Blue Skies Again: Streamers and the Impossible Promise of Diversity

June 24, 2021   •   By Kristen Warner

EACH YEAR, I teach an “Ethics and Diversity” course where the goal of the class is to have students connect the histories of racial disenfranchisement to the ways it shows up in visual media such as film and television. During the unit that I drolly nickname “bummer weeks,” the students read article after article that collectively lay out the difficulty of creating what I call “meaningful” representation both in front of and behind the camera. Complicated issues around employment and the quantity over quality stance we have decided to prioritize with respect to seeing different bodies on screen mean that our markers of meaningful difference — cultural specificity, dimensional characterization, and tempered realizations around the iconic histories attached to racialized bodies — are usually elided in favor of visual landscapes of difference. The students glean from the class conversations that these preferences are simple gestures that marginalized individuals often acquiesce to because, on the surface, these shifts suggest forward progress. Ultimately, though, they provide nothing more than the simplest version of visibility.

Nevertheless, as we conclude the course, my students insist on optimism. They imagine a future with them as leaders at the helm who will make all the necessary changes — Godspeed, kids. But in addition to their vivid fantasies, they also argue that the meaningful diversity we frequently discuss already exists: on streaming platforms. “Streaming is where the possibilities are at, Dr. W! Haven’t you seen Bridgerton/Master of None/Ginny and Georgia/On My Block/[insert “diverse” series here]?” And it is this moment where the wet blanket in me rises up to lovingly cover and disabuse them of this feeling. It’s not just my students who need to be disabused though; dear reader, I am here to persuade you to think harder about the PR and brand-friendly notion that streaming networks provide actual, meaningful democratization of content.

Let me begin with a simple thesis: when it comes to their original programming, our favorite streaming platforms — from Netflix to Disney+ to HBO Max to Amazon — rely on the same tastemakers and gatekeeping strategies as their legacy media counterparts, ultimately resulting in the veneer of difference at the level of content while employing the same techniques to ensure success is in play. Put simply, if there ever will be a revolution, the only way it would be televised on streaming is with the same kid gloves and facile gestures that broadcast would have facilitated. The only difference? An amazingly intimate social media campaign that treats a mirage of radical change as if it were real. I mean, who doesn’t want to be friends with the Netflix Twitter handle?!

Here’s the thing: emerging media are often saddled with social expectations of meaningful change because of the possibilities these platforms seem to offer to democratize content and serve audiences with stories and characters similar to themselves. In 1997, scholar Tom Streeter wrote a seminal article on the “blue skies” discourse around cable television. In “Blue Skies and Strange Bedfellows: The Discourse of Cable Television,” Streeter identifies an assortment of stakeholders invested in what he describes as “the discourse of the new technologies.” This discourse was constituted, in the 1960s and 1970s, by a consistent set of policy talking points that theorized the possible revolution that cable television would usher in, transforming the public and private lives of the citizenry. In fact, one of the utopian themes that emerged comes from the belief that telecommunications could “play a […] fundamental role in achieving understanding and harmonizing conflict among modern societies dominated by diversity, mobility, and the claims of social justice.” The thinking went that alternative, non-broadcast, television structures could deliver television signals to more homes, which would create demand for more channels and lower the costs of transmitting. This would then allow for the possibility of more money available for creating programs. In this lofty logic, media corporations generating savings would spend their recouped cash on bettering society through diverse programming. But as Streeter argues, in the end, while cable brought about change and some variation on a diverse range of programming, it is far from the dramatic departure from the existing media structure proposed.

Cable has not revolutionized the basic corporate structure of television. It has been integrated within it. […] [T]he overwhelming bulk of the programming available is programming that has been or would be available elsewhere: almost all of the old and new films that make up so much of cable’s programming have already played in theaters, and much of the remaining programming consists of reruns of network television programs. Even the more original cable services, such as CNN or MTV, tend to program for the same mass audiences that the broadcast networks have traditionally sought, and minority tastes are once again underrepresented. The discourse’s predictions of abundant, diverse programming for all have not been fully realized.

I am belaboring this point about cable television because the blue skies rhetoric about the possibilities of democratization and freedom that would bring about forward societal progress is the same discourse that surrounded the future of the internet and is the same discourse that swarms around the possibilities of streaming television. Streaming’s Achilles’ heel is similar to cable’s: there can never be enough content, and the demand for programming to sustain the platform can, and often does, outweigh the desire for a holistic, well-rounded, and thoughtful curation of texts.

Cable networks, even when they imagined that they were narrowcasting for audiences who would be the best fit for their advertisers, were reminded quickly that their broadcast counterparts’ philosophy around the mass audience taste for “least objectionable content” held a certain logic. Its logic may have appeared lifeless and anhedonic, but it also showed an understanding about television consumers that the cable networks publicly disavowed while ultimately mimicking. Experimentation in film and media industries only happens during periods of transition or failure. What’s more, even when the experimentation yields success and a cultivated audience, the necessity of the profit motive and pleasing stakeholders means that, more often than not, experimentation will be limited to known quantities with enough established credibility that they are worth the risk. The remainder of the programming, however, will try to locate the center points that could expand their niche demographics to a redefined conceptualization of the mass audience adjusted for the scale of their network.

But what are points without evidence? Kristal Brent Zook writes of an upstart network called Fox. This niche network borrowed cable’s narrowcasting strategy to build itself up enough to then be able to raise enough capital to buy the rights to Sunday Night Football, ditch the niche audience, and transform itself into a mass audience-infused broadcast network. The WB and the CW network both basically followed the same formula. I mention these examples because, in all three instances of these networks, the niche audience they cultivated to bring them to early success was African American. Series like South Central, In Living Color, Roc, and The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, according to Zook, experimented with storytelling modes and genre hybrids targeted specifically to Black audiences. However, once the ability to mainstream their content and attract “better” audiences — which in turn would result in “better” advertisers who would pay higher ad rates — emerged, the programming changed to accommodate the “mass” audience who we might note is predominantly white. The blue skies rhetoric of cable offering the possibility of diverse content — both in terms of storytelling and target audience — is, in reality, a practice used to exploit those demographics and then ultimately fold them into the larger desired audience. “Diversity” is like the starter house that you sell when the market heats up and enables you to buy what you really wanted after all.

Streaming services, again, offer eerily similar possibilities and, at this midpoint in their existence, are replicating their cable and network predecessors in striking ways. But there’s one new difference: the great benefit of the doubt they receive, as well as the wide berth of room from critique, as they slowly reveal themselves to be more and more like legacy platforms than their skilled publicity would suggest.

As a final example, I want to consider two important practices that streaming borrows directly from cable and broadcast and that, for me, reinforce just how much of an illusion the democratizing, diverse ideal of streaming is. The first lies with the question of employment. Who are the streamers hiring to develop their original programming? Are they upstart leaders from outside of the existing film and media industries with radical ideas that may actually rupture and disrupt (and not in the industry jargon sense of the word that has lost a lot of its bite) the current structure? Are they men and women of color who may have had network experience but were often overlooked because their work may have been imagined as too niche even if it wasn’t? No. Streamers frequently recruit the same — white — executives. The talent pool of the streaming C-Suite is virtually the same as the talent pool for legacy networks. There’s Scott Stuber, the head of Netflix film who spent a long career at Universal; Mike Hopkins and Jennifer Salke at Amazon Studios who collectively and respectively cut their teeth at Sony Television, NBC, 20th Century Fox TV, and Columbia Tristar Television; Craig Erwich at Hulu who began his career at Warner Horizon Television and 20th Century Fox TV — the patterns for what kinds of experience streamers want is crystal clear. These executives, in turn, parlay their relationships, know-how, and credibility for off-the-cliff salaries and the opportunity to be at the helm of “innovation.” As long as the streamers mimic their counterparts’ strategies by hiring the folks who know how to make legacy television work, the promise of meaningful diversity will be hampered by the ideologies that have made them successful. If, for example, diversity is a value-added for legacy television but only as it relates to the visual difference of those bodies on screen, then those who come from that world will make adding bodies and giving speaking parts the priority. And, what’s troubling is the degree to which researchers and the trade press celebrate this simplistic act as a sea change in representation.

