Cinema and Cinematic Television in the Age of Netflix: A Study of the Global South
Chapter contributions are welcomed for an edited scholarly volume on the global impact of streaming services, crucially Netflix. The American company Netflix has, owing to its pioneering role, become synonymous with the world of streaming. The growing list of “Netflix Nations” (to invoke the title of Ramon Lobato’s 2019 book) means that there are only a few territories such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Syria that remain outside its purview. In recent years, a number of streaming giants have emerged in the Western world– mostly notably, Amazon and Disney+ –that compete tightly within international markets. Typically, these companies work by appeasing foreign audiences, even investing in local productions, all of which ensures larger markets for their costly “originals.” Never before in the history of globalized mass media have Western media entities operated so systematically and so vastly in other regions of the world, by orchestrating local production and screenings that are ultimately essential to sustaining their hegemony.
The international game of these streaming giants is crucial to understand. International sales of Netflix, for instance, account for 67% of its subscribers, and hence for much of its overall profits. At the same time, the significant challenges faced by Netflix in penetrating foreign markets such as India and Japan also raises questions about the extent to which the rise of global streaming giants signals a new wave of Western, media-based, cultural domination. Or, does this rise in fact complicate what the UNESCO described in 1974 and 1996 as the one-way traffic of Western media? After all, Western companies like Netflix have needed to compete and collaborate with a wide array of locally operative streaming services in order to gain a foothold in international contexts. Moreover, similar services exist even in places where Netflix has not been able to reach: for instance, Iqiyi in China, Filimo in Iran, Manbang in North Korea, and Syria TV in Syria. In crucial ways, such streaming services are not simply extensions of their Western counterparts and might even prove to be more successful and influential in their respective contexts in reaching audiences.
Indeed, increasingly, Western giants like Netflix struggle to maintain their international dominance. When Netflix launched in India in 2016, its executives aimed to capture a new market with the potential of providing the next 100 million subscribers; the number of actual subscribers, however, is closer to a mere nine million. Netflix has been outshone by its rivals, primarily due to its incapacity to tap into local habits and to attract a broad range of viewers outside of a relatively narrow section of the urban middle and upper classes. In Turkey, some audiences have reacted negatively to Netflix originals made locally, making it a source of controversy. In the Gulf and broader Arab region, meanwhile, Netflix partnered with Orbit Showtime Network as a gateway of entry into local markets. And in Pakistan, Netflix has relied on the strategy of government subsidy, and has proliferated locally, until recently, through free-of-charge service. Across these contexts, the fate of Netflix and other Western streaming services remains undecided, even as these services continue to produce undeniable impacts on the broader media ecology.
This edited collection coalesces the perspectives of scholars working on the various ways in which streaming has transformed the political economy and aesthetics of media production, and impacted viewing patterns and social attitudes, particularly outside of the West. Emerging scholarship on streaming and its impact has tended to focus on the US, home to some of the largest streaming companies. The exceptions include Lobato’s notable case studies of Netflix in places like India and Japan (2019), and of streaming platforms in China (2017), as well as articles in a Spring 2020 issue of the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies that attend in some detail to contexts like Taiwan, Mexico, and Israel. Areas of the Global South provide vast markets for Western as well as non-Western streaming companies; yet, the North-South dynamic has still to be explored within emerging scholarship on streaming and its restructuring of audiovisual production and reception globally. Moreover, the bulk of the scholarship addressing the global impact of streaming has so far focused on digital infrastructure and cataloging, hence leaving mostly untouched the geographical contingency, class dynamics, and material ecology of creative labor and production cultures globally.
This study’s focus on the rise and impact of streaming within the Global South offers an opportunity for exploring in a grounded, yet multidimensional way the contemporary, vertically integrated and US-dominated global media landscape. The aim will be to toggle between the specific and the general, as well as between ethnographic and textual analysis. In other words, general questions about the contemporary nature of media globalization will be broached through a fine-grained analysis of particular patterns and dynamics within regions of the Global South.
Of particular interest are the regions of South and West Asia, as well as North Africa, that have as yet received little scholarly attention. These are some of the last regions in which Netflix launched, its subscription format catering predominantly to a growing though limited population of mostly educated, middle-class, English-speaking consumers. Increasingly, in order to expand its viewership, Netflix has for its original content been investing in talent emanating from the more ethnically diverse and less affluent youth culture that free online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook have fostered as local celebrities in recent years. These developments speak broadly to how subscription-based streaming services find themselves needing to feed off freely accessible social media, and to reach working class audiences, in order to stay profitable in the Global South.
To what extent are countries in the South with their own platforms––e.g. Shahid VIP, Aflamuna, and Watch IT in the Arab region and Zee5 and Aha in India–dominated by Western streaming companies? What are the ramifications, for countries involved, of the strategy of Western streaming companies investing in locally relevant serialized and feature-length productions, in order to create expanded markets for their original content? And finally, how have film industries in these countries responded to the rise of Internet-based merging of cinema and television–and, in turn, to the possibilities opened up by contractual packages of cinematic content offered by streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon?
The following include some key topics and questions that this edited volume aims to address:
–How has the rise of audiovisual streaming in the Global South altered the political economy and generic conventions of filmmaking as well as television production in the region? Have these two forms of media production converged in some areas and remained separate in others?
–How do Netflix’s original productions play a role in this convergence? How do we assess the quality of Netflix’s interventions?
–Companies like Netflix often speak of “universal storytelling,” of how they are internationally circulating stories that are universal in their appeal. What, according to the logic of streaming company executives, makes a story universal? And are particular genres or kinds of stories seen as more conducive to universal storytelling? What are the global-local dynamics involved in the production of streamable content?
–What is the nature of the “content” and corresponding genre produced? Where does this content come from? And how and to what extent are the sources and forms of this “content” a departure from traditional habits and norms of filmmaking or television production in the region?
–What kinds of cultural diplomacy or representational stereotypes about the region do these originals promote among general audiences? Or, to what extent do they participate in countering or complicating existing stereotypes with respect to intersectional representations of race, gender, sexuality, nation, and class?
–To the extent that the technology of audiovisual streaming has been spearheaded globally by Western companies, how has the development of streaming within and across national contexts come into supportive, supplementary, and/or dialectical contact with Western services in terms of content access, distribution, programming, and censorship? What has been the response to these companies across various national contexts?
–Who makes streaming content, who subtitles/dubs? To what extent are diasporic communities involved in the production of films or TV shows that play internationally?
–Who watches the content produced by streaming services in the Global South? How accessible or affordable is it? Given the importance of high-speed Internet access for streaming content, what is a more precise class makeup of the viewers of streaming services in the region?
–Scholarship on streaming film and television has rightly attended to cases such as diasporic Spanish media and black media within the US that have a dynamic of their own and that exceed the category of nation. How are Netflix originals from contexts in the Global South received broadly and specifically among affiliated diasporic communities in the US or other regions of the world?
–To what extent has streaming brought new and welcome forms of diversity to the global media landscape? In what ways is the diversity of content enabled by streaming producing new openings and intersectional opportunities, and allowing new, or hitherto marginalized voices to be heard? Or, to what extent have streaming companies consolidated existing networks and reinforced concentration in media production?
–To what extent have conceptions of cinema (especially in major filmmaking contexts like Egypt, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey) shifted with the entry of streaming services? How have film industries been asked to shift their storytelling, production and distribution practices? To what extent have the narrative techniques and stylistic features of films registered a shift? If Netflix is projecting a growing influence, how does this growth factor into the ongoing debates on “quality films”?
–To what extent is Netflix hegemonic– or likely to be hegemonic– in this region? How does this hegemony relate to or complicate US imperialism and the broader cultural, educational and economic influence of the West? If the company has in recent years been experiencing a decline in its profits more generally, and in its subscriber base internationally, then what factors might contribute to this decline, and what are its implications?
This project has received strong interest from a reputable academic press. Essays that combine media ethnography (including interviews and portraits of streaming companies’ production and reception cultures) with textual analysis (of emblematic films and television shows, catalogs and personalization interface, for instance) will be prioritized. We invite and encourage collaborative authorship, where necessary.
Contributors must submit a brief abstract (no more than 300 words) outlining your proposed intervention for new scholarship (previously unpublished) and specifying which section you envision your contribution fitting into, accompanied by a brief biography (approximately 100 words) and a CV that details affiliations, publications, current research interests, and any relevant professional or curatorial experience.
Selected chapter submissions must be 7000 words in length and conform to the Chicago Manual style for endnotes and bibliography. Authors will provide their own index of terms.
Deadline for submissions of abstracts and biographies: Feb. 15, 2023