Dennis Broe considers post-Covid-19 possibilities for a more progressive, artist-led approach to film and television series. Image from Superstore
Before quarantine when a phrase like “shelter in place” seemed like something out of the apocalyptic future forecast in The Walking Dead, the main issue in film and television was how the industry would manage the transition from an actual to a virtual world.
The studio system and the major television networks were being challenged by the gauntlet of streaming services and by a wave of consolidation that merged studios (Disney-Fox), paired communication distributors with product (AT&T-Time Warner) and cable networks with satellite production companies and networks (Comcast-Sky-NBC Universal).
Consolidation by corporations
The result of this consolidation and increasing monopolization is a group of behemoth streaming services—Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Peacock (Comcast NBC), Apple+, and HBO Max (AT&T-Time Warner), that were set to challenge first US domestic and then global production, including national film and television support and channels.
This has all of course been hastened by the global Coronavirus sequestration as sheltering in place produces captive audiences and global activity moves online. Thus Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world increased his wealth by $25 billion in March , with Amazon’s online delivery spelling the end of many department stores and with the company cracking down on and firing dissenters. It’s online streaming service Amazon Prime is now in about half the households in America. Netflix added 2.3 million subscribers in the US and Canada for a global total of over 182 million and Disney+ in 5 months accumulated 50 million subscribers in what was predicted would take 2 years to accomplish.
So, one possibility of what can happen when the pandemic is over or contained is that this monopolization will continue unabated and induce a homogenization where six services produce the majority of the world’s television and increasingly film as well—with many films going immediately online in light of the closing of cinemas. Local production then will be merely collaborative with each country adding its own flavour to streaming service co-productions.
Another possibility is independently owned and produced subscription platforms, such as Means TV which bills itself as “the first post-capitalist cooperatively run streaming service.” Means produces an array of programs on such topics as Art House Politics, with artists using various video forms to comment on the contemporary social situation and exposés such as The Screenwriter with No Hands, about the mysterious death of a Hollywood scripter who investigated the industry’s relationship with the Pentagon and weapons manufacturers. This is essentially a kind of Steven Soderbergh iPhone school of do-it-yourself video with fairly professional aesthetic and production values.
Transformation by artists
There is a third possibility. That is divorcing already established and considerably accomplished film and television serial aesthetic and narration from the profit motive. Film and television artists from around the world struggle constantly with trying to accommodate their work to commercial imperatives, always fudging and softening what they might want to say if they had more freedom. In that sense, the vaunted freedom of Netflix, which writers and directors are trotted out to champion, has these artists still highly bound to the market, and also has them in most cases not able to profit from their work because they are paid a fee upfront and no residuals.
For this alternative to work, there would need to be a combination of the existing government funding—which admittedly in the short term will diminish due to the economic depression wrought by the combination of capitalism and coronavirus—public support and funding and a change in the attitude of artists who are willing to trade huge profits for a living wage, in order to truly create work they can be proud of, instead of work they must in part disavow and that only contributes to global addictive viewing.
What is needed is to wed the second and third possibilities, the aesthetic of contemporary film and particularly serial TV, the dominant narrative form of this era which can be adept at critical analysis of society, with the can-do spirit and vision of independent media. Series like the Icelandic The Valhalla Murders, deeply critical of the personal corruption of judicial power, the American Homecoming, darkly accusatory of the murderous profiteering of the drug companies and France’s Game of Influence, a penetrating look at the corrupt and deadly power of global polluters like Monsanto, all point the way to a more critical future. Not to mention marginalized sit-coms such as One Day At A Time and Superstore which focus on the challenges of minority single-parent families and the problems faced by a contemporary largely female, diverse labor force. The problem is these series are exceptions and only occur sporadically because of the need to fill the airwaves with innocuous blather, targeted to specific audiences to gain subscribers.
Two contradictions in the largest of the corporate services could be exploited to produce this change. The first is the desire of artists to utilize the narrative armature they have devised for a more socially directed purpose. This is what lies behind their, at the moment obligatory, paeans to the freedom of Netflix. The second is these artists' own desire to get paid, to have a living wage. Netflix, backed by the power of finance capital, pays them upfront and then profits in perpetuity from their work. Independent media would offer continual if lesser income. Many artists would be willing to make this tradeoff and it is also important that they, like any worker, be paid for their work, instead of being asked to work for free.
The Chinese word for crisis wei-ji contains the double meanings of danger and opportunity. The Coronacrisis in film and television could result in the danger of ever increasing corporate monopolization and homogenization or it could yield the opportunity of artists transforming an already powerful medium into a truly socially relevant one.
Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World, and Crime Time. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.