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On October 28, 2020, I participated on a round table on “The Poetics and Politics of Streaming” hosted by the Film Studies Department at King’s College London. Appropriately for the topic, and given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the round table was hosted online via Microsoft Teams. The other participants in the event were Laura U. Marks (Simon Fraser University), Neta Alexander (Colgate University), Tung-Hui Hu (University of Michigan), and the moderator was Jeff Scheible (King’s College London). The event itself was not recorded, but I recorded myself as I delivered my opening remarks (included here over my slides):

Following the event, I’ve been in contact with folks working on the question I posed at the end: How do we make acknowledgement of the material effects of streaming technologies on land, people, and resources part of our daily practices? One generative example I have learned of since is the Land Acknowledgement proposed by the Digital Media Workshop at the University of Chicago.

In February 2019, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos announced that Netflix Mexico would produce fifty television shows and films over the following two years, making it the platform’s international territory with the most targeted productions. The promotional video following the announcement features Sarandos driving around Mexico City, picking up six of the stars of Netflix Mexico original series, and engaging in a kind of carpool karaoke to one of Luis Miguel’s songs. By putting together these six actors, the video intends to showcase the diversity of content that the streaming service offers to Mexican audiences: reality TV, thriller, comedy, musical. Implicitly (and perhaps unwittingly), the promo also illustrates a key similarity among all these stars: they are all white.

In the spring of 2020, the whiteness of Netflix Mexico’s programming has returned as a topic of conversation. On social media, this renewed discussion has been bolstered by the trend of calling out “cosas de whitexicans,” i.e. media and cultural fads that foreground white (usually affluent) Mexicans. For instance, a widely popular tweet featuring the all-white cast pictures of La Casa de las Flores (2018-2020), Control Z (2020), Made in Mexico (2018), and Monarca (2019) points out that this is “what Mexicans look like according to Netflix.”

More notably, Netflix talent impacted by racism in production and reception contexts have unequivocally made their concerns heard. In a recent New York Times op-ed, the star of Roma Yalitza Paricio writes of the racist backlash on social media that she suffered following her Oscar nomination. (She does not mention the brownface sketch mocking her on national television or the actresses who allegedly conspired to prevent her from a nomination to the Mexican film awards). Amidst the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Tenoch Huerta (of Narcos: Mexico) tweeted “When you’re done supporting the much-needed anti-racism movement in the United States, can we talk about racism in Mexico? Or is that still taboo?” Long outspoken on the rampant racism in Mexico’s screen industries, Huerta repeatedly receives pushback whenever he brings up these issues on social media. Paradoxically, his association with Netflix has allowed him greater recognition to address issues of racial disparity even as the platform emerges as a prime example of these issues.

In my In Focus article for the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, I argue that Netflix Mexico is a middle class platform in terms of access, content, and imagined audience. Stratified access to high-speed internet and prohibitive hardware costs means that only the middle- and upper-middle-class can afford to engage with the platform. Critics engagement with Netflix content tends to treat it as part of the “quality television” discourse, in contradistinction to the lesser-valued content on national broadcast networks. Netflix itself has played into these different class connotations in the past, such as when the platform sought to distance itself from Televisa’s streaming platform Blim by making fun of telenovelas. Understanding the platform’s class dynamics helps us make sense of its original programming decisions within the country.

Understanding Netflix Mexico as a white middle class platform has further implications for understanding its cultural work around the world. As scholars and fans have pointed out, white affluent protagonists have long been a staple of Mexican television giants Televisa and TV Azteca. Netflix Mexico, however, aims to interpellate an international, multilingual audience with its content. La Casa de las Flores may be a retread of the “new Mexican telenovela” of the 1990s, but the soundtrack and casting choices betray its aspirations to appeal to audiences in Zurich and Seoul alike. Notice also in the Sarandos promo video that, despite the titles in Spanish, all the actors speak fluent English.

The whiteness of Netflix Mexico’s original content represents the projection of intra-national racial hierarchies onto a transnational arena. The international territory with the most targeted Netflix original content proves to be only the latest site of struggle for actors and creatives of color seeking more diverse labor opportunities and for audiences seeking representations beyond the white and affluent global norm.

[The original post of which this is an expansion appeared on In Media Res‘ week on “Global Netflix.”]

On January 10, 2020, I appeared on Good Morning Texas, WFAA’s morning variety show, to talk about the multiplication of streaming services and how they fared against cable subscriptions. The initial producers’ pitch to my university’s communications team was for someone to talk about subscription prices for streaming versus cable. Fortunately, the producers also allow the guest to submit questions to include in the interview. In the end, I was able to speak more broadly about how to understand different kinds of audiences based on platform, content type, and their consumption relationship to television.

Watch the full interview on the WFAA website.

On February 1998, the New York Times decreed that Blockbuster Video had established itself as the main video rental outlet, pushing all other independent video retailers into marginal and niche markets. Fifteen years later, the closure of the last Blockbuster locations still in operation heralded the end of an era, where online streaming services had replaced video stores as the preferred method of film distribution. But this is hardly the whole story.

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During the upcoming Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Seattle, I will be chairing a panel that takes a closer look at this narrative and proposes how various video cultures and communities arise, thrive and/or diversify in the 21st century. In his paper “’Are you guys closing?’ – Video-clubs and the ‘Third World of the internet’”, Matthias Mushinski (Columbia University) looks at cinephile consumers and sellers in Montreal, noting how the dual facts of limited content and Canada’s bandwidth caps challenge the notion that “everything is available” online. Similarly, my paper “What is (in) a diasporic video store?” considers how to incorporate informal and unconventional retail points—particularly those that cater to immigrant communities—into scholarship on media distribution and diasporic cinemas.

Finally, Michael O’Brien’s (UT Austin) paper “Limited Release: Online Cine-clubs and Digital Archives” approaches the legacy of video clubs as practices of community building, and tracks how these practices are perpetuated in private BitTorrent trackers. In different ways, all of these papers take concepts such as cinephilia, film communities, and home film cultures, and set them alongside new work on distribution technologies and film consumption practices, to illustrate the myriad ways in which the transition to digital is ongoing—and anything but smooth.

Our panel respondent will be Professor Daniel Herbert (U of Michigan), whose recently released book Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store charts the rise and fall of the rental industry between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, when video stores served a vital function in the sustenance of movie culture.

Given last year’s announcement of Blockbuster’s closure, the current discussions about ISP speeds for online streaming, and the continuous consolidation of production studios, I expect there to be a lively discussion not only from the presenters but also with the audience. So if you’re also interested in talking about these topics, come join us on Thursday March 20 at 11:00 AM (session F6)!