We Want Our Catastrophe TV

“We can ask why Squid Game was so popular. But really we should be asking how any show becomes a global success at all.”

We are not the cultural consumers we used to be. Data, streaming, and Web 2.0 have remade how we read and how we watch. Platforms are the new publishers. But although we consume culture differently now, much of how we talk about and study it remains lodged in the analog world of the 20th century. It’s time for our methods to catch up with our objects. Born digital culture requires a born digital approach. Hacking the Culture Industries showcases the power of data-driven cultural criticism, and reinvigorates cultural studies for the 21st century. These five new essays move between book culture, streaming TV, social media, and online writing platforms: Squid Game and streaming hits; Goodreads and romance fiction; Twitter and hive-critique; Tik Tok and cultural attention; and who gets to decide who wins book prizes in the age of social networks. This series takes up a call we issued a year ago: to hack the culture industries. To challenge their dominance by using their data to study them and their stranglehold on cultural production. To tell new stories about culture in a time of ubiquitous data.

—Laura B. McGrath, Dan Sinykin, and Richard Jean So

For a short few weeks in late 2021, it seemed as if everyone’s attention was on Netflix’s Squid Game. Viewers worldwide logged 1.6 billion hours watching the series, making it the biggest success in the streaming platform’s history. Despite the September release, it was the third most discussed show on all of Twitter that year, behind Big Brother Brasil and Jujutsu Kaisen, a popular anime series. Critics rushed to explain why it had caught fire. Streaming platforms had seen subscription numbers pass the one billion mark during the pandemic. Perhaps dystopia was the perfect genre for these anxiety-fueled times. Maybe the visceral allegory of economic inequality had struck a chord with audiences living in places with rising income inequality (the majority of nations). Or perhaps Squid Game had simply caught the global wave of interest in South Korean popular culture (K-pop). Whatever the reasons for its popularity, no one saw Squid Game coming, least of all Netflix.

Rather than designing shows to please everyone everywhere all at once, Netflix’s entire business model is organized around delivering up personalized content to subscribers, giving them the niche shows they crave. In this light, Squid Game was just one more addition to the company’s local portfolio of Korean-produced shows—like the zombie historical drama Kingdom or the cross-border romantic comedy Crash Landing on You—meant to expand and sustain its domestic subscriber base. Such shows make up 14 percent of titles available to users in Korea, second only to the US and Japan, where domestic titles comprise 39 percent and 24 percent of local libraries respectively. Netflix, to be sure, is keen to invest in shows that transcend cultural and linguistic differences. But, as Amanda Lotz writes, the mission has always been to build smaller, more passionate audiences and not, as in older, nation-centered delivery models, to foster attention around a select few shows deemed least objectionable to the greatest number of people.1 Shows like Dallas, ER, or Grey’s Anatomy, which successfully sucked in wide swathes of the US prime-time viewing audience in the ’80s, ’90s, and mid-’00s.

The response to Squid Game is thus an exception to the new rules of television in the streaming era. We can ask why it was so popular. But really we should be asking how any show becomes a global success at all.

When so much of how television is produced, distributed, consumed, and discussed has changed, what does global success mean? Here we address this question from two angles: watching TV and talking TV. “Watching TV” asks which shows capture a cross section of global attention, even at a time of increasingly personalized media feeds. “Talking TV,” meanwhile, asks how global hits feed into the social rituals around television: from gathering in our living rooms to debriefing around the company watercooler to live tweeting episodes or posting about them in global online forums. Squid Game is a chance to think through the shifting dynamics of watching and talking TV as we consider what television continues to offer audiences in a multimedia ecology.

The convergence of “Squid Game” and “Grey’s Anatomy” shows the power of serialized crisis to draw in viewers from everywhere and draw out the emotional pleasures of television as a medium.

The problem of accounting for, and measuring, audience attention has a long and vexed tradition within the television industry. It is easy to reject the tools used for these measurements as having no bearing on actual viewer’s tastes and desires. Yet ratings instruments (whether developed by agencies like Nielsen or newer firms focused on the digital attention economy) are also social conventions that exist as relationships within the overall media environment. Because they are integral to how the television industry thinks about its audiences, it is imperative that critics learn how to think with them too.

To this end, our research team purchased data from Parrot Analytics, which tracks televisual attention via an array of digital signals (e.g., online search activity, social video and media engagement, data from SVOD platforms and file sharing networks). They gauge how much “audience demand” there is for a show, relative to other shows globally and within over 100 national markets. This includes shows streamed via services like Netflix and shows aired on broadcast networks or their digital counterparts.

