The streaming giant is so dominant, it can blur the line between shows it creates and shows it acquires
20 September 2018 | | The Guardian
It’s the biggest ratings hit of this year so the news that Netflix has snapped up the international rights to Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard should come as no surprise. Few dramas are as perfect for binge-watching as Mercurio’s edge-of-the-seat political thriller with its “wait did that really just happen?” plot twists.
Netflix has always been particularly astute at nabbing headline-grabbing UK shows, with Peaky Blinders, The End of the F**king World and Happy Valley among the dramas to have found a second home and legions of new fans at home and around the world.
But is Netflix’s increasing dominance of the TV landscape really such a great thing? Are there potential pitfalls to the deal?
Early reports have already suggested that an international rights deal could threaten the BBC’s position as the home of any subsequent series of Bodyguard. In truth that seems unlikely – Mercurio, who created and writes the show, has been outspoken in his support for the corporation, which is also home to his hugely successful police corruption drama Line of Duty.
Yet it’s easy to see why such ideas have traction. After initially ploughing money into original content for high-budget, star-studded series such as House of Cards and The Crown, Netflix has of late begun to modify its model, turning instead to the people behind the camera. In the US, lucrative deals have been handed to Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, arguably the country’s two most high-profile showrunners, and certainly the two most associated with having their own brand of drama.
Murphy and Rhimes were offered complete creative control with their deals and will no doubt continue to create the sort of innovative programmes with which they made their names (although it’s worth noting that Netflix’s do-as-you-please model can in some cases lead to flabby series that are more filler than killer).
It’s also hard not to feel that something else will be lost on the way: while Murphy’s decision to leave Fox was largely driven by that company’s acquisition by Disney, it remains the case that his unique tone on shows from American Horror Story to Pose had revitalised the tiny Fox cable channel FX, giving them both creative kudos and a recognisable voice.
Similarly, Rhimes’ stories ensured that ABC was one of the few US networks to place women’s lives centre stage, and her loss from prime time will be keenly felt. It’s arguable that in the UK, Mercurio and Sally Wainwright fulfil a similar function: the strength of their writing voice is enough to drive viewers to a channel. No wonder Netflix are sniffing around.
There will be those who say this doesn’t matter. The way in which we watch TV is changing and network television is dying. In this scenario Netflix is the future, the place where one day we will all watch all our TV and resistance is futile.
They’re probably correct, and yet it’s hard not to feel frustrated when people talk about the innovative E4 series The End of the F**king World as a Netflix show, or praise them for The Good Place, which was originally made by the US network NBC. Both shows are inventive, unusual and represented a genuine commissioning risk for their original channels. Netflix shouldered none of that risk, instead sweeping in with their millions once the plaudits had come.
Again there are those who will say so what? Netflix simply provides a platform for a wider audience to grow. That’s true but it’s also slightly disingenuous. HBO once built brand loyalty on the back of a commitment to daring drama; the BBC became a byword for quality in the 80s and 90s thanks to dramas that genuinely broke the mould; Channel 4 originally made its name as the home of risk-taking TV. And yes Netflix is home to some thoughtful, clever and very successful original shows.
At the same time it blurs the line between the shows it creates and the ones it acquires, branding every new acquisition as a “Netflix Original” and using its financial muscle to dominate the market.
Does this ultimately matter? We live in a world that’s predicated on ease of access, where satisfaction is only a click or a voice command away. In this sense Netflix simply streamlines our consumption, making it easier to watch everything we want all in one place. How can that be wrong?
The simple answer is that it isn’t. Yet at the same time Bodyguard itself offers an interesting counterpoint. The reason Mercurio’s drama has dominated the national conversation is simple and obvious: we can’t binge the episodes. We have to tune in every Sunday together to find out the twists.
Put more simply, Netflix might have done a great deal in buying international rights to Bodyguard, but if Bodyguard had been a Netflix show from the beginning, the conversation about it would never have become quite so loud.
• Sarah Hughes is a Guardian TV writer