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Despite global ambitions, Netflix gives television an American accent

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In the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the robbers played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford find their profitable operation disrupted by a relentless posse that refuses to be shaken from their trail. “They’re beginning to get on my nerves. Who are those guys?” Butch complains.

The rise of Netflix and other US streaming platforms such as Disney Plus and HBO Max is scaring both film studios and the world’s television broadcasters in much the same fashion. Instead of observing old niceties and ways of doing business, the streamers are disrupting the fun.

It is starting to get on Hollywood’s nerves. Jim Gianopulos was ousted this week as head of Paramount Pictures by its owner ViacomCBS, which wants to place more films on its streaming service Paramount Plus. The Oscar-winning director Christopher Nolan is moving to Universal, having lambasted WarnerMedia for favouring its platform HBO Max during the pandemic.

The streamers are also spending large amounts in other countries. Netflix this week signed a partnership deal with Anna Winger, the Berlin-based writer and producer behind the series Deutschland 83 and Unorthodox. “The success around the world of German content is really incredible,” Reed Hastings, Netflix chief executive, said in Berlin.

The notion of German language series subtitled or dubbed in English (and other languages) attracting a global following would have been improbable not long ago, but it is no longer alien. Lupin, a French language drama starring Omar Sy, was Netflix’s most watched series in the first quarter of this year.

There is more at stake for Netflix than supplementing its core US audience with international viewers, in the Hollywood style. Netflix now has 209m subscribers, but the total fell slightly in the US and Canada in the second quarter of this year, as new streaming platforms expanded. The company could soon have more customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa than at home.

In many ways, it is the best of times for the global television viewer. What is known as Peak TV in the US — the flood of new investment into high quality dramas and documentaries — is still ascending in other countries. Disney is this year expected to spend $30bn, and Netflix $17bn, on media content such as films and television series.

That is narrowing the old gap in production values and sophistication between top US cable dramas, such as The Sopranos and The Wire, and the cheaper fare on European and Asian television. The characters speak other languages and the settings are different, but many of the new global dramas attain a similar level of quality.

But it squeezes something else — the experience of viewing something utterly distinctive, which could only have been conjured up in one place. That was my sensation when viewing Lupin. It was very entertaining and sophisticated but despite its French mise-en-scène, it felt oddly American.

A Greek tragedy would remain a Greek tragedy even if it were set in Spain, and it is impossible to shed Englishness from Shakespeare plays despite their universal appeal. Changing location is easy, but the sensibility and narrative tradition are deeply embedded. There is a similar immutability in Hollywood films, and the narrative arcs and twists of US television.

The economics of streaming encourage globalisation. A series that attracts a devoted audience solely in its home country helps to build subscribers there and serves a purpose. But the streamers are always hunting for what Greg Peters, Netflix’s chief operating officer, calls “leverage against that local investment” — programmes that will travel.

“Some of them look like they’ve been cleverly generated by a streaming algorithm to maximise their target audience globally,” remarked John Whittingdale before he lost his job as broadcasting minister in a UK government reshuffle this week. National broadcasters such as the BBC, with its annual income of £5bn, face a well-financed onslaught.

In principle, this need not matter. Those broadcasters could carry on making what Whittingdale called “distinctively British” (or French, or German) programmes while the US streamers produce their alternative. Viewers are capable of watching and appreciating the variety — vive la différence, as a Lupin character might say.

But money talks, and Netflix and others have been luring some of the top creative talents. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is as British as anyone on screen, but the writer and actor is contracted to Amazon Studios rather than the BBC. The danger is of a talent drain that turns national markets into minor leagues.

The UK government now wants to insert a “distinctively British” content requirement into the responsibilities of public service broadcasters. Good luck with drafting that, and to any judge who has to rule on the question. Lupin may not feel fully French to me but I doubt whether anyone could disprove its identity in court.

It will be hard to throw the streaming platforms off their global trail, legally or financially. As Butch and the Kid found to their personal cost, tradition does not always protect you.


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