Global media studies on demand

Review by Erica Tortolani

Streaming Video: Storytelling Across Borders, eds. Amanda D. Lotz and Ramon Lobato. New York: New York University Press, 2023.

“Of the many challenges to audiovisual cultures at the turn of the twenty-first century, the emergence of new funders for television stories is of considerable importance. Over the last decade, subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services—including Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, and various other national as well as regional SVODs—have become major commissioners, financing hundreds of their own original series and movies and dramatically scaling-up the storytelling output of our global screen industries” (1)
—Editors Amanda D. Lotz and Ramon Lobato

Undeniably—and perhaps this goes without saying—SVODs have become ubiquitous part of everyday life. Streamers reign supreme. When I chat with my students each week, curiously asking which new or new-to-them film and TV shows they’ve checked out in their free time, an overwhelming majority of them respond with original streaming content. I’ll chat with my colleagues in the hallways, or my friends off the clock, and our water cooler talk is now saturated with the latest Netflix series, or news about upcoming Star Wars-adjacent Disney+ content, and what have you. Even thinking back to my graduate studies, and as an editorial assistant for an academic journal, one topic seemed to dominate them all: SVODs.

It was no surprise, then, to see Amanda D. Lotz and Ramon Lobato’s latest edited volume, Streaming Video: Storytelling Across Borders, come through my virtual mailbox. The titular streaming video, of course, is such a big part of modern life; it makes perfect sense that there is a groundswell of academic research in this area. What took me by pleasant surprise, however, was how thoughtful, thought-provoking, and innovative their edited volume was, from start to finish. Consisting of fifteen chapters that interrogate “how production cultures in different countries are being affected by SVODs and their storytelling priorities” (7), Streaming Video diversely connects those industrial, narrative, and representational threads emerging in contemporary media studies. Lobato and Lotz ask the following:

“What happens when SVOD services of different scales, occupying diverse locations and market niches, become producers of original content? How do services draw on, adapt, and challenge national storytelling traditions? What textual forms, genres, and formats emerge? Whose stories are told, and how different are these from what has gone before?” (8)

Indeed, the contributions to Streaming Video tackle the editors’ questions in nuanced, thought-provoking, and highly engaging ways. While reading each chapter, I was most impressed by the Streaming Video’s sheer depth and breadth. Each of the contributors recruited by Lotz and Lobato demonstrate rigorous, thoughtful scholarly inquiry on SVODs—which is, of course, something to be expected in a publication such as this one. I’m even more amazed by the editors’ wide net when sourcing their chapters. Academically, my main area of expertise is in film studies, particularly, film history and theory. I’ve only partially dipped my toes into the cool waters, so to speak, of global media studies, so to see a book like Streaming Video that features such varied, truly global approaches to new media is, to me, very exciting. I’m also, admittedly, woefully ignorant of media production outside of a handful of national contexts; Streaming Video exposed me to research on SVODs from areas like Nigeria, India, Jordan, and beyond, broadening my academic frames of reference in the process. In my view, Lotz, Lobato, and by extension, the contributors in Streaming Video are casting an appropriately wide net with their work, moving past typical (predominantly Western/Eurocentric, heteronormative, “prestige”) objects of study and considering other spaces, places, and texts. As a film scholar, this has crucial implications for my work—in the best way possible. The very nature and function of “film” as a medium, as an industry, is radically changing. For younger scholars like myself (not to mention, the whole of film studies as a discipline), the key to survival is to move upwards and outwards. “So there is much more work ahead for screen and media industry scholars” (13), Lotz and Lobato aptly remark, and I agree! There still is a ton of more work to be done, but Streaming Video truly points us in the right directions. The editors write about the book’s construction:

“Contributors were given a wide remit. Based on their expertise, some were asked to reflect specifically on the national contexts with which they were most familiar, while others set out to deliberately consider certain program forms such as children’s programs or movies. The aim was to aggregate chapters that each brought a view from somewhere— not to accumulate the ‘whole’ story, but to have an array of contexts to compare. Nearly all the chapters speak in some way to how streamers have intervened in the conditions of video storytelling in a particular place, as well as in relation to format or genre.” (9)

Streaming Video succeeds the most, therefore, in their triangulation of form, context, and content. Editor Amanda D. Lotz sets the tone for the rest of the chapters in the essay “Why SVOD Commissions Matter,” analyzing how “how SVODs’ different industrial conditions can lead to the creation of content different from that prioritized by the industrial conditions supporting the commissioning of video for linear channels or cinematic distribution” (19). Using the docu-series Tiger King (2020) as a case in point, Lotz illustrates how the current characteristics of SVOD platforms like Netflix—for instance, “subscriber funding, transnational reach, and on-demand access” (Ibid.)—have shifted industry practices otherwise built on linear information flows. Alternative methods of program commission, transnational distribution, and measuring audience metrics have immediately resulted in alternative audiovisual storytelling techniques; we simply wouldn’t have a show like Tiger King had traditional industrial protocols been put in place. Consequently, for Lotz, SVODs

“aid in the building and strengthening of parallel communities that may have little relevance to the nation and perhaps supersede it in significance. Thus, we exist amidst paradoxes and pluriformity” (34).

Lotz in “Why SVOD Commissions Matter” proposes that streaming platforms have problematized the role of media texts in nation-building, or in other words, the unification of smaller populations into one label, the “nation,” through the messages that we consume on-screen. Lotz’s co-editor, Ramon Lobato, alongside Alexa Scarlata and Stuart Cunningham, continue dissecting the concept of “national” TV production with their chapter, “Conceptualizing the National and the Global in SVOD Original Production.” Lobato, Scarlata, and Cunningham compare and contrast SVODs Prime Video and Stan, ultimately arguing that “the national and global should be understood as distinct categories at the service level but are intertwined when it comes to storytelling, aesthetics, and style” (38). For these scholars, descriptors like “national” and “global” are best understood as indicators of “home markets and geolinguistic locations” (39): Australia’s Stan, for instance, is only available in, and makes programs catered to, Australian audiences, whereas Prime Video, fundamentally, produces content for audiences around the world. For the authors, national SVODs occupy a unique space within media production at large in that they offer content that is “more locally resonant” (46) than their competitors but also, interestingly, influence their multi-competitors to narrowcast, that is, “venture further into the local market, but again in a way that would be familiar and translatable in different regions, and that tried to mimic what other SVODs were making at the time” (48). Thus, national and global streamers “seem to have a lot more in common than one might expect” (50-51), illustrating “dynamic diversity and surviving convergence” (52) in the process.
Streaming Video’s first two chapters, discussed above, achieve Lotz and Lobato’s goals to “set the stage for the analyses in the contributions that follow” (9). Despite their differing objects of study—the broader industrial shifts in major SVODs like Netflix in the former, versus a critical comparison of two successful streamers in Australia in the latter—they establish the tone of the edited volume, laying important scholarly groundwork for the remaining chapters. Had the editors not structured Streaming Video in this way, I feel, the chapters would be incohesive, instead held tenuously together by a common topic, the titular “streaming video.” To be sure, Lotz and Lobato themselves remark that there is “no clear consensus on an SVOD ‘effect’” (8) amongst each contributor, and in different hands, the volume would lack a clear focus. On the contrary, Streaming Video is valuable because its essays are so diverse, but where the volume excels, for me, is how it unites each chapter with the guiding principle of continuing “wide-ranging debate about [SVOD’s] disruptive impact on producers, production practices, and the role of video storytelling in culture” (2).
We see such disruptive production and storytelling practices further dissected beginning with Chapter Three, “Place in Netflix Original Police Drama: Local Signifiers and Global Audiences” by Michael L. Wayne. Examining “the role of place at the level of text” in European police procedurals, Wayne offers insights on how these shows oscillate from the local to the global in their narrative arcs, in other words, situating the viewer primarily in a unique spatial-temporal setting and then gradually, by the series’ conclusion, “framing narrative resolution in broad, universal terms” (55). As a result, this shift from “place-based” to “placeless” (58) communicates challenges traditional notions of cultural specificity and authority in international productions.

Stills from Dogs of Berlin (Alvart, 2018) and Young Wallander (2020-2022), discussed in Michael L. Wayne’s “Place in Netflix Original Police Drama: Local Signifiers and Global Audiences.”  Per Wayne, both series feature the interplay “of the local and global,” which has further implications “in light of the dominant academic and industrial understandings of international television program flows, which tend to posit that local specificity limits the potential for global appeal” (55).

Similarly, Ishita Tiwary in the fourth chapter, “‘OTT is Exactly What TV Is Not:’ Structural Adjustment and Shifts in Indian Scriptwriting,” delves deeper into Indian crime thrillers, a genre which has increasingly used “distinctive storytelling decisions that add heft to the portrayal of caste, religion, crime, and the propagation of fake news in India” (71). Here, streaming shows tackle immediate socio-cultural issues head on, eschewing industrial, aesthetic conventions to propel “complex stories and narrative structures” forward (72). While these shows are not divorced from their immediate socio-cultural context, as in the case of the European crime thrillers in Chapter Three, they nevertheless underscore new “storytelling possibilities emerging from the rapidly evolving streaming landscape in India today” (Ibid.).

Stills from Pataal Lok (Sharma, 2020), which is analyzed by Ishita Tiwