Netflix is struggling, and that may be good for America
The streaming behemoth Netflix is suddenly not so fashionable anymore. Once the trendy juggernaut of the culture industry, Netflix now finds itself losing subscribers. Netflix stock has dropped over 60 percent since the start of the year. Shareholders sued Netflix last spring for “misleading statements” about the company’s business operations — and, horror of horrors, Netflix will now offer advertising supported plans, a total retreat from its subscription-based model.
Things are so bad that investors celebrated Tuesday’s second quarter financial report showing a loss of “only” 970,000 subscribers — because it was lower than the feared loss of up to 2 million.
Netflix has also had to endure internal “culture” struggles, with a controversy last spring involving employees upset with comedian Dave Chappelle’s show; eventually Netflix issued a corporate memo essentially inviting disgruntled employees to get lost.
All of this bad news for Netflix might actually be good news for America.
A less influential Netflix might be good for American society.
The streaming giant infiltrated Americans’ lives in previously unimaginable ways, establishing norms for the content of “entertainment” and even the magnitude of that consumption.
Netflix was happy to help establish the concept of binge-watching, and even promotes that unhealthy practice on the front of its website. The headline banner at the top of the page blares, “BingeWorthy TV Shows,” with the subheading reading, “When it comes to great TV, portion control is for suckers.”
Indeed, American consumers have fallen for this drug, wasting countless hours of their lives sitting like blobs under the spell of Netflix and other streamers. Sure, nobody is forcing viewers to lead stationary, detached lives, but even beer cans have warning labels about consuming responsibly.
Netflix’s lack of corporate responsibility has been particularly noticeable in the area of programming targeted at teens. One of Netflix’s highest profile shows, “Stranger Things,” is loaded with profanity and violence, drawing the ire of the Parents Television Council in a newly released study. Another culturally vacuous program called “Big Mouth” is not necessarily intended for young people, but it’s a cartoon, and it features middle school youngsters in sexual situations and using sexually indecent language. Decorum prevents describing the gross content in detail. The parade of potentially harmful content for teens hardly ends there.
Thankfully, Netflix did end the run of ”13 Reasons Why,” the bizarre teen fare that provided psycho-cinematic treatment about depression, sexual assault, drug abuse and suicide. It is hard to imagine a worse way for teens to navigate life’s harsh realities than by having Hollywood producers steer a dark, fictionalized show.
Netflix is not the only streaming service deluging American society with video content. Disney+, Prime Video and others have joined the gold rush to convince viewers there is never enough stuff to watch. The added competition is one reason for recent Netflix struggles. Almost all American homes now subscribe to at least one streaming service, and the average home has as many as four.
The video culture industry has inundated Americans with largely vacuous content that has failed to enhance lives. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow gave his “Vast Wasteland” speech to television executives in 1961, challenging them to serve the nation’s interest and be more socially responsible. Minow only had to worry about three television networks at that time. Sadly, his vision of corporate media being concerned for the interests of society never got traction.
The astute media critic at NYU, Neil Postman, wrote a groundbreaking book in 1985 entitled, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He warned of the dangers of a television-obsessed society: “Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it.” He went on to say, “They (Americans) do not exchange ideas, they exchange images.” The danger of which Postman wrote then has expanded exponentially ever since. Society joked about “couch potatoes” back then, but video-driven society is nothing to laugh about now.
The video culture industry ultimately diminishes the quality of life. Consumption in moderation and of suitable content can serve limited purposes, but the cultural obsession with all things distracting — especially video — has proven a drag on human intelligence, decency, mental health and just common sense. Lives just can’t be modeled or lived vicariously based on the values of detached big media corporations that see dollars in the eyeballs of all viewers.
Americans must wake up and realize that staring at a screen serves only the entertainment industry and not sensible, self-actualized human beings. It’s the latter that’s required for a functioning democracy. The more Americans escape into video binging low-grade “entertainment” cynically spoon-fed from Hollywood, the less likely — and less equipped — we’ll be to be able to process the real challenges facing our country. An unserious citizenry is a very serious problem.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.