Dennis Broe reports from the recent Fontainebleau conference on series TV, and the growing conflict between American-owned media companies and European public service broadcasters
The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming! This is the cry of alarm of European broadcasters, the majority of whom are part of publicly owned TV, who are trying to figure out how they can compete with the capitalist media giants, Netflix and Amazon. Then, at the end of the year – just in time for faster streaming on more devices on an enhanced 5G network – they will be facing Disney+, which also owns the majority stake in Hulu, ATT/Time Warner, NBC Universal, Apple and Facebook. If this Big 8 is starting to sound like the old Hollywood studio system, with its Big 5 and Little 3 studios, that’s because the attempt to monopolize the market is very similar.
Netflix, which now has indeed gone global, with over half of its profits and subscribers coming from outside the US, is also behaving more like a traditional television network, having just cancelled three of its series prematurely, with two of the series it pulled the plug on having actual social content. Chambers, cancelled after one short season, where the complaint was that it was unfocused, instead was sharply focused on class tensions in the Sedona area of Arizona where upper middle-class me generation Sufism was exposed in the series as simply another mode of privileged behavior because viewed from the perspective of its half African/half Native American heroine, who was being tortured by class privilege masquerading as spirituality.
One Day at a Time, in the 1970s a Norman Lear show about a single white mother raising a family, and here reimagined as a charming sitcom about a Hispanic mom anchoring three generations in her apartment, was cancelled after three seasons with Netflix then refusing to let CBS all-access pick up the show because it would then be a streaming service competitor. These recent Netflix cancellations proved that just as with the networks of old, progressive social content, far from being given a break or encouraged, needs to quickly justify itself in the ratings – or algorithms, the new version of ratings – or it will be extinguished.
The dominant force in television in Europe, and at the Série Series conference in Fontainebleau, was publicly owned stations, which are under attack from this coming onslaught in a number of ways. First, as has often been detailed here, with Netflix attempting to whittle down their ratings, and in the case of Canal Plus, the French pay per view network equivalent to HBO in the US, encroach on their subscribers. Indeed, Netflix now has more subscribers in France than Canal Plus. This is important because 12.5 percent of the Canal Plus revenue is mandated to fund French film and television as well as global production and this money is behind some of the most progressive content in the world, along with Britain’s Channel 4, which is also under attack. Fewer subscribers means less revenue and thus less support for the French industry.
Just prior to the conference, the British writer of Wolf Hall, Peter Kosminsky, called for a tax on the streaming services to make up for the lost revenue. France and Germany have a nominal, 2.5 to 3 percent tax, but the solution is to tax these services at the 12.5 percent rate. Netflix’ argument is instead that they are financing European production with their own creations, pointing for example to their new centre in Madrid as proof of their serious intent. Sounds benevolent, but it’s not. They are now required by law to have 30 percent of their productions in Europe and the kind of material they promote tend to be either Europudding, one-size-fits-all series or dumbed down blockbusters – can you say Marseille?— that are generally detested in their local region.
What is happening with the streaming services is happening of course with the digital economy in general with the FAANGS – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google – now monopolizing a larger portion of online life and behavior, to be used as data to sell to advertisers and attract subscribers. France is now proposing to tax the FAANGS, and Trump is threatening to retaliate, since under what might be called the Trump Doctrine any attempt by any other country to curtail US dominance is a threat to national security.
The Americans, Netflix and HBO with Game of Thrones most especially, are also driving up the cost of production, attempting to short-circuit the local public competition which cannot keep up financially, since the streaming services are drawing on global revenue, which outmatches any single country. Whereas an average series episode cost $1.57 million three years ago, an episode, in the wake of Game of Thrones and Westworld, is now $2 and a half million, with production costs more than doubling over the past decade.
