Obama Netflix deal could revolutionize the 'second act' in Washington

Obama Netflix deal could revolutionize the 'second act' in Washington
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Someday, every prominent politician will have a Netflix production deal, using entertainment to burnish their legacy. Just remember: Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaKrystal Ball tears into 'Never Trump' Republicans Sanders campaign announces it contacted over 1 million Iowa voters Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats MORE got there first.

Higher Ground, a production company formed by the ex-president and his wife, recently announced its first slate of programs under a hefty deal with Netflix. Not surprisingly, the projects have a distinct socio-political bent, but many are – at heart – entertainment.

And with that, the Obamas may be creating a brand new template for other ex-officeholders, a way for them to reach vast millions with messages that leave lasting impressions through compelling stories.

Up until now, there was one tried-and-true method for former presidents and other statesmen to deliver an overarching message and leave their stamp on society: the memoir.

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Depending on the politician, these publishing deals were announced with great fanfare, accompanied by luxurious book-advance figures. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump sues to block NY prosecutors' subpoena for his tax returns Most voters say there is too much turnover in Trump administration RNC spokeswoman on 2020 GOP primary cancellations: 'This is not abnormal' MORE’s contract with Knopf for his autobiography, “My Life,” came with a $15 million guarantee — at the time, a record-breaker.

But this method has its limitations, starting with cost. Clinton’s book carried a $35 list price back in 2004. With that kind of expense, you’re only reaching diehard fans already in your tent. And even those acolytes may have a tough time. A British survey in 2007 revealed that 30 percent of “My Life” readers had either not actually read its daunting 1,008 pages, or started to but never finished.

Nonetheless, the 42nd president’s memoir was considered a huge hit, selling more than 2,250,000 copies. (For other politicians, sales results typically are much weaker.)

But in the entertainment world, Clinton’s figure is shockingly small. A prime-time television show watched by that many people would land at the bottom of the ratings barrel.

Enter the Obamas. To be sure, they also went the book route, signing a joint contract with Random House two years ago for a highest-ever $65 million advance. And Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaPortraits of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeff Bezos headed for National Portrait Gallery Trump: House Judiciary should investigate Obama Netflix deal instead of his business 2020 is not a family affair, for a change MORE’s memoir, “Becoming” (list price $32.50), sold ten million copies by March 26. Even a blockbuster studio like Disney would be impressed.

But the Obama Netflix deal, announced a year ago, towers over all of that. No dollar figures have been reported but, in Hollywood, Netflix is not known for a lack of generosity in pursuit of big names who might bring in fresh subscribers. Producer Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”) was handed $100 million to sign up; producer Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”) took home $300 million.

More importantly for the Obamas, Netflix (as it often does with big talent) gave the couple free rein to develop the kind of programming that fits their “brand.”

The first slate to come from this deal is a mix of fiction and non-fiction that delivers messages their producers want to send, wrapped up in dependable Hollywood formulas. “Bloom,” for example, is described as a post-World War II upstairs/downstairs drama — but one that focuses on barriers faced by women and people of color.

The company also is producing a feature-length bio-pic about Frederick Douglass, and a series for preschoolers that will teach them how to eat healthier.

In place of well-meaning social science books by the Obamas on race, gender inequality and food insecurity, this material is easier for a mass audience to digest. Think of the impact such films have had throughout Hollywood history, from "Grapes of Wrath" to "The Help."

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The final products will be available to Netflix’s nearly 150 million subscribers — here and in just about every corner of the planet — simply by sitting down at a television set, a computer screen or mobile device and hitting a button.  That’s an effective way to reach people who may not be in your corner politically — and would never imagine themselves buying your book — but who might be drawn to a good story with a big star and a handsome budget.

This makes writing a memoir seem as contemporary as cuneiform. And it could change what high-profile politicians do once out of office: A book won’t be enough, a lecture tour will be far too small.

As always, the proof will be in performance — Hollywood will look closely at how the Obama slate does once it’s out there. (Netflix releases viewer numbers only sporadically, but people do talk.) Meanwhile, streaming competitors will continue to emerge — Amazon, Apple, the new Disney service and others in development from Warner Bros. and Comcast.

If the former first couple delivers, these new outlets will most likely present more opportunities for preeminent leaders across the political spectrum — and remake what it means in Washington to have a second act.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.