Television / Netflix

Hastings’ Empire

The showrunners for HBO’s Game of Thrones made headlines recently when they announced that President Obama had requested and received an advance copy of the sixth season. Out of context, the situation sounds a little funny: the president of the United States specifically requested early access to the sixth season of a TV fantasy series with very dark implications about the dangers of power. Of course, the simplification doesn’t do justice to reality: Game of Thrones has become an international phenomenon over the past five years. Complex, violent, and thrilling, the show has inspired a world of YouTube videos delving progressively deeper into the plot, and it has led to some difficult conversations about the role of sexual violence in power dynamics. It’s created a fully fleshed-out fantasy world, complete with magical wolves and giants, and 18 million viewers tuned in last season.

The show also consistently ranks as the world’s most pirated show. This is a problem for HBO, which relies partially on subscription revenue to generate profit. The network has taken a variety of steps to fight the problem, but its decision to air season five of Game of Thrones in 170 countries at once last year stands as an important one. The decision departed from the traditional HBO development structure, where a loose affiliation between HBO and its international licensees typically means HBO USA shares little in common with HBO Brazil. Instead, with Game of Thrones, HBO chose to act as one multinational entity and capitalize on huge overseas profits. The departure from usual protocol only ever stayed that, though—a departure. Today, HBO continues to operate with its same U.S.-centric philosophy, Game of Thrones aside.

Reed Hastings ‘83, Netflix’s CEO and founder, sees things differently from HBO. As he mentioned in an interview with the Globalist, Hastings believes that there are “two conceptions of Netflix. One is Hollywood content for the world, and the other is the world’s content for the world’s people. We’re trying to be the second.” The unsaid contrast with HBO’s approach speaks to the two very different images of TV’s future embodied in HBO and Netflix. Where HBO sees potential Game of Thrones consumers, Netflix sees an opportunity to change the production, distribution, and consumption of TV itself.

The full outline of Netflix’s plan to change TV started to take shape last January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). CES is one of the largest consumer electronics shows in the world; in 2015, over thirty-six hundred companies and one hundred seventy thousand professionals attended. The event launched the VCR in 1970, the DVD in 1996, and the Xbox in 2001. In recent years, it has become the yearly opportunity for the world’s biggest companies to show off their shiny new toys, from Samsung’s 4K TVs to Toshiba’s ChihiraAico, a robotic hostess.

Hastings had no such toy to show off. But a keynote is still a keynote, toy or not. He wore the requisite, Jobsian dark clothing—although he did have a pink shirt on, to his credit—and greeted the crowd: “Welcome everyone, it’s great to see you all here.”

For a man atop a media empire, his delivery was a little stiff. He quickly ran through a history of television, treating Netflix’s internet-connected pause and play buttons like arbiters of great social change. He then explained the real reason he’d taken the stage: “We’re shooting a sports comedy in Mexico, and a crime drama in Italy,” he boasted. Netflix, he said, is “at the start of global revolution.”

It’s not quite Apple introducing the Macintosh, but it’s not too far off, either. And it’s even more significant coming from the usually reticent Hastings. In his defense, Hastings is just the next prophet in a long line of Silicon Valley soothsayers. This time, it’s globalization writ large. Trade deals make borders melt away and Netflix blurs the lines of culture until we’re all united.

In the end, Hastings had little to offer of immediate revolutionary import. The revolution is more of a slow burn, apparently. He did, however, have an important change to Netflix’s service to announce: global expansion. As of the keynote address, viewers across the world would now have access to Netflix. The announcement was the next step in what’s been a controlled process for Netflix. After debuting the instant streaming service in 2007, the company expanded to Canada at first, and Latin America, Europe, Japan and 50 other countries afterwards. Following CES, it would be available almost everywhere, except China, Crimea, Syria, and North Korea.

It was a big change; following the expansion, Netflix would reach Russia, India, and South Korea for the first time, each a major new market to enter.

Tied into Hastings’ earlier expression of revolution, the keynote spectacle begins to make sense. Ultimately, it’s a look into why “the world’s content for the world’s people” gets Hastings so excited. Although it’s hard to see at first, Hastings wants to upend the production systems that govern TV consumption around the world. He’s going to disrupt American hegemony in international TV show popularity.

The takeaway here is important. American series have thrown an outsize shadow on international audiences for a long time: Friends was broadcast to almost 1 billion people worldwide at its peak and today NCIS airs in 66 countries. With America’s vast production budgets and massive filmmaking industry, there is a structural sense to America’s dominance. America can produce more shows from more experienced creators, and as a result, dominate international conversation in TV.

