Streaming and Its Broken Promises

Streaming and Its Broken Promises

“Orange is the New Black” is one of Netflix’s biggest hits. The series follows Piper Chapman, a former public relations executive whose past catches up with her when she is sent to a minimum-security prison, where she makes a variety of friends and enemies. The series was hailed for its diversity of cast and characters across sexuality, ethnicity and body type. 

This was streaming’s promise: stories that wouldn’t be picked up by the traditional cable channels or studios could form a more democratized media landscape. These stories were often led by atypical (for the TV standard) characters and creators. The stories could be just as “unconventional” as streaming itself was at first.

Streaming did in fact make more diversity in shows possible. In 2019, 81.2% of all recurring characters on broadcast, cable and streaming programs, were white and non-Hispanic. But out of all three, streaming programs had the widest assortment of series starring people of color. 

Despite their initial promise, streaming services are now in constant competition in pursuit of franchises that may bring bigger audiences and more money. This numbers-driven mindset leads to more frequent cancellations of “unprofitable” or “risky” projects after only one or two seasons—if these shows get their chance in the first place Shows led by people of color or diverse casts often get cut in favor of what will be the most “profitable” for the company, although the idea that these two factors are mutually exclusive has been disproved.

This was streaming’s promise: stories that wouldn’t be picked up by the traditional cable channels or studios could form a more democratized media landscape.

For example, “Grendel,” set to be the first American superhero show starring an Arab Muslim, will not be going forward at Netflix after the streaming company decided to cancel the show. News of its cancellation was reported in September 2022 after eight episodes of the show had already been filmed. 

The show’s star, Abubakr Ali, wrote in an Instagram post addressing the cancellation of the show, “I was really excited for what this role meant for my community. I never thought this business would allow someone like me to play a role like this, where an Arab person could exist in the gray area between good and evil.” Ali, an Egyptian American Muslim, would have been the first Arab Muslim to lead a comic book adaptation, along with a diverse cast.

Ali also cited a statistic from a USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report in his Instagram post, pointing out that Muslims make up almost a quarter of the world’s population, but only 1% of speaking roles in television. The report pointed out the dearth of Muslim characters with nuanced roles on television in the top 200 series from 2018 and 2019. Netflix has received criticism for their cancellation of series that feature diverse casts, especially LGBTQ+ lead characters.

Netflix is not the only streaming platform willing to sacrifice its more diverse projects for what may be “profitable.” In the beginning of August 2022, news broke that DC’s film “Batgirl,” which was originally supposed to be released straight to HBO Max, had been canceled after it had already wrapped filming and was in its late stages of production. “Batgirl”’ was led by Leslie Grace, who is Afro-Latina, and initially had fans excited for its potential of expanding the DC film universe. Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah also directed two episodes of “Ms. Marvel,” which was released in June 2022. The movie may end up becoming nothing more than a tax write-off

Along with “Batgirl,” there was another string of cancellations at HBO Max, including many animated and family-oriented shows. Some shows and movies were removed from HBO Max entirely, leaving no trace behind—particularly those that were never physically released. Entire shows, comprising months and sometimes years of work, disappeared because they were not performing well.

Despite streaming’s promise to be a new way for creators from marginalized communities to make their way into the entertainment industry, it also comes with its own roadblocks. Ultimately, any company will be looking to make a profit, and since the misconception that diversity is not profitable still persists, the first projects cut inevitably are the ones with diversity. In an ideal world, people of color and members of marginalized communities should not have to prove their work can be profitable for it to be worth making, but unfortunately, even streaming, which promised to be more of an equalizer, restricts these stories.

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