As African American content creators begin to seek out digital technologies and platforms as a way to find an audience, the question becomes are these distribution channels receptive to actually hosting their art?
Take Netflix for instance.
In 2015, the streaming service acquired more than 16 original series shows including the wildly popular “Master of None” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” While many of its series featured Black people on the screen, none of them were created by African Americans or even focused on the lives of Black people.
And earlier this month, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos announced at media conference in New York that the company is planning to nearly double its original programming in the coming new year.
As reported by Broadcasting & Cable:
“As Netflix expands overseas, it has encountered more difficulty than expected in buying global rights to TV shows and movies from the studios.
“It has not been an easy road,” said Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos speaking at the UBS Media Conference in New York Monday.
International expansion is a priority at Netflix. “We’re aspiring to take Netflix fully global,” Sarandos said, noting that it moved into Italy, Spain, Australia and Japan in 2015.
Likewise, Netflix also has 10 feature films in production or about to be released, 30 kids shows, a dozen documentaries and 10 stand-up specials. “It’s not just a lot of volume. This is quality stuff,” he said.”
Among Netflix upcoming original series includes two spin-offs: Fuller House and Degrassi: Next Class. Also slated for next year are The Crown, which is about the British royal family; The Ranch which is about the lives of two brothers in Colorado and stars Ashton Kutcher and Debra Winger; and “Ellen Degeneres’ Green Eggs and Ham,” which is an animated television series based on the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. [Note: a list of upcoming shows are available here,and here )
There will also be a series centered around Hip Hop entitled The Get Down, which is produced by Baz Luhrmann (a White guy) and Shawn Ryan (another White guy). Yet within the mix of what Sarandos calls “quality stuff,” there is only one show produced and created by an African American has thus far been announced for this coming year. And that series is Marvel’s Luke Cage, which is produced by Cheo Hodari Coker, and stars Mike Colter (“The Good Wife”) and Alfre Woodard.
I guess it is a start.
But the lack of Black content creators among its listed original programming is particularly curious considering the streaming service’s recent controversial acquisition of Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six. If you recall, about a dozen Native Americans actors and actresses walked off the set of the film in protest of what they alleged where racial stereotyping and insensitivity within the script. And it is particularly bothersome considering the long history of exclusion Black creatives have faced through traditional Hollywood distribution networks.
In essence, the folks who are revolutionizing the way we consume original programming are still stuck in the regressive past when it comes to actually producing content.
This is not to say that African American content creators are totally being nixed out of Netflix and chill. Both film and comedy specials are where Black creatives have been the most prominent within the streaming service’s library. And with exception of the Beast of No Nation, the streaming service has made noticeable ground in featuring films from the diaspora that do not revolve around a famine and war-torn Africa. This includes listing more contemporary Nollywood films. It should also be mentioned that recently, Netflix has begun making popular foreign language programming includingSpanish TV shows, telenovelas, movies and documentaries available to its U.S customer base.
But if we are going to continue to preach to Black content creator the need to create our own, we can’t ignore how their inability to access prime distribution networks puts them right back in the same marginalized positions they were before the digital revolution. Basically, unseen and unheard of.
For the record, I reached out to Netflix public relations department for comment about the lack of African American produced series among its original programming and have yet to hear back from them. If I do, I will update this post with their comments.