Streaming across borders

Siobhán McGuirk considers the role of companies like Netflix in widening access to the TV we consume

October 4, 2019 · 4 min read

Image by Jade87 from Pixabay

Gil Scott Heron said ‘the revolution will not be televised’. His wise words, written in an era of broadcast monopolies and trusted, corporation-backed newscasters, appear up for debate. As Beth Johnson and Natalie Fenton highlight on this site, there is scope at least for revolutions in television. Streaming services are meanwhile altering the way that we consume – and produce – TV.

The original series and films produced by Netflix, the global streaming giant, are a case in point. Popular dramas like Orange is the New Black, Sense8, GLOW, and Dear White People have provided representation and storylines sorely lacking elsewhere – trans characters played by trans actors, majority non-white casts, women-led narratives, normalised queer experience. This should not be ‘revolutionary’ television, but it is.

Likewise Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary 13th and mini-series When They See Us, which each address racism, criminal justice and mass incarceration in the US. The director has been blunt about why she’s working with Netflix, telling The Hollywood Reporter: ‘I can’t show Straight Outta Compton in Compton and I can’t show Selma in Selma because there are no movie theatres. Now you have a platform that’s saying: “We will make sure that audiences, not only in this country but in 190 countries, for the price of a hamburger, can see your movie, your TV show.”’ She later tweeted: ‘One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes Black work far/wide… That matters.’

That these series and films are available internationally – with audio dubbing and/or subtitles often available in languages from Arabic to Swahili – has important political implications. Roma, the Spanish-language portrait of an indigenous domestic worker in a 1970s middle-class Mexico City suburb, is available in Mansfield and Mombasa, Moscow and Mumbai. Audiences in the UK can catch a Korean comedy, Jordanian sci-fi, Polish spy thrillers. As well as weighty documentaries (The Edge of Democracy, The Great Hack and Knock Down the House are all of likely interest to Red Pepper readers), popcorn-friendly fare plays a role in forging connections across borders even as states build higher walls.

There remains much to critique about Netflix. It drops films and series as quickly as it makes them available – an availability easily influenced by government censors or distribution rights prices. It does not regularly provide audio tracks for the visually impaired. Driven by viewer numbers, content will likely gravitate towards the less ‘risky’ end. A lot of its offerings are simply terrible. It exports primarily US productions – though as Joel Waldfogel notes in his book Digital Renaissance, by giving a platform to international content that would not otherwise be available beyond the local level, ‘Netflix promotes David over Goliath.’ It is still a for-profit company, however, uninterested in providing free access to its archives.

Netflix recently announced it was focusing on ‘smaller international territories’ and hired its first director of content acquisition for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa. Such moves are exemplary both of rapacious capitalist expansion and of expanding notions of stories worth telling. In any case, two South African original series – Queen Sono and Blood & Water – are coming soon. Lionheart, a slyly feminist comedy-drama and the first Nigerian Netflix original, is already available – subtitled in Czech, Vietnamese and Finnish, among other languages. The revolution will not be brought to you by Netflix – but it may yet inspire small ones.

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