Netflix: The New Outlet for US Progressive Politics?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Surely it is only a matter of time before that changes and Netflix becomes a target of the President’s threats.”

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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.

TAKING SIDES

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 mould 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?

Have your say...

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  • Betty haislop
    External
    1. At 5:50PM on 12 October 2020, Betty haislop wrote

    I would delete Netflix for their radical views except my grandson likes some of his shows. Netflix is probably trying to influence children too. This country will not stop until we are completely socialist.

  • Sajib Paul
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    2. At 3:05PM on 29 November 2020, Sajib Paul wrote

    I have already stopped watching Netflix, it is a leftist political propaganda machine.

  • Klas Wullt
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    3. At 7:27AM on 16 December 2020, Klas Wullt wrote

    The hole shitty leftism is not entertainment,

    most people are white and straight that is the fact.

    I am sick of the fact that the algorithm clearly try to change

    my tastes, I am not stupid and everyone knows its not a error.

    There is nothing interesting about socialism, its just meaningless

    emotionality because most people don't relate to the feelings of someone

    who wants to be special without ever doing anything

    which is what most gay rights stuff is about.

    Hedonistic fantasies are not satisfying to watch,

    have these people ever been in writing school?

    I am sick of all the womanly perspectives, all the gays

    and all the political idealism which doesn't align with my view.

    I am a intellectual and there is not a single intelligent thought

    to a leftist teenage brain.

    Netflix is not a source of intelligent information, get a education.

    I want old school science fiction, sex and horror movies..

    not these redefined categories which doesn't mean anything.

  • Ferdinand Ensinger
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    4. At 11:48PM on 30 December 2020, Ferdinand Ensinger wrote

    @Klas Wult: You missed out on the "n" when you were trying to explain how well educated you were. (...get *an* education...)

    And also your point of view seems quite small-minded. No offence... but please grow up

  • Damian
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    5. At 3:01PM on 04 January 2021, Damian wrote

    For many years leftists have demonised Rupert Murdoch for supposedly influencing the masses through his newspapers. But the likes of Netflix are going much further than Murdoch has ever dared pushing his supposed political agenda. The insidious thing is there is almost no opposing point of view reaching the masses. Certainly not in the entertainment field. Therefore it’s having the desired effect of educating the youth to believe that anyone not conforming to this Leftist narrative is both ignorant (often mocked as a fool) and perhaps even a person of dubious character. They used to have a name for this sort of thing: Propaganda.

  • Bernard Douglas Cook
    External
    6. At 4:39AM on 14 March 2021, Bernard Douglas Cook wrote

    Spot-on to those who courageously speak out against the increasingly Goebbels-esque nature of the so-called entertainment industry as exemplified so well by Netflix! Unfortunately its a case similar to the rich getting richer and, well...you know. The entertainment giants like Netflix & to a little lesser extent Amazon Prime, have cornered such a lion's share of the mkt that it is increasingly tough for any other voices to be heard & that's why no one can compete w/Netflix, Amazon, & even Facebook, leftist $$, billions of it, give them an edge to stay on the cusp of technology, industry advances, marketing & access to stars, directors, producers, & brilliant IT professionals who can make or break any business.

  • Michael
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    7. At 7:16PM on 28 April 2021, Michael wrote

    Just cancelled Netflix. I don't want an entertainment outlet to be political. You can no longer trust them. Getting closer and closer to George Orwell's 1984. Shame on you Netflix. I cannot continue to fund this organization who decides, during a pandemic where their membership rapidly grew because people had to stay home. Netflix raises the rates and takes advantage of their members. Unethical! The increase in membership paid for any increase in infrastructure to support additional streaming load. We the people need to understand what it is that we are actually supporting when we let them dictate what we see and how they treat us.

  • Lim K.
    External
    8. At 10:59AM on 23 June 2021, Lim K. wrote

    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.

    - https://www.bedbugsoakland.com

  • bblontrock
    External
    9. At 10:20PM on 21 July 2021, bblontrock wrote

    We call it flatpix.

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