Box. Or at least it is a view that is partially obscured.

I watched Bird Box over a series of a bunch of days on a few different devices. On my iPad while exercising, on my phone while laying in bed, and on my computer while taking a break from working.

Netflix doesn’t release viewing analytics, which is a real loss to anyone who wants to understand the relationship between technology and information.  I suspect that a diminishing number of Netflix viewers consume content all-at-once and through TVs. Instead, video is consumed in snippets, over time, and on multiple devices.

The reason that I watched Bird Box can be summarized in two words: Sandra Bullock.

But I would have never watched Bird Box if the only way to view the movie was at a movie theater.  I mean, I like Sandra Bullock, but a big star is just not enough of a draw to overcome the opportunity costs of going to a movie theater.

So I watched Bird Box because of Sandra Bullock, and because I could watch the movie in snippets on various devices on my schedule.

The lessons for higher ed should be coming into focus.

If we take our blindfolds off, we can we can glimpse the power of brands combined with convenience.

We are entering into an era where universities with global brands are creating non-degree online programs.

These online alternative credential programs can be accessed with fewer barriers than the traditional credential programs that these schools first built their brands.  They are mostly open to anyone who is willing to pay for the program, the costs are low in comparison to degrees, and the time commitment is comparatively small.

Bird Box has been a success because of the combination of brand (Bullock) and platform (Netflix).  Bird Box might not be great, but it is better than most of what is on offer on Netflix/YouTube/Prime, and has lower barriers to viewing then theatrical films shown in movie theaters.

Non-degree / alternative credential programs from schools with global brands may end up Bird Boxing traditional degree programs from schools with regional brands.

Colleges and universities must invest equally in reputation and emerging digital platforms.  Achieving strong institutional brand recognition, or pushing into alternative online credentials, are not enough on their own. They must be done in concert and coordination.

Every college and university needs to open their eyes to the scary realities of the new higher ed market.

Have you seen Bird Box?


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