That’s not to say that regional TV production doesn’t exist outside of Hollywood. And sometimes international TV shows do occupy a similar sphere of cultural awareness as the most popular American TV shows do. Most recently, Downton Abbey, a British historical drama produced in London, brought its early twentieth-century British culture to viewers around the world and quickly became an international phenomenon. The structure of TV production however tends to limit Downton Abbey-esque successes. International producers can’t rely on the hugely profitable U.S. market to support risk-taking in the way that U.S. studios, or Netflix, can. As a result, international TV shows tend to stay relatively regional—influential within their home markets, but absent from any kind of broader cultural conversation.

The history of Hollywood helps to underline this notion. Film first emerged as large scale entertainment in the 1910s, with the idea of Hollywood growing up alongside the art of filmmaking. The timing here eventually proved important, as Hollywood gained its footing while Europe was engulfed in total war. Hollywood’s growth stayed remarkably constant through the 1930s, when people continually spent hours at the theater despite the most crippling economic depression in the history of the United States. When entire industries were falling, then, American cinema was growing.

The trend continued in postwar America, when many international auteurs found refuge under Hollywood’s auspices. Most notably, the period saw an explosion of immensely-talented German and Austrian artists flocking to America, and with them came a highly-distinctive, highly-popular stylized cinema that gripped America in the late 1940s. For example, Double Indemnity, the gripping film noir most regard to have created the genre, came from Billy Wilder, an Austrian immigrant.

As Hollywood started to further establish itself as the world’s premiere cinema, so too did Hollywood’s output begin to amplify the image of America across the world. Put simply, America began to export its idea of “cool,” and the rest of the world listened.

As TV has steadily become seen as a creative equivalent of film—thanks in large part to HBO—it has adopted many of the longstanding assumptions built into the Hollywood film industry. The assumptions baked into American film have become increasingly attached to American TV as well, doubling the difficulty for international TV series to gain the recognition that is automatically afforded to American TV series.

It’s left unsaid, but one imagines that Hastings doesn’t like this. Hastings sees one of Netflix’s greatest successes in a show that totally inverts the American development process. With the Globalist, Hastings spoke about the importance of Narcos, which is a show “done by a French production company, Gaumont, produced in Bogotá, Colombia, with a Brazilian star. And it’s super popular in Germany.” Netflix gives international shows the infrastructure they need to succeed on a deeper level. Before, international TV shows struggled to get the funding, expertise, and distribution necessary to succeed internationally. Netflix can provide all three simply.

The logical conclusion of Hastings’ radically new production structure presents what for Netflix is really a revolution. In a world where production can happen anywhere and ideas flow from every corner of the globe, Netflix will be able to capitalize on a vast, untapped talent pool. It will be able to treat social issues and questions entirely hidden to American producers and audiences and then go on to broadcast them to a far larger audience. It’s somehow both radically democratic and potentially incredibly profitable.

Hastings’ vision is surprisingly feasible. It will also make Netflix an unintentionally powerful force in TV production. One of the implications of his global revolution is the idea that American TV will become less influential when international content is better distributed. If Netflix remains the only truly global TV producer, the shows that get made, the content that airs, and the production teams that get hired will all reflect both the world from which they came and a set of values that Netflix happens to have.

In America, there’s a delicate balance of producers that likely won’t go away. The major TV networks will likely continue to produce the same kind of content that they have for fifty years because their market is fundamentally American. They can export their content, but it needs to be done with licensing agreements and foreign companies. FOX Germany exists, but it licenses shows from a mix of producers, not just FOX. As such, the major TV networks will have to produce content for an American audience before all else.
TV will still remain an important global conversation, though. Just as the cultural effect of Game of Thrones stretches across the globe today, so will the cultural effect of tomorrow’s hit TV show. The trouble with HBO’s hesitance toward the international is that America’s structural advantage for dominating the global conversation, as it does today, will no longer be relevant. The related effect for HBO is twofold. First, HBO is forgoing profit by ignoring the international. As HBO turns away from international production, it will lose what’s become a reliably international audience. Second, HBO is losing its hold on what’s become an international conversation. HBO has a long history as a high-quality TV producer and having a larger subscriber base than many other producers. It’s the producer best positioned to go global, and in avoiding global production, HBO is making a Netflix-dominated production structure all the more likely. Even though viewers everywhere can take lessons from Game of Thrones today, that will become less likely in the future. Netflix’s current positioning will instead allow it to dominate the cultural conversation. Whether or not that’s a good thing will depend on whether or not you agree with what it values in TV production.