Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez and Black Lives Matters demonstrators in a scene from the documentary “Knock Down the House”
In January 2018, Barack Obama made his first talk show appearance since leaving the White House a year earlier. A cacophonous cheer erupting as he strode to the front of the stage, the former President sat down for an hour-long interview with legendary host David Letterman to discuss life in and after politics.
But the interview was not broadcast on CBS, where Letterman used to work. Nor did it feature on CNN, ABC, or any other US network.
Instead, it premiered on Netflix, the online streaming service that has transformed the structure of the entertainment industry with more than 60 million viewers in the US alone.
Since 2013 the world’s fifth-largest media company has overseen the production of its very own programming, with an increasingly diverse range of original content hitting the small screen. In recent years, these “Netflix Originals” have become increasingly politicized, from 2017’s Saving Capitalism to Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us about the five men falsely accused of rape in New York’s Central Park in 1989.
Not only do these programs address political themes, but they do so from a strongly progressive perspective on issues such as economic inequality, social injustice, and government corruption. Particularly since the Presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, the streamer has been pursuing the agenda, a counter-balance to the narrative coming from the White House.
But is there a space for Netflix in Washington?
“Tearing Up the Rulebook”
The streamer’s political turn has not come out of the blue. It is the latest phase in a trend of progressive filmmaking which caused a stir in Hollywood long before it did in Washington. Netflix and other services have been praised for rewriting the Hollywood rulebook in areas such as increasing minority representation and developing storylines which are not US-centric.
Network’s original content has often sought to disrupt the white American status quo of the media industry. 2013’s Orange Is The New Black, the third show to premiere on the site, tackled the issue of private prisons and the systemic inequalities of race, sexuality, and gender — soon to be a prominent theme across Netflix’s catalogue.
In an industry where casts, production teams, and executive management are saturated with white heterosexual men — -a criticism often leveled at Congress — the company aspires to make itself “more reflective of the audience (it) serves”. Meanwhile, with the rapid expansion of its Originals repertoire, Netflix is no longer purely a provider of entertainment, but a source of information. This has culminated in the release of the string of original documentaries and “docu-series” on a range of political topics from a progressive angle.
One of the earliest documentaries of this nature was 2017’s Get Me Roger Stone, exploring the life of one of Donald Trump’s top and most controversial advisors. The following year, Dirty Money exposed the interwoven links between politicians, banks and the criminal underworld. In 2019, Knock Down The House documented the 2018 primary campaigns of progressive Democrats including Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
“Under the Radar”
It is Netflix’s innovative business model which, having already revolutionized the entertainment industry, has paved the way for its expansion into the political world. Perception that it is purely an entertainment service has allowed it to pass under the radar of the paranoid Trump, even as Netflix deepens ties with the American Left.
In March 2018, the service added Susan Rice, former National Security Advisor in the Obama Administration, to its Board of Directors. Just two months later, it penned a $143 million deal for original programming with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has a long and well-documented association with the Democratic Party, making campaign donations to a number of politicians including Barack Obama and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a 2020 Presidential candidate.
Last Thursday, Trump called a “social media summit” at the White House, inviting far-right activists and cartoonists whilst excluding industry leaders like Facebook, Twitter and Google. He used the opportunity to attack the media with unsubstantiated accusations of “bias, discrimination and suppression”, threatening them with “regulatory and legislative” measures. Noticeably absent from the President’s naughty list was Netflix.
Surely it is only a matter of time before that changes and Netflix becomes a target of the President’s threats. But unlike many of the more regulated media markets in which the company operates, including in the UK, there are few regulations governing the coverage of political issues in the US.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, which compelled broadcasters to present controversial political issues in a fair and equal manner, was scrapped under the Reagan Administration in 1987. Since then, the US media has become increasingly partisan, despite certain outlets proclaiming that they are “fair and balanced”. And Netflix, as a streaming service not a broadcaster, is beyond even the limited regulation on outlets, like CNN, MSNBC, or Fox.
Nor is Netflix bound by the external pressures of advertisers. The subscription-based revenue stream means that virtually all income is generated by the viewers themselves, giving the company an extra layer of freedom to pursue a political agenda.
Hastings is beginning to exercise that freedom. In June, the streaming giant weighed in on the debate surrounding the so-called “fetal heartbeat bill”, announced in Georgia to restrict abortions to the first six weeks of pregnancy. Chief content officer Ted Sarandos piled pressure on state lawmakers by declaring Netflix would “rethink (its) entire investment in Georgia” should the law come into effect.
An Intervention for Information
During his Letterman interview, Barack Obama pointed out that Americans “are operating in completely different information universes” to one another, feeling entitled not just to their own opinions but to their own “facts” in the polarizing “post-truth” era.
Columbia University’s annual Journalism Review poll summarized the outcome: confidence in the American press has hit an all-time low, with 60% of respondents believing that the outlets pay for stories.
This could be an opening for streamers like Netflix who do not fit the mold of other media conglomerates. The streaming giant makes no attempt to disguise its political dealings, on-screen or behind the scenes, but is putting an emphasis on the factual through its choice of documentaries.
Naturally, the foray into the political sphere carries an element of risk. By politicizing its programming, Netflix will expose itself — even though Donald Trump’s gaze is elsewhere at the moment, from CNN to the “fake” New York Times to the “Amazon” Washington Post — to the wrath of the volatile President and his supporters, engaged in their ongoing war against journalists who are the “enemy of the people”. But Hastings, who has forged the success of Netflix through taking risks, is unlikely to be daunted.
Netflix has already torn up the rulebook in Hollywood. Now can it make its voice heard in Washington?