The experiments Black shows have been allowed in the past are only entertained under particular circumstances that offset risk. So, when Netflix partners with USC Annenberg to audit the diversity of their original programming, the metrics are about bodies and dialogue — not the contexts in which those bodies are housed or the evaluation of those characters’ complexity and dimension. To be clear, I am absolutely in favor of visual difference vis-à-vis the hiring of different looking bodies. However, much of the weight of meaningful representation has been attached solely to the body and not to any other aspect of a film or a television series’ production. This renders the work done by those stakeholders more symbolic than concrete.

The final practice that makes me question the promise of streaming as a haven for democratized diversity is related to the first in the way that former legacy industry executives-turned-streaming executives consider risk. Streamers have stakeholders and shareholders and profit margins they must meet, and, because of their executive leadership, their “risky maneuvers” end up being very similar to those of their broadcasting and cable cousins.

One particular strategy involves auteurism as a guarantor of critical acclaim and thus the justifier of risk. In the same ways that broadcast and cable television networks rely on showrunner auteurs to help them differentiate product from their competitors and absorb the risk that may come along with the experimentation of story and style, streaming platforms borrowed this logic early on. Hiring name brands such as Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Matthew Weiner, Steve McQueen, and Ava DuVernay certainly helps justify — at least in theory — the platforms’ programming and give the impression of creative independence. How does this relate to diversity? Well, first, recognizable Black and Brown auteurs are not nearly as plentiful as white men and women in the same arena. So, if auteurs are the consistent greenlights in the development chain, and there aren’t as many people of color who streamers consider within that category, how is the programming that airs not going to reflect that reality?

When streamers do hire prominent people of color auteurs — take Shonda Rhimes or Barry Jenkins or even the Obamas for instance — the reality is that these creators often serve as the keepers of risk for the platform. Their presence signals diversity and innovation, but often leaves very little available to those other Black and Brown folks who might need the protection that accompanies experimentation. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule — Netflix boasted about its original movies from first-time directors, of whom half were [white] women and “several” were people of color. Even more interesting is that the platform was not producing contests or visiting student showcases to locate this new talent. Instead they relied on their existing auteur relationships to liaise as the bridge. Spike Lee comes on board to produce Stefon Bristol’s feature, and Paul Feig backs Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s film, and suddenly they’re on Netflix’s calendar. Logically, established talent vouching for the new creatives makes sense because of the typical risk aversion film and television industries subject themselves. The more assurances that the film has legs and will actually be completed and hopefully under budget, the closer it gets to a greenlight. This is not a bad thing on its own, but it does reinforce that the streamers are not innovating; they’re exploiting existing channels for content. And, between the costs of retaining these auteurs in eight- and nine-figure development deals and producing their content, there’s just not much room left for people who are not as “tested” or who must be scouted as possibilities.

In the end, the streaming platforms are most assuredly putting forth effort, at least in terms of their publicity, to differentiate themselves and their goals from broadcast and cable. And the feeling of inexhaustible content certainly would suggest that they have allotted themselves more room for meaningful difference. But there is precious little outside of the veneers of effort they present that suggests otherwise. So, before we pledge forever fealty to streaming platforms who perform symbolic diversity very well and on occasion exploit their auteurs’ Rolodexes to locate “new” talent, let’s take a step back and really think. How much of this is blue skies once again, and how much signifies meaningful and long-lasting change?

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Kristen Warner is associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama.