Shiny and powerful, Netflix is the entertainment industry’s Trojan horse — a seeming gift for families, allowing parents some control over what their kids can watch. In reality, what Netflix delivers should give parents extreme pause.
In just over 20 years, Netflix has gone from being a relatively small-scale DVD sales and rental company to an entertainment industry superpower with an estimated 125 million subscribers worldwide and the ability to attract A-list writing and acting talent while garnering top awards and industry accolades.
Unfortunately, during these years of stratospheric growth, Netflix seems to have given little thought to the family audiences that have proved to be the backbone of the company and provided the solid foundation for growth and stability that has attracted investors and enabled Netflix to make multimillion dollar development deals.
Netflix has been happy to build its business on the backs of family audiences — throwing them the occasional bone of a reboot of an older, favorite TV series like "Gilmore Girls" or "Full House" or offering a reliable, yet oddball collection of children’s programming (that runs the gamut from "The Little Prince" to "Captain Underpants") or even announcing a commitment to building faith and family-based shows. (Netflix hasn’t released any detail about what this will look like.)
But Netflix has been unwilling to make the kind of meaningful reforms that would make family viewing a safe and enjoyable experience for all members of the family, and has been too willing to defend potentially harmful, problematic, even pornographic, content.
Netflix distributes pornographic content
Last year, Netflix released "13 Reasons Why" — an original series based on a popular young adult novel of the same name, about a teenage girl who commits suicide, despite concerns from school counselors and suicide prevention experts about the possibility of “suicide contagion.”
After it debuted, Google searches on how to commit suicide spiked by 26 percent. Nevertheless, Netflix renewed for a second and even a third season.
When asked about the controversial program during the 2018 shareholder meeting, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings callously remarked, “Nobody has to watch it.”
Well, of course nobody has to watch it. But people do. Kids do. And based on news reports, some of those kids have been inspired by it to consider taking their own lives.
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Last December, Netflix began airing Argentinian film "Desire," which depicts a 9-year-old girl masturbating to the point of orgasm. In response to critics, director Diego Kaplan said, “Everything works inside the spectators’ heads, and how you think this scene was filmed will depend on your level of depravity.”
He also prefaced this remark by saying, “Because I knew this scene might cause some controversy at some point, there is ‘Making Of’ footage of the filming of the entire scene.” Why should he have anticipated that the scene might cause some controversy if the “depravity” is all in the viewer’s head?
This is the kind of hollow defense of indefensible content Netflix is making more and more often these days.
Petitions to cancel teen-targeted "Insatiable" for fat-shaming content have fallen on deaf ears. Same with the petitions to cancel the disturbingly sexualized animated series about puberty called “Big Mouth.”
Difficult for parents to monitor child experience
A 2017 analysis by the Parents Television Council revealed that nearly 60 percent of Netflix’s original offerings were rated for mature audiences only; just 1 percent were rated for general audiences, and only 8 percent were rated PG.
And although Netflix does offer some parental controls, our research found that even if a child might not be able to stream adult-rated content when those controls are turned on, there was nothing to prohibit a child from browsing through an adult user’s profile, where he might see highly sexually suggestive titles and cover art, like "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" or "Nymphomaniac."
Our research also found adult titles grouped with child-targeted content, so that titles like "Sausage Party" — with its cartoonish yet suggestive cover art — appeared next to family titles like "The BFG"; "Family Guy" appeared next to "Finding Dory"; and the image of a sex toy on the cover art for "Grace and Frankie" was displayed just above the “Children and Family” menu options. We also found that it was difficult for parents to entirely eliminate categories of content they didn’t want displayed at all.
It's important to note that Netflix recently added a way to let parents block individual titles — and that’s a good step. However, this also requires parents to know about each and every title available on the platform. With the thousands of titles available at any one time, that’s impossible.
Families have become increasingly reliant on Netflix as an alternative to traditional broadcast and cable television, but the reality is that Netflix is not trustworthy. And to date, Netflix is defiant when it comes to owning any responsibility for the potentially harmful products it delivers.
At a time when all of Hollywood is rightly consumed with #MeToo, and when the most powerful are falling left and right, how can Netflix execs simultaneously ask us to be entertained by rape-driven teen suicide? Or to laugh at the sexualization of children? To be amused by girls struggling with vicious bullying and fat-shaming?
Netflix executives need to adopt some old-school principles and realize that they’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. They can’t have it both ways. Unless Netflix is willing to better serve families and distance itself from these more problematic programming choices, or until Netflix shareholders use their voices to drive change from within the company, families would do better to choose alternative streaming services.
Tim Winter, a former NBC and MGM executive, is president of the Parents Television Council. Follow him on Twitter: @TimWinterPTC.