How Netflix's big bet on global content could alter people's perception of the world

I recall watching the American TV show "Happy Days" as a kid growing up in Italy, which chronicled the 1950s-era Midwestern exploits of the Fonz, Richie Cunningham, and other local teens.

The show, along with other forms of American entertainment that were widely available in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, influenced my view of the United States long before I ever visited the country.

Today, I call the United States home, and I've come to appreciate its complexities. I can see "Happy Days" as a nostalgic re-enactment of a perfect, conflict-free American small town.

“Happy Days” was produced in Hollywood, which is arguably now the global entertainment industry's epicenter.

So the recent news that Netflix is opening an Italian office and will begin massively supporting original local content with the aim of spreading it internationally on its website – a strategy that has already been implemented in other European countries – struck me.

This has the potential to be a game-changing step in global entertainment. And it can also alter how the environment perceives itself.

Observational learning


Over the past 15 years, I have studied the global media environment from the vantage point of Los Angeles.

TV and movies are one way that people make sense of the world as they go through life, drawing on the archive of our personal memories and views of other places.

We speculate about what we do not know because we have no direct experience with a people or country. This method includes a number of outlets, such as reading, Googling, and accounts from people we trust. However, it is also the media that introduces people to cultures other than their own.

TV and movies fill information gaps with powerful images and stories that shape how we perceive various cultures. If the media's messages remain consistent over time, we will come to accept them as true.

However, media portrayals can be misleading. They are, without a doubt, insufficient. That's because movies and TV shows aren't really supposed to represent reality; they're made to entertain.

As a result, they can be deceptive, if not bias, because they are built on and perpetuating stereotypes. 

In American entertainment, for example, there is no lack of Italian and Italian American stereotypes.

From the award-winning “Godfather” saga to the less critically acclaimed “Jersey Shore” TV series, Italians are often portrayed as tasteless, uneducated, and associated with organized crime – or all three.

The media serves as a gateway into the world


However, people's exposure to television entertainment is shifting. Streaming channels such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and Disney+ collectively have 1 billion subscribers worldwide.

Netflix, as a relative newcomer to original content production, cannot rely on a vast library of proprietary content to feed it's 204 million paying members in over 190 countries, as legacy Hollywood players do.

As a result, it is steadily producing original works, including a variety of non-English language originals from Mexico, France, Italy, Japan, and Brazil.

A SNIPPET OF NETFLIX’S INTERNATIONAL LINEUP ON APRIL 2, 2021. SCREENSHOT, NETFLIX.COM

This is an example of the “glocalization of entertainment” – a business operating internationally, adapting its content to meet the needs of globally located viewers.

This is already the modus operandi, for example, of many popular reality TV shows. “American Idol” is an

The American adaptation of Europe’s “Pop Idol.” “The X Factor,” “Big Brother” and “Dancing with the Stars” have similar international origins.

However, glocalization now has a twist: Netflix plans to distribute its localized content outside of the local markets.

It is not so much Netflix's global scope as it is its ability to break down old myths. The American-produced, internationally distributed Netflix series "Emily in Paris" was panned by French critics for its cliched, romanticized depiction of the region.

Foreign television executives must produce shows for Netflix that cater to both domestic and foreign viewers while staying realistic in their depiction of their home country.

If Netflix's Italian team believes that "The Godfather" is what international audiences expect from Italy, international viewers will tune in – but Italians will not.

Netflix will have to promote the growth of original local ideas not only in European countries with well-developed cultural industries but also in smaller countries and those with developing entertainment industries, such as African nations, in order to become truly international.

Netflix's Potential – and Difficulty


This tactic could have the unintended consequence of upending the conventional way that media informs our perception of foreign citizens and lands by more accurately portraying these areas.

But that's a tall order, and it's not guaranteed.

Netflix's groundbreaking ability stems from allowing local creatives to tell stories about their own communities and then genuinely internationalizing them.

It will be determined by the company's ability to execute this strategy in a clear, sustained, inclusive, and deliberate manner.

Over time, widespread exposure to a diverse range of foreign media content may change how people in the United States and around the world think and feel about other cultures with which they have never, and may never, come into direct contact.

It only takes one click – one decision – to watch, maybe unknowingly, a foreign-produced series.

The way Netflix works, which uses algorithms to recommend content as viewers make choices, may extend an initial exposure to and interest in international content.

Artificial intelligence designed to provide us with more of what we want could end up being a surprising force for change, forcing us to reconsider what we thought we knew.

This story has been written by Paolo Sigismondi, Clinical Professor of Communication, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, for The Conversation. 

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