LOS ANGELES – Will it happen? Could it happen?
The news Thursday that Barack and Michelle Obama are in talks with Netflix to create nonfiction shows sent the intrigue-meter spiking from Washington to the West Coast.
The development, reported by The New York Times, has the ex-president and ex-first lady negotiating with Netflix for issue-driven shows. The former first couple would serve as producers and maybe even star; a talk-show format isn’t out of the question.
Netflix declined to comment. An Obama spokesperson offered a general comment to The Times, about the couple’s belief in storytelling.
Obama would come in a long line of ex-presidents and ex-vice-presidents turning to media or art: documentaries (Al Gore), lectures (Bill Clinton), painting (George W. Bush) and memoirs (pretty much all of them).
Yet he would also break significant new ground. There are traditional ways for ex-presidents to communicate with the public. A digital subscription service isn’t one of them.
For Netflix the strategy is clear, if hardly a slam-dunk. The company aims to spend $8 billion and offer 700 original shows this year. Algorithms, Netflix asserts, means many of them don’t need to be big to succeed.
That kind of volume thinking would seem to argue against a show from one of the most recognized couples on the planet. But a streamer can’t live on niches alone. To attract subscribers globally – and an Obama-studded series would play big in Europe and other growing Netflix markets – the company needs tentpoles and pricey A-listers too.
And if you’re going to sprinkle in some blockbuster programming, you may as well make it the most major namebrand. To use a phrase digital-minded Netflix executives would surely hate, the Obamas represent their broadcast play.
Interestingly, as major as this would be for Netflix, it would almost be narrowcasting for the Obamas. Even mid-level directors quietly grumble about exposure on Netflix, where shows and movies have a way of sinking with little advertising or home-page play. (Lacking box office or ratings – the “black-box” problem – there’s little data to negate their fears.) Imagine how a man accustomed to preempting prime time will feel.
Which raises the question of why the Obamas would do it. And while only they could tell you, a Netflix series would offer some advantages.
It’s a platform that at least has the potential to reach a lot of people – 117 million and counting. That of course doesn’t mean all or even many of them will watch. But the very possibility is a seriously shiny object.
That reach would also happen cleanly – Netflix is known for its hands-off approach. Streaming is a simple way for the Obamas to get back in the discourse game, a way of shaping the political conversation without all the messiness of jumping back into politics.
Then there’s that black box. See, no one actually knows how many people watch Netflix’s shows, because it doesn’t tell. And that’s perfect for Obama. What could be more welcome for a man who spent the last decade forced to fret about approval ratings? What could be more appealing than a place where the size of the audience not only doesn’t matter – it’s not even known? One reason ex-presidents stay out of the mainstream TV game is the potential embarrassment of low ratings. No such fear at Netflix.
But maybe the biggest virtue of an Obama streaming deal is how neatly it fits the man himself.
Every president uses the entertainment medium that suits them, and every entertainment medium gets the president it deserves.
Ronald Reagan was the midcentury screen star, and he took advantage of his 50-foot persona to make the transition to politics. Bill Clinton, with his colorful past and outsized appetites, was tailor-made for the MTV age, and he played that card to perfection.
Donald Trump of course took the national craving for brash, blunt, love-it-or-leave-it broadcast-reality TV and rode it all the way to the White House. (There’s an irony in Obama as a nonscripted TV star while Trump sits in the White House.)
Obama is perfect for streaming, with the platform’s upscale reputation (or, to his/its critics, elitist reputation); the man and the company’s shared interest in disruption; in their come-find-us, we’re-not-going-to-shout-at-you appeal. Obama may not have capitalized on the platform to get into office – Netflix was still shipping red envelopes in 2008. But he sure as Sarandos can maximize it now.
The Obama news comes as Oprah Winfrey presidential rumors continue to swirl. She denied them again this week. But this hasn’t stopped pundits from speculating she could, or should. That offers a tidy twist – it means Oprah could be making a play to be president at the same time as Obama is trying to become a talk-show host.
Which leaves just one question: would she try to promote her candidacy on his couch?
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