Growing up in Italy as a kid, I watched the American TV series Happy Days, set in the midwestern 1950s by The Fonz, Richie Cunningham, and other teens.
This series, and other American soap operas that were ubiquitous in the 1970s and 1980s in Italy, defined my image of the United States long before the evolution of the American lands. Today I live in the United States and have developed my own understanding of the intricacies of the country. I can now see the happy days as a nostalgia revival of a peaceful American city free from conflict.
Happy Days was a Hollywood product, and is still undoubtedly the epicenter of the global entertainment industry. So the recent news that the streaming service Netflix is opening an office in Italy and is planning to invest heavily in local original content to distribute it worldwide through the platform – a strategy that has already been rolled out in other countries – shocked me.
This is likely to be a game-changer in the global entertainment industry. It can even change how the world, for example, sees the world.
Learning by watching
I’ve been able to research the media landscape over the past fifteen years from a prime location: my base is Los Angeles. Television and movies are a way in which, during their lifetime, people learn to understand the world and build an archive of personal experiences and opinions about other places.
In the absence of direct experience with the people or the state, we expect what we do not know. A variety of resources are used in the process, including reading, Google searching, and stories from people we trust. But most people communicate with other cultures through the media, in addition to our own.
Media personal photos can be inaccurate. However, it is incomplete. This is because movies and TV series do not necessarily show reality
Television and movies fill in gaps in knowledge of powerful images and stories that shape how we think about other cultures. If media images are consistent over a long period of time, we may begin to see these ideas as facts.
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But media images can be inaccurate. However, it is incomplete. This is because movies and TV series do not necessarily show reality; They were made for entertainment. As a result, they can be misleading, if not biased, and based on static stereotypes.
For example, there is no shortage of Italian and Italian-American stereotypes in American entertainment. From the award-winning film saga The Godfather to the lesser-acclaimed television series Jersey Shore, Italians are often portrayed as uneducated, uneducated, and associated with organized crime – or all three.
But the way people are exposed to media entertainment is changing. Streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV + and Disney + collectively have one billion subscribers around the world.
The company that operates globally adapts its content to meet the expectations of a local audience
Netflix is a relatively newcomer when it comes to producing original content. As such, the platform cannot count on a large library of proprietary content to serve 204 million paid members in more than 190 countries – which is what longtime Hollywood players can do. Therefore, Netflix is increasingly making its own products, including non-English products from countries such as Mexico, France, Italy, Japan, and Brazil.
We can call this an example of globalizing entertainment – a company that operates globally is adapting its content to meet the expectations of a local audience.
The method of work
This is really the way to do, for example, many popular reality TV series. American Idol is a different American version of the European Pop Idol. The X Factor, Big Brother, and Dancing with the Stars all have similar international origins.
However, something strange is going on with glocalization: Netflix wants to distribute its local content across the globe and bypass the local market.
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However, Netflix’s global reach doesn’t guarantee that old stereotypes will be dismantled. French critics complained about the internationally circulated Netflix series Emily in Paris, for presenting a clichéd romantic image of their capital.
For Netflix to really go global, it must also encourage the development of original, local ideas
Foreign TV producers should create series for Netflix that appeal to both domestic and international audiences, while keeping them true to the image they portray the country. If the Italian team at Netflix believed that the international audience expected The Godfather from Italy, the international audience might be addressed – but the Italians are not.
For Netflix to really go global, it must also encourage the development of original, local ideas. Not only in European countries with a well-developed cultural sector, but also in smaller countries and countries with an emerging entertainment industry, such as African countries.
A window to the world
A side effect of this strategy might be that Netflix turns the traditional way in which the media outlines our understanding of other cultures and countries on its head by portraying those countries with more sincerity. But this is a huge task and of course there is no guarantee that this will happen.
The transformative potential of Netflix is that local creators can tell stories about their culture and those stories can be published internationally. This will depend on the company’s desire to implement this strategy in a sustainable, consistent, comprehensive and thoughtful manner.
The way Netflix operates, and recommends content through algorithms, may spark interest in foreign content
Over time, widespread media exposure to more diverse international media content can change the way people in the United States and around the world think and feel about cultures they have never interacted with or will never interact with.
The way Netflix works, recommending content to viewers through algorithms while selecting, may spark interest in foreign content in the viewer.
Paulo Sigismondi is a communications expert at the Anne de USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles