The cultural cost of SVOD wars
Ray Snoddy questions the return of on-screen Americanisms into British culture as Netflix and Disney + battle it out for streaming supremacy
Television streaming is now battle royal between Netflix and Disney + as subscriptions accelerate all over the world.
At the beginning, Disney may have shot itself in the foot by signing a three-year licensing deal with Netflix.
Now, from a standing start in November, Disney + has shot to an extraordinary 100 million global subscribers.
Disney has achieved in 15 months something that the company expected to take four years. The scale of Disney’s subscription business is even more significant if you add in the figures for the ESPN+ sports service and the numbers from its 67% owned Hulu.
The content arms race between the two companies is likely to intensify but with Disney overtaking Netflix in the next few years.
According to analyst Ampere, by late 2024 Netflix will have around 279 million subscribers – no mean achievement with a clear path to financial stability.
But Disney’s collection of streaming services will be close to 300 million subscribers by then - leaving the others in its wake.
Such numbers put in the shade the decent performance of Britbox, which now has 500,000 subscribers in the UK on top of more than two million across America.
The implications for broadcasters, production companies and the costs of drama and film have long been obvious.
Broadcasters will face a slow but increasing squeeze on ratings as viewers spend more time with the streaming services, particularly in homes which pay for both Netflix and Disney +.
There will be growing opportunities for producers and, as the UK industry is strong by international standards, UK producers should do well out of the programming arms race.
At the same time, inflation in production costs seems inevitable with the danger of traditional broadcasters being outbid for the most attractive international projects.
One aspect of all of this, however, has been largely overlooked until now – the opening up of a new front in the culture wars between America and the rest of the world.
The common language means that the UK is more on the receiving end than most.
Hollywood and the U.S television production machine has always been a transmitter for American culture, assumptions and cultural references from the earliest days.
There was a time when, in addition to Hollywood films, UK broadcasters snapped up American television series because they were the cheaper option. In the early days Channel 4 might not have survived without U.S imports.
As a result there was alarming news, which could prove dangerous in exceptional circumstances, that a majority of British children thought the emergency number to ring was the American version – 911- rather than 999.
In recent years, there was a decline in the wholesale importing of American TV series and a rise in the proportion of original British content complete with British cultural references.
That was true, at least until the current outburst of the new age of streaming with programming that is either overtly American or stripped of domestic idiosyncrasies that might be a barrier to global distribution.
This is a process that is likely to continue given that the UK already accounts for 32 million subscriptions to streaming services and rising, all of them apart from Britbox, American orientated.
It is almost a truism to suggest that the main cultural references will be American and with them often an American view of the world.
You will be glad to know that there is evidence to support such suppositions.
Tom Harrington and Tom-Standen-Jewell of Enders Analysis have done the hard work and found that the output of the streaming services is indeed predominantly less “British” than that commissioned directly by local broadcasters.
The distinctive and diverse British cultural touch-points routinely created by local broadcasters have largely been stripped out of streaming services even when the location is the UK and the subject material British.
Even a series such as The Crown, which you would think would be as British as they come, is hardly that in the hands of Netflix.
When names have been stripped out, the programme has relatively few British terms, expressions, reference points or idioms.
Netflix has understandably only shown interest in British production, which has global potential and that is likely to have a cultural cost.
Disney + is likely to have an even more concentrated American feel because that is what its approach has usually been.
Enders looked at a number of British scripted programmes predominately set in Britain and the work of British production companies.
Such programmes, when commissioned by the streaming companies, have fewer British touch-points than similar programmes commissioned by local broadcasters.
Sex Education, the British comedy drama series created by Laurie Nunn, when it appeared on Netflix has as many American as British references, despite the British accents.
There are U.S-style “lockers, letter sweaters and references to 80s film tropes like ‘military school’ placing the production somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic.
Understandably, Coronation Street is unlikely to feature on any streaming services apart from Britbox and might need subtitles elsewhere.
What would international audiences make of dialogue such as: “You’ll find Shergar’s head in your bed,” and “I waited in the snow once for Jan Leeming” or “Done owt yet?”
It’s equally unsure what overseas audiences would make of comments in Channel 4’s Peep Show such as “ haven’t had my oats in …like two weeks” or “any change for the johnny machine?”
Does any of this matter in an increasingly global world when the portrayal of British culture by the international players will begin to match the current reality given the inevitability of the streaming trend?
There is another possibility that an increasingly inward looking UK might react against international blandness devoid of local juice and flavour.
As Enders puts it: “The UK may well be becoming more like the rest of the world, but measurable demand suggests that the way in which some content is changing is putting the cart before the horse, and in trying to please everyone, may be pleasing no-one.”
It might at least be worth keeping an eye of the effects of a new technological monopoly, or more properly duopoly, in the entertainment sphere to match what has already happened in the world of social media.