Last fall, during an earnings conference call, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings made an announcement that landed him on the front page of every newspaper business section: His company had surpassed HBO to become America’s biggest pay-TV service. Today, about 30 million Netflix accounts exist, serving about a quarter of America. Netflix’s first round of original series won critical plaudits and were the first purely video-on-demand television series to win Emmy awards. The concept of “binge watching” became popular largely because of Netflix. Because it offers a rich library of old and new TV shows for a modest sum per month, the service has even helped grow the number of “cord cutters,” who watch “television” only through the Internet.
All this, of course, is well documented and much discussed. What has gotten far less attention is the fact that Netflix’s rise to become America’s most influential TV service is a rejoinder to scolds on both sides of the political spectrum who have claimed that new media will fuse politics and entertainment. In fact, Netflix’s rise—and its combination of unconcern and cluelessness about the world of politics—shows just the opposite. No matter how many people might call Network (1976) prophetic, or think that last year’s bizarre Anchorman 2 was an accurate representation of the news business, or decry the rise of “tabloid TV” and “infotainment,” there’s little evidence that politics and entertainment have fused in recent years. Over the past century, in fact, the line between politics and entertainment has become more distinct.
Famous orators of the past—the temperance crusader John Gough, Frederick Douglass, William Jennings Bryan—always knew how to bring a strong dose of the theatrical to their presentations and drew larger audiences than the theatrical performances of their time. Three-hour speeches, unthinkable today, were a lot more exciting than the farm and assembly-line labor common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Before the national release of films began in the 1920s, almost no American outside of the world of politics (broadly construed) could claim national celebrity. As late as the 1980s, the Big Three network news anchors were among the biggest celebrities in the country. Today, if you’re under 55, it’s unlikely you could even name all three of their modern successors.
If Netflix is the future, then, there’s considerable evidence that news and entertainment will become more distinct. Netflix has no news division, and its on-demand format makes it unsuitable for even the modest “public affairs” programming that appears on HBO (Real Time with Bill Maher, et al.). While it recently produced and released a reasonably sympathetic look at Mitt Romney—a return to the documentary production it started and abandoned in the last decade—this isn’t a sign that the company is somehow trying to correct the left-leaning slant of most documentary filmmakers. While there is certainly streaming material besides the Romney documentary that flatters conservatives (Andrew Breitbart’s Occupy Unmasked), at least as much will please liberals (Michael Moore’s The Big One) and lunatics (Dark Legacy, which describes how George H. W. Bush killed John F. Kennedy).
Of course, no video-on-demand service controlled by user choice could ever be effective in delivering news, since it’s based on what’s going on at any given moment and demands a “pushed” format that’s best delivered as a web page or 24-hour news channel. As the cost of getting on the web, or starting a cable channel, has plummeted, such services have proliferated. The news universe that results may well be more fragmented, opinionated, and angry, and since people can easily watch and read only things that flatter them, this may be more comforting. But that still doesn’t make it entertainment.
Which is why it’s interesting that Netflix’s first series all have political elements: House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, offers a cynical view of Washington politics; Orange Is the New Black is a “dramedy” about life in a women’s prison, based on a nonfiction book full of public policy arguments; Hemlock Grove, a thriller/supernatural series, deals with the political machinations of small-town life. House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black rank among the smartest, best-written, best-produced shows around. Hemlock Grove is better-than-average TV.