Both Canada and Australia are now complaining that while Netflix originally was a godsend, and simply a participant in the television ecological landscape, American-led streaming service production is now taking over. Production volume in Canada for example has increased nearly 50 percent in the last five years, from almost $6bn to almost $9bn. However, only 47 percent of that production is local, as opposed to 65 percent 5 years ago. In Australia, meanwhile, only 2 percent of the content on Netflix is Australian, so the country with its plentiful natural landscapes and cheaper labour is being used as a backlot for the streaming service.
Netflix also, like the Hollywood studios of old, is stealing talent that might have stayed on public television. David Attenborough, whose nature series were a BBC pivot, has now moved to the streaming service where his Our Planet is a huge hit.
At the conference we saw two coping mechanisms, neither of which seem like they will be successful. French television previewed a series of Une Belle Histoire, a dramedy with a supercharged opening which adds a new wrinkle to removing key characters early in the series in an eerie mountain-climbing scene, but which then seems to settle into being warmed-up This is Us, which is really just middle-class self-congratulatory fluff.
A far more effective way of challenging the steaming services is now playing on French TV and that is a series titled Jeux d’influence, Game of Influence, by far the best series of this year and which hopefully will be available in the American and British markets soon. The series is a thinly veiled swipe at Monsanto and its allegedly cancer-causing best-selling pesticide, as a legislator with a conscience reacts to the poisoning of his farmer friend by attempting to ban the substance. The series details the way murder and all kinds of nefarious deeds, including drugging and branding as insane a teenager who pursues the murder of her whistleblower father, are part of the effort, which includes the legal pressures of lobbying, to falsify the truth to keep the product on the market. The series couldn’t be more topical, as Monsanto is pulling out all the stops to keep the European Union from banning its number one seller glyphosphate, including suppressing reports the company itself commissioned and as President Macron attempts to stonewall legislation so the product can stay on the market for another three years.
A worse coping strategy was unveiled by the other leading public broadcaster in Europe, Danish TV, called the DR. The station was home to such series as The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, all of whom have been adapted in other countries but a right-wing attack on the station’s funding – because it is also fiercely independent and critical of the government – caused the writers to leave to set up their own company. Now with a lack of funds and talent, programmer Christian Rank has chosen to tell what he calls local “human” stories. However, this language conceals a conservative, sensationalist turn by the station, with one series (Deliver Us) actually a veiled attack on immigrants as a small town conspires to kill a rabble-rouser, and another (When the Dust Settles) a fear-mongering series about a terrorist attack.
Nevertheless, three series at the festival were worth cheering and will be coming your way soon. Floodlands is a Belgium-Netherlands co-production, with a lead Afro-Dutch cop whose subject is cooperation and tensions in the border region between the two countries, as the detective investigates the brutalization of a young African girl. The shared border culture detailed by the series reminds us that the residents on both sides of the US Mexican Border similarly cooperate, and oppose Trump’s wall.
Equally stunning was an extremely kinetic action sequence unveiled at the festival, in the upcoming Gangs of London, for HBO/Sky Atlantic. The series illustrates the way the City of London survived the 2008 financial crisis by greatly increasing its global lead in money laundering, here for a London gang. The series is directed by Gareth Evans, who crafted The Raid 1 and 2 from Indonesia. He brings the same beyond frantic pace to this series, in a story about a black Londoner’s rise in the gang.
Finally, there is the magnificent Back to Life, on BBC Three and hopefully soon on BBC America. Daisy Haggard, who created and stars in the series, is an alumnus of Episodes, a brutal and vicious satire of the American television business. Like Stephen Mangan, also from Episodes who then went on to create the very funny Hang Ups, her sense of humour is slyly underplayed, here as a woman who returns from prison to the town where the crime she is accused of was committed, and where she must face the town’s resentment.
Much funnier – because more socially grounded – than the merely frivolous The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in terms of examining small town prejudice endowed with the dramatic weight of Rectify, this stunning series, with a sad and hilarious opening job interview that recalls the iconic opening of Girls points the way, along with Game of Influence, to how European Public Broadcasting can combat the increasingly more insipid fare of the streaming services.
Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World, and Crime Fiction Lover. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.
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