Can the Obamas conquer Netflix?

    6 May 2019

    What do a kids’ food show, the abolition of slavery and a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio have in common? They’re all programmes commissioned by Barack and Michelle Obama for Netflix.

    The political power couple have signed a deal with the streaming giant and last week unveiled their rosta of new shows. On the surface it seems like a dream deal for Netflix. The former president and his wife are the most famous couple in the world with a progressive agenda that chimes well with its young, metropolitican audience.

    They are the ultimate political influencers: anyone can champion children’s exercise but when Michelle Obama adopted the cause as first lady, all eyes were suddenly trained on this seemingly minor policy area.

    But is this star signing as shrewd a move as Netflix believes it to be? And are politics and entertainment straightforward bedfellows?

    The Obamas say that their shows are designed to entertain as well as inform and educate. But casting an eye over the outline of each show, it’s not hard to spot the political message that will be put across through it, whether it’s civil liberties or healthy eating.

    In the age of trials by Twitter and identity politics, Netflix has carved out a name for itself as the go-to streaming service for escapist drama. From scandi crime to Beyonce’s new Coachella documentary, it is strong narratives that triumph rather than a particular political or social agenda.

    Even arguably political documentaries like Icarus and 13th weave their facts into a compelling narrative – it is the story that drives the message and not the message driving the story. The audience is given the feeling, whether true or not, of arriving at their own view on the subject. True Crime is popular for the same reason: the viewer is cast as the detective and presented with the tools to decipher the crime.

    Time will tell whether the Obamas’ programmes are a success but they should be wary of using Netflix to produce spoon-fed politics. Such an approach would surely backfire. Take Al Gore’s now infamous 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth which was widely credited with reigniting environmentalism in the last decade. While the film was a box office hit at the time, it’s tone now seems preacherly. We live in different times with new audiences who like to be given the space to reach their own conclusions.

    Netflix has broken free of the sort of political policing we see occurring in what are considered more high brow art forms. Novelists have their books taken to task if they attempt to step into the shoes of a character with a different background to their own: they are quickly accused of cultural appropriation, as was the case with Lionel Shriver when she wrote from the perspective of a black character. As Evelyn Waugh once said, ‘nothing is more insulting to a novelist than to assume that he is incapable of anything but the mere transcription of what he observes.’ And yet it is now the cultural norm to require writers to keep their imaginations in check and stay within the realms of their own experience.

    On Netflix, however, the writers are comparatively anonymous: their names are a small footnote on the credits and they work in teams. This grants them the freedom to let their imaginations run wild and we all enjoy the fruits of it. Nothing is off limits; any writer can tell any story as long as it is compelling and popular.

    As a result, Netflix audiences have no time for cookie-cutter morals or programmes that don’t give them the space to think for themselves. If an audience senses it is being crow-barred into thinking a certain way, it will simply switch off or switch programmes.

    The Obamas’ notoriety makes this creative anonymity impossible. Audiences will approach the Obamas’ programmes with a very clear knowledge of their creators’ political intentions. No matter how important their moral message, the Obamas would do well to bear in mind what their audience will be seeking – an escape from and not a lesson from the political agendas that surround them.