March 13, 2018
Congratulations on your new series! Now, some real talk about what it means.
Critics Notebook: Some Advice for Barack Obama on That Netflix Deal
When The New York Times first revealed that former President Barack Obama was in negotiations for his own series of specials on Netflix, three things came immediately to mind.
1. That Al Gore went this route first, after creating the internet — and with his wish to put forth smart ideas that particularly young people could run with by essentially making their own stories via his Current TV, he was hoping to light a fuse that would burn through the metaphorical hanging chads of the future and give rise to a progressive movement. Yeah, but it never really turned out that way. Current was mostly a confusing mess, and then just boring, before Gore ultimately sold it to Al Jazeera, which shuttered it.
2. That Oprah Winfrey, cult of personality before Obama was even president and current (or is it former, already?) buzz candidate to run for president, took her power and fame and ability to pull in enormous ratings and went out and bought her own network, named OWN. It's almost like she wanted something to say on a huge platform and decided that she would create a platform big enough to house her ambition, yes? Anyway, so OWN still exists and is doing better now than probably ever before (in the days when, well, it didn't have much beyond Oprah), but it's hardly the platform that some thought would become a cable Death Star and lure billions of viewers with its stories of affirmation. Now it's yet another cable channel, and that's about the clearest description of it.
3. That Obama might need some advice before he (and Michelle) ink that deal and get in business with the world's largest streamer. And, beyond advice, maybe some real talk about what to expect, since real talk is like unobtainium in the halls of Hollywood where deals are done.
So, a couple of quick things about the first two items: Current TV was a either a visionary or a half-baked idea and it was definitely before its time when it came to crowd-sourced content and let's-hug-it-out programming strategy. Maybe it would have worked in some other time, but it flat-out did not work in its time.
As for Oprah, well, when she partnered with Discovery to take over one of its 978 mostly redundant cable channels and brand it as her own in 2011, the move made a lot of sense. She's the epitome of a brand. Her magazine was doing great. Whatever the channel was called before she took it over was not. With Discovery owning 45.5 percent of the company, it was a good bet for both of them to see if Oprah could brand yet another thing. She did, but lacking the revolution she might have expected, sold 24.5 percent more of it to Discovery at the end of 2017, giving it a 70 percent controlling interest. OWN is doing fine, but if Oprah had to do it all over again and it was 2018, no doubt that she, like Obama now, wouldn't have thought (like Gore did) about owning and running a cable channel — she probably would have just signed on to Netflix and produced content for them.
So, with that in mind, Obama is doing the smart thing. Streaming is the future. And with its global brand and ability to print money, Netflix is gobbling up as much talent as possible (Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, every stand-up comic alive, 76 percent of all documentaries, etc.) and so this was almost foreshadowed, inevitable.
That said, perhaps Barack and Michelle should brace for some of the elements rarely discussed about Netflix.
For starters, no disrespect, but all the big names are at Netflix or, as the joke goes, will be once the streamer floats a few extra dollars on top of bids made by Amazon, HBO, Apple and Hulu (and, next year, Disney, even though it's inconceivable that Disney would wade into waters that people will perceive as political).
Anyway, with all the stars seemingly at Netflix, the Obamas are big fishes but not the only big fishes. And may the TV gods help them if they think that waltzing in and offering up a bunch of eat-your-vegetable programming to the insta-pleasure Stranger Things streamer is going to work as a content philosophy. Netflix is not PBS.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves on content possibilities, since a) the deal isn't actually done yet and b) having a vague idea about what show you want to do and then having the infrastructure in place to make it happen will be separated by years, probably.
No, what the Obamas need to be aware of is that they have now become the highest-profile example of the Netflix conundrum. The internet streaming platform is the biggest and the brightest and runs on the business model of voraciously scooping up talent and series at a frenetic pace so that consumers across the world — literally across the world — will come to the exact same conclusion: Everything I could conceivably want is on Netflix, so I will subscribe.
And that notion isn't wrong. Part of the appeal of becoming a Netflix subscriber is that it's a vast, seemingly unending library of content in the ether. You will find whatever you want there. And if you can't get to it right now — Peak TV and all — no worries, it will live there (mostly) forever.
If the Obamas do sign that deal with Netflix and join the family, they will certainly get more than, say, the middle-tier producers get. Namely — coordinated press coverage and probably a glitzy premiere party in either New York, D.C. or Los Angeles. There will be billboards, maybe, and as much on-platform buzz as an algorithm can generate.
But when the show appears — whatever show that may be — the Obamas will find out what tons of famous TV creators found out when their shows premiered: Once the episodes drop, that's pretty much it for the hand-holding and attention. Once the shows are out, dropping into the world's deepest bucket of content, said shows are either going to be discovered (in due time, like a good book on a library shelf) or ignored (like a good book on a library shelf).
The Obamas will peer over the Netflix chasm and hear the sound of their show hitting water, several minutes later, deep in the well. The party tents will pull up stakes and someone else — Elon Musk, the Dalai Lama, the ghost of John Lennon — will get the next astonishing Netflix deal, generate the next wave of headlines and replicate the process all over again.
Meanwhile the Obamas will be back at their house, flipping on Netflix, wondering aloud why their show doesn't come up in the first wave of recommended onscreen titles, cursing the algorithm that alerts them of a new Swedish murder mystery, another season of Fuller House, something about House of Cards and Elon Musk's hot new science show.
So they will use the search function and find the series they made for Netflix. Hooray! Having already seen it, of course, they will instead choose to find out what else there is to watch, and they will be overwhelmed by the choices that they find. It will paralyze them. Perhaps Michelle will say, "I haven't heard of at least 367 of these things. Oh, hey, look — remember Lilyhammer?"
This happens to all the Netflix series creators. It's part of the deal. You get the money. You get the world's largest and most popular platform. You are working for a global presence that employs other really famous and cool content creators. But it is a very, very big pond. If all your episodes drop at once on the same day, that's pretty much your last day of spotlight relevance, until you make the next season. Maybe by the second season, or third if you're lucky, there won't be a premiere because the thrill is gone — unless there's a Marvel crossover story and all the stars will be out walking the red carpet. That doesn't seem so likely though, unless you and Barack and Michelle cut a separate deal with Disney (see, the Marvel content will be leaving...oh, never mind).
This is not to say the Obamas shouldn't do the deal. The New York Times speculated, in what looked like inside information, about possible shows the Obamas could create, including one where the former president would "moderate conversations on topics that dominated his presidency — health care, voting rights, immigration, foreign policy, climate change..." Speaking as someone who, like so many others, can't stand the ignorance, lack of empathy or governing strategy of the current garbage-fire White House, I'd watch the hell out of that — if only to recall when having a brain and some compassion meant something in American politics. Speaking as a TV critic, however, hoo-boy, good luck with that strategy. If people have shown one tendency in streaming life, it's to click on the series logo of the sexy people or the one where things blow up and not the one where a nice man wants to talk to you about climate change. Again, I'd watch it as therapy and salve against the horror of the current administration — and Netflix isn't in the ratings business — but let's not assume a series of specials from the former president will set any streaming records.
That's just straight talk about how it's probably going to go if the Obamas do sign on with Netflix. A season or two removed, no one will be slack-jawed at the deal. It's a business — you've had the big announcement, the season-one media blitz and now, well, your third season isn't even getting reviewed and the world is on to something else. Your show might be as great as ever, but the machine is churning out newer, shinier things. And hell, people are skipping your credits as well. But never mind all of that. You should totally do this.
Oh, and hey, did you hear that Netflix just signed a deal with Hillary?
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