Our dataset has demand scores for the roughly 1,000 shows that, between 2018 and 2022, entered the top 500 most in-demand shows globally. For these same shows—what we’re calling our “global hit list”—we also obtained monthly demand scores in 20 local markets: Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, United States, India, South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Nigeria, Egypt, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Spain, France, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Argentina. (As of 2021, these markets, excluding China, Egypt, and Nigeria, represented 80 percent of Netflix’s global subscriber base.2) The month after it was released, Squid Game had a score of 39.33 in the United States, 40.86 in South Korea, and 11.78 in Japan. On their own, these demand scores tell us nothing. But relationally, and at a wider scale, the numbers start to tell a story.

At the national level, the scores can be expressed as a proportion of the top scoring show in each month. In the US, for instance, Squid Game’s score in October 2021 was 54 percent of what it was for the most in-demand show, SpongeBob SquarePants. If we compute this proportional score for every month since the show’s release, and across all markets, we get a rough picture of the degree and range of attention given to Squid Game.

Figure 1 plots these monthly scores for all markets in the order listed above. Points on the far right represent months in which the series was the most in-demand show in each market, a goal it achieved in nearly all locations. Yet only in Korea (KR), and to a lesser degree in India (IN) and China (CN), was this maximal attention sustained for more than a month.

Figure 1. Relative Monthly Demand for Squid Game across National Markets

Such a flare-up may seem typical in a media environment that revels in constant distraction. But how exceptional is it for a show to grab attention everywhere all at once?

To find out, we compared Squid Game to every show in our global hit list along two dimensions. The first dimension captures how consistent proportional demand was across all markets. Higher values mean demand levels were similar in more places (equally high, middling, or low). The second dimension captures how high average demand was in any one place. Higher values mean a show captured more attention, and for a longer period, in a single market. Figure 2 plots every global hit along these two dimensions, providing an approximate map of global televisual attention for the last five years.

Figure 2. Map of Global Televisual Attention, 2018–22

Zooming into the upper right quadrant where Squid Game is located, we encounter many familiar titles (figure 3). Netflix’s Stranger Things and Money Heist are there, but also HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld. There are long-running network series like The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy, and Doctor Who, and a host of anime titles that pit young male heroes against world-destroying evil forces. These are the shows that captured widespread global attention, seeming to confirm Anna Kornbluh’s observation that immersive flow and sadistic puncture characterize our most beloved televisual content today: “On every channel, every platform, horror, supernaturalism, cringe, and staggering violence total the predominant genres.”3

Figure 3. Shows with High and Broad Demand, 2018–22

In fact, television scholars have associated the medium more broadly with the “potential trauma and explosiveness of the present.”4 Mary Ann Doane identifies television with catastrophe and asserts that catastrophe is necessary for television to assert its privileged relationship to the real. Thinking in terms of linear broadcast television, Doane points to newscasts that interrupt regularly scheduled programming in order to bring spectators coverage of an emergency event. Such “live” coverage legitimized television as the medium most capable of immediacy. Televisual catastrophe “played on the generation of anxiety” and yet also relieved anxiety through the pleasures of the spectacle.5 Viewing the bodies of the vulnerable onscreen reinforced one’s own relative safety, cocooned in the living room. Indeed, televisual content is fundamentally entangled with real-world catastrophe—argues Doane—crystallizing “the attributes and aspirations of ‘normal’ television”: namely “immediacy, urgency, presence, discontinuity, the instantaneous, and hence forgettable.”6

In the streaming era, many of the shows that achieve hit status (i.e., those with the highest global demand and reach) enfold crisis and catastrophe into the rhythms of their seasons. In Squid Game, catastrophic situations and life-and-death struggles are embodied in the spectacle of competitive games. Is this what separated it from the Korean pack?

As seen in figure 4, most Korean-produced shows (green) are lower down, having achieved greater or lesser success in fewer markets. Lower still are shows from India (blue). Compare this with shows from Japan (red), mostly anime, which as seen in figure 2 drift higher and farther to the right. Squid Game broke through the glass ceiling of Korean TV to achieve global success on par with Anglophone (mostly US-based) and Japanese shows. Television watchers, regardless of the delivery system, rewarded the Korean show that treats the death match as a spectator sport.

Figure 4. Shows with High but Narrow Demand, 2018–22

Data about TV-watching habits can give us a global view of attention and the intensity of demand in particular national markets, but it cannot directly tell us how viewers feel about what they are watching. Demand data can capture the intensity of audience or fan engagement, but not its substance.

