Netflix is once again drawing widespread attention from media outlets, and for good reason. The once-humble Silicon Valley startup has rapidly expanded into one of Hollywood’s most prolific studios. Since its first original series, House of Cards, was released in 2013, the streamer has become home to over 700 original TV shows as of 2018. Many of these series have drawn critical acclaim: BoJack Horseman, Stranger Things, Orange Is the New Black, and Russian Doll to name a few. But these pedestal-worthy productions do not protect Netflix from scrutiny, as concern is mounting worldwide over the influence that the streamer has on society. With this in mind, Netflix has recently been the subject of censorship, bans, and boycotts domestically and overseas.
Fear regarding Netflix’s influence has affected several widely popular TV shows. For instance, take the well-liked albeit controversial series 13 Reasons Why. Two years after the series premiere, Netflix was pressured into modifying a graphic suicide scene. The streamer has also agreed to limit the amount of smoking depicted on its series following outrage over nicotine-use in its 1980s-based Stranger Things.
Moreover, Netflix is facing a slew of challenges in regards to navigating different cultural norms, taboos, and expectations in the midst of its hasty expansion overseas. A media analyst with Wedbush Securities commented on this growth in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. “Netflix has a lot of growing pains to go through,” he said. “They are now bringing a lot more of that content in-house. I think they recognize with ownership comes civic responsibility.”
Parallel to the corporation’s decision to dedicate more resources to global growth, Netflix has launched a number of local-language productions for audiences overseas. These have likewise faced controversy. Netflix’s first Arabic original series entitled Jinn was threatened with a ban in Jordan over two scenes in which Salma Malhas, a female actress, kissed two different boys. In Brazil, left-leaning politicians rallied in support of a boycott following the release of José Padilha’s series The Mechanism, which depicts a political scandal that divided the country in two. The acclaimed Israeli drama Fauda has been condemned by both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups for its sympathetic depictions of Israeli commandos and Palestinian terrorists.
All in all, it is easy to center blame over bans and censorships in foreign countries. This is especially true given the attention Netflix received in January when Saudi Arabia made them take down an episode of Patriot Act, in which its host, Hasan Minhaj, ridiculed Mohammed bin Salman. But foreign originals have also been a source of domestic criticism. The Italian Netflix series Baby faced criticism from U.S.’s National Center on Sexual Exploitation. According to the anti-porn group, the show’s depiction of teenage girls that are lured into a prostitution scheme “glamorizes sexual abuse.”
Degrees of scandalization or sensitivity differ from nation to nation. These divergent values reflect in varying regulations. For instance, Singapore bans any television program “glamorizing or encouraging the use of illegal drugs.” Meanwhile, New Zealand announced a new censorship category in response to outrage over 13 Reasons Why. The category, RP18, forbids minors from watching shows like 13 Reason Why without adult supervision.
As Netflix expands its global audience, the difficulties of navigating 190 different cultural environments will continue to mount. One analyst said that the situation is further complicated by Netflix’s need to be “everything to everyone.” It is a single service that seeks to provide audiences with both family-friendly kids’ shows and adult drama. Moreover, it wants to concurrently offer these programs to audiences worldwide.
Claire Enders of Enders Analysis, a U.K. based analytics group, argued that regulation is at the core of these Netflix scandals. “This isn’t just a free speech issue and isn’t just about politics,” she said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “By 2020, Netflix’s audience in the U.K. will be larger than [national commercial network] Channel 4,” Enders adds. “Do you think they’ll be able to avoid the same kind of regulation imposed on every broadcast and pay TV network in this country? They won’t.”