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Wednesday 16 January 2019

Netflix’s blindspot

You can’t take over the world without making enemies

There’s been nothing quite like Netflix in the whole history of Hollywood. It is eating the traditional studios’ lunch by outspending them on the best film, TV and talent that money can buy. But there’s a catch. The company that wants to stream everything to everyone is finding that its quest for global domination comes with responsibilities. In 2019 it will learn the hard way that success means having to pick sides.

Tomorrow, Netflix’s results for the fourth quarter of last year are expected to show it earned $4.2 billion and added about nine million new subscribers. That means it’s now streaming to nearly 150 million customers worldwide. Fifty-five million of them are in the US. The rest aren’t, and in some countries the company’s quest to please everyone while offending no one is colliding with reality.

Last month the Saudi government complained to Netflix about an episode of the comedian Hasan Minhaj’s new show, Patriot Act, in which Minhaj gave Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman both barrels for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Netflix caved. The episode can no longer be seen in Saudi Arabia except on YouTube. Human Rights Watch has said every artist whose work is shown on Netflix should be outraged, and it’s hard to argue with the logic.

The choice it faced in Saudi Arabia should have been an easy one. It chose wrong.

Netflix “company values” include “creativity”, “honesty”, “selflessness” and “passion”. It cultivates an image as a defender of artistic freedom, and this matters because of its breakneck growth. Netflix is not just eating into its rivals’ revenues. It’s expanding into its customers’ lives. It is the giant new jester in the digital public square. People are agog, and they will make judgments; customers and governments alike.

Last week Elliot Giles, a young Welshman, wandered blindfold on to a railway track as a train approached. He’d been inspired by Bird Box, a Netflix original starring a blindfolded Sandra Bullock which the company says was seen by 45 million people in its first week. Giles didn’t die, but what happens when someone does? And what is Netflix going to do with the customer data it acquires from interactive films like Bandersnatch, which asks viewers to choose between Frosties and Sugar Puffs, mercy and murder?

Content is culture.  Netflix like other broadcasters will have to know what it believes in.  It wants to show people a good time but it can’t make everyone happy. It’s sought to steer clear of politics.  It doesn’t carry news and has been careful in picking documentaries.  But, as its influence extends further and deeper, it will have to make choices on human rights and, yes, political freedoms.

Netflix’s marketplace is the life of the mind.  Its films and shows inform how we see things. It shouldn’t be surprised, then, if it becomes a lightning rod for the identity politics of our times. Questions of national or regional identity, gender and sexual identiy, race, religion and class are all headed to the desk of Reed Hastings, its founder and chairman.

Netflix funds its acquisitions by borrowing. It spent $13 billion on content last year and sits on an $8 billion mountain of debt. But debt is not its problem. Duty is. As it pushes into new markets – Turkey, Russia, China, Indonesia – it will have to decide between customer clicks and censorship in all its forms. It cannot pretend to be immune from the hard choices faced by other digital platforms spreading out across the world from Silicon Valley, just because it calls itself a technology business that wants to entertain people.