For this, we need to shift our analytical focus to social media data and to the platforms where people talk about TV. Philip Maciak reminds us that television is not just a thing we watch, it is a “thing we do: a ritual, a routine, a time slot.” Writing about the final episode of Succession, he asks: “How much of our attachment to Succession is about our attachment to the practice of watching it every Sunday, with our friends and loved ones and an internet filled with GIFs?” Streaming and binge watching have varied the temporal and social patterns of television viewing, but the residual connection to ritual remains. This is especially true on Twitter (recently rebranded as X), a site initially promoted as a “second screen” capable of transforming personalized viewing into a communal event.7

Data from Twitter’s research API confirms that Squid Game was indeed a spectacular event.8 For the period 2018–22, the show ranks third in tweets per month (in all languages) among shows in the top right of our attention map (table 1). But quantity says only so much about the quality of engagement. As John Fiske writes, “to be popular, the television text has to be read and enjoyed by a diversity of social groups,” and must “be capable of being watched with different modes of attention.”9 What do the tweets themselves reveal about this diversity of audience, or what Squid Game may share with other mass global hits as a catalyst for collective experience?

Table 1. Tweets per Month for Select Global Hits, 2018–22

Title Release Date Tweets/Month
Spy x Family April 2022 2,469,264
Game of Thrones April 2011 480,572
Squid Game September 2021 286,017
Attack on Titan April 2013 167,621
Stranger Things July 2016 157,612
My Hero Academia April 2016 143,831
The Mandalorian November 2019 142,721
The Walking Dead October 2010 130,911
Doctor Who March 2006 110,951
Grey’s Anatomy March 2005 95,133
Money Heist May 2017 39,171
The Simpsons December 1989 27,693
Westworld October 2016 19,954
SpongeBob SquarePants May 1999 11,573

We tackled this question by collecting tweets referencing the show in three languages: English, Japanese, and Korean. Between August 2021 and February 2022, there were 1.6 million, 410,000, and 120,000 tweets respectively for each language, most concentrated in the first six weeks after the show’s release. Close reading and computational analysis  of the tweets reveal similarities across all three groups, including expressions of FOMO from celebrities and regular users; confessions of binging; attempts by influencers to repackage the game for live or virtual contests; readings of the show as capitalist critique; complaints about poor subtitling; and spam, oceans of spam.

Most relevant to our inquiry is the large body of tweets that boil down to comparative statements (“Squid Game is equal to X” or “it’s lesser than Y”). Tweets in Japanese most often reference Kaiji, As the Gods Will, Alice in Borderland, Liar Game, and Battle Royale. Tweets in Korean cite Parasite, My Name, Kaiji, and Battle Royale. In English the most cited titles are Alice in Borderland, Battle Royale, Saw, Kaiji, and The Hunger Games. Most of these titles come under the umbrella of “ACG,” a term popularized in China that refers to a global fan subculture devoted to mixed-media franchises featuring elements of animation, comics, and games. Most are also from Japan and firmly belong to the death or survival game genre. These patterns of reference suggest that Squid Game, as compared to other popular Korean TV shows, was readily pulled into the ACG circuit. Twitter users saw it as an innovation on past material or, as in a lot of Japanese tweets, a poor knockoff. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk acknowledged his own debt to Japanese comics and animation, a fact that ironically may have hindered the show’s uptake in Japan, where the material felt less original.

This perceived association with ACG content may have helped propel Squid Game’s rise amid the general platforming of anime content by Netflix, Amazon, and other streamers hoping to capitalize on its transnational appeal. (More than half of Netflix’s 220 million global subscribers watched some anime in 2021.) But we know this is only part of the story of Squid Game’s success. To understand the affective work it does as catastrophe TV, it helps to look for less obvious associations.

If Squid Game is an outlier by national origin in our map of global attention, then Grey’s Anatomy is an outlier by genre. It similarly resides in the upper echelons of global appeal, though not by emphasizing world-building, fantasy, or horror from a largely male perspective. Can the success of Squid Game explain the success of Grey’s Anatomy? What is happening here that conventional genre distinctions obscure?

To categorize Grey’s Anatomy as simply a workplace romance, or a medical drama pitched to a predominantly female-identifying viewership, is to miss narrative elements that make it another iteration of catastrophe TV. Cliff-hangers leading into commercial breaks punctuate each episode, and they often center on doctors staring at the gory injuries of a patient or other medicalized forms of body horror. Such rapid-fire punctuation at the level of the episode, or even the series, can seem superfluous when streaming Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix. Watching the broadcast television show on the streaming platform calls attention to how revenue models have historically shaped narrative form. The shift from ad-driven delivery models to commercial-free cable channels and streaming platforms supposedly freed writers to explore forms of storytelling less punctuated by cliff-hangers and more slow burning; less motivated by a story resolved within an episode and more invested in an overarching story; less animated by interchangeable characters than by the narrative investigation of their psychological states.10

But old habits die hard for writers and viewers. Some of the most successful shows of the recent past are those that blend the episodic problem and the seasonal arc. Grey’s Anatomy did it by integrating longer serial arcs within a series problematic (the day-to-day operations of Seattle Grace Hospital); Game of Thrones did it by taking an overarching story (the battle for the Iron Throne) and punctuating it with series-like problematics.11 In some ways, the death-game genre has evolved into a global phenomenon by perfecting this narrative gauntlet, making crisis an episodic and enduring phenomenon. If Grey’s Anatomy foreshadows ways of putting crisis on infinite televisual repeat, Squid Game regularizes the repetition of crisis through the systematic conceit of the death game and its episodic elimination of characters.

Just a tiny fraction of English-language tweeters commented on the counterintuitive similarities of Squid Game and Grey’s Anatomy, but their colorful responses shed light on the convergence of these outliers. Reversing the expected genre signals, one called Squid Game a tearjerker while another watched Grey’s for its “blood and guts.” Some expressed attachments to the shows based on a visceral experience of anxiety: “Okay I finished Squid Game BUT DAWG THAT WAS BRUTAL!!!! every episode gave me anxiety and I usually only get anxiety when I watch greys anatomy.” One user was more explicit about what linked the shows: “Squid game is just the Korean version of greys anatomy, they don’t care who they kill off 😭.”

Comparing such generically different shows returns us to their common denominator. The most popular television is, paradoxically, the most stressful television. Anxiety is “television’s affect,” but what distinguishes it from other kinds of high-octane media is that it is both “shock and therapy; it both produces and discharges anxiety.”12 Among the most popular television shows, love for individual characters takes a back seat to the adrenaline rush of witnessing those characters make life-and-death choices. Whether watching Seong Gi-hun play “Red Light, Green Light” with a machine gun referee or Meredith Grey hold an unexploded bazooka lodged inside a patient’s body, viewers outwardly connect to displays of “suffering agency” in which real life is reimagined as a game of self-preservation.13

Streaming TV was built for niche audiences, but “there is no long tail without the big head.14 As platforms like Netflix develop new strategies for global growth, their head executives are thinking about how to unite the personalization model of viewership with unexpected blockbusters like Squid Game. Nobody knows how to engineer a hit, but Netflix now aims to be a “universal power converter” that allows audiences across markets to plug into shows better described as remakes than originals. Squid Game is not technically a remake, but it has been received that way based on its proximity to shows in the ACG cultural mold and to the comparable shows named by Twitter users across three languages.

What is truly surprising, though, are the connections that genre categories, business models, and delivery systems obscure. Squid Game and Grey’s Anatomy are unlikely bedfellows, brought together in our data on global TV watching and talking. Their convergence shows the power of serialized crisis to draw in viewers from everywhere and draw out the emotional pleasures of television as a medium. Catastrophe TV thrives by turning forms of anxiety inducement into forms of anxiety relief. icon

  1. Amanda D. Lotz, Netflix and Streaming Video (Wiley, 2022).
  2. Amanda D. Lotz, Oliver Eklund, and Stuart Soroka, “Netflix, Library Analysis, and Globalization: Rethinking Mass Media Flows,” Journal of Communication, vol 62, no 4 (2022), p. 514.
  3. Anna Kornbluh, “Imaginary,” Portable Gray, vol. 5, no. 2 (Fall 2022).
  4. Mary Anne Doane, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe” in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, edited by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (Routledge, 2006), 251.
  5. Ibid., 260.
  6. Ibid., 262.
  7. Thomas Lamarre, “Living Between Infrastructures: Commuter Networks, Broadcast TV, and Mobile Phones,” Boundary 2, vol. 42, no. 3 (2015).
  8. All Twitter related data mentioned in this essay was obtained through the official research API between August 2022 and May 2023, prior to its being shut down.
  9. John Fiske, Television Culture (Methuen, 1987).
  10. Trisha Dunleavy, Complex Serial Drama and Multiplatform Television (Routledge, 2018).
  11. Ibid., 102–103.
  12. Patricia Mellencamp, High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age, and Comedy (Indiana University Press, 1992), 85.
  13. Jane Elliott, The Microeconomic Mode: Political Subjectivity in Contemporary Popular Aesthetics (Columbia University Press, 2018).
  14. Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix, quoted in Rachel Syme, “How Much Netflix Can the World Absorb?” The New Yorker, January 9, 2023.
This article was commissioned by Laura B. McGrath, Dan Sinykin, and Richard Jean So. Featured image: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, and Hoyeon in Squid Game (2021) via IMDb.