Thursday, February 12, 2015

Netflix PR

[I'm coming off of a challenging January and I'm playing catch-up. The following should have run about a month ago, but I think the points are still fairly relevant.]

This is yet another one of those post where I based seen to be clubbing Netflix,when I'm actually using Netflix to club someone else. In this case, Netflix is doing exactly what the company is supposed to do, using PR to promote its products and brand . My issue is entirely with the people on the other side of the process.

If you have been paying attention, you may have noticed a new subgenre of entertainment journalism, the inexplicably exciting old show (that just happens to be on Netflix). On one level, this is nothing new. PR departments have been ghost-writing stories for reporters since at least the Twenties but in recent years the flack-to-hack ratio has ticked up noticeably and there are few companies making better or more aggressive use of the planted news story than Netflix does.

It started getting really blatant for me about the time that the company started pushing Young Indiana Jones. For the uninitiated, YIJ was one of the great crash-and-burns of network television history. Despite big budgets and high expectations (coming just three years after Last Crusade), this show flopped so decisively that ABC never even aired the last four episodes. DVDs were released in 2007/2008 to cash in on the buzz around  Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but other than that the show was largely forgotten.

Then Netflix picked it up and we started seeing stories like these:

5 Reasons Why Young Indiana Jones Is Actually Not As Bad As You Think

What to Binge This Weekend: 'The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles'

Netflix has always been very aggressive about drumming up press coverage, particularly involving originals and new releases. Whenever you see a blogger recommending some show you can stream on on the service, the chances are very good that the idea for this post initiated in some PR firm. As mentioned before, this is nothing new. [I discussed this post with a friend who used to work in the publicity department of one of the major studios (welcome to LA). He pointed out that he frequently wrote press releases that appeared verbatim under reporters' bylines in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter in the Nineties.] You can also argue that the journalistic expectations for the sites mentioned above have never been that high.

However the lines are continuing to grow blurrier, both between news story and press release and between puff piece and journalism. Which brings us to Esquire.

Friends is, in a sense, the opposite of Young Indiana Jones. The latter is a show that no one has heard about me: the former is a show that everyone has seen. It is arguably the seminal romantic comedy sitcom. It was massively popular in the day, continues to sell a ton of DVDs, and has been syndicated to the point of full immersion. It will, no doubt, be a popular feature for Netflix but it is hard to see how adding one more venue qualifies as news.

But Esquire thinks differently:

For those not familiar with the online edition of the magazine, the right side of the page is reserved for recommendation for other articles on the site (and, at the bottom of the page, for sponsored recommendations from other sites, but the ethics of the sponsored link is a topic for another day). The emphasis is not on what you'd call hard news -- men's grooming and style feature prominently and the editors manage to work in lots of pictures of Penélope Cruz and Angelina Jolie -- but it's the same sort of fluff that has always filled out the magazine.

So when "Everything You Should Watch in January 2015" came in number six on WHAT TO READ NEXT, you can reasonably consider it a relatively well-promoted news story. You can also assume that the impetus if not the actual authorship came from someone working PR for Netflix.

The subtitle of the piece is "In theaters and on video and Netflix Streaming." Note the omission of the major competitors Hulu and Amazon and providers of similar content such as YouTube,, and a slew of smaller players. Hulu's Wrong Mans seems a particularly obvious choice given all of the attention going to James Corden taking over the Late Late Show from Craig Ferguson.

This type of PR push is normally coordinated with a substantial ad campaign. In this case, the unlimited streaming of Friends (not to be confused with per-episode streaming, which has been available for years) prompted a large ad buy which included among other things, disinterring a few careers.

None of this is in any way meant as a criticism of Netflix. If anything, it would be an example of a company being responsible and portraying its product in the best possible light. This does raise some questions about Esquire's editorial policies, but given this is the kind of magazine that encourages you to buy four-hundred dollar watchbands,  I think the more alert readers already suspected that these manufacturers may have been exerting some influence on the journalists covering them.

All that said, it is always useful to remind ourselves from time to time that when news stories work out particularly well for some corporation, that favorable result probably isn't entirely coincidental.

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