Netflix signs the Obamas: Has the streaming giant taken on a responsibility they are not ready for?

FP Staff

May 22, 2018 18:26:56 IST

Barack and Michelle Obama have entered into a multi-year agreement to produce films and series with Netflix. The former first couple have launched Higher Ground Productions to produce a variety of content for the video streamer, possibly including scripted series, documentaries and features.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The former president and his wife, both of whom count among the most influential liberal voices of this generation, will now be able to serve up content directly to you on your TV. After all, being on Netflix is no joke. The streaming giant has 125 million subscribers in 190 countries. Add to the that the combined 150 million followers that the Obamas have on Twitter and Instagram, and it more than dwarfs the 60 million followers Donald Trump has on those platforms. Oh, and the Obamas have also negotiated book deals reportedly worth over $60 million.

The counter to that seems a little hazy as the possibility of Trump writing a book that people take seriously is quite remote.

Now for their part, the Obamas have said that they are not planning to use Netflix to counter Trump or other conservatives. They will instead focus on, "storytelling to inspire us, to make us think differently about the world around us, and to help us open our minds and hearts to others," said Michelle.

Netflix signs the Obamas: Has the streaming giant taken on a responsibility they are not ready for?

Barack and Michelle Obama. AP

However, it is hard to imagine how their content could not counter Trump. Are they going to bring on their show people who oppose climate change? Would anti-abortion activists find a place on The Obama Hour? Would Last Week Tonight with Barack Obama invite John Bolton to discuss why wars are actually okay? Would The Michelle Obama Show take us through the arguments in favour of the travel ban?

It is naive to expect content by the Obamas to be neutral. After all, they are admired for the stances they have taken. Both of them are staunch Democrats and with that comes a certain way of thinking. Of course, freedom of speech protects both the Obamas and Netflix. They are completely free to air their views in the public sphere. However, with the constant state of division between political ideologies all across the world, the Obamas' move opens up a plethora of concerns.

The expected backlash by Conservatives was immediately visible on social media. Conservatives are cancelling their Netflix subscriptions just because the Obamas have signed on to the platform. While this behaviour is akin to an ostrich stuffing its head in the sand, some of them do have a point when they ask for some attention to them also. After all, Netflix has been criticised by conservatives before, when it named former Obama administration official Susan Rice to its board. The argument is not so much that the other side is getting a seat at the table but more that they aren't getting there as well.

There is no easy answer to this conundrum. Of course the Obamas cannot be asked to stay away from an increasingly influential medium. But does Netflix now also have a responsibility to look for right-wing bigwigs and get their content on board as well? And this is not the only political issue that the company faces. In April, The Hollywood Reporter had detailed the various issues cropping up as Netflix produces more localised content which might have political implications. It had led to calls for boycotting Netflix in Brazil and Israel.

Netflix, thus, is seeing problems similar to Facebook. While it may be a technology company at heart, the sheer amount of content it controls means that it is can affect world views as well. It is not an easy position to be in but with the influence it exerts, it might be time for Netflix to attempt a balance by giving the other side a voice, too.

(With inputs from AP, AFP)

Updated Date: May 22, 2018 18:26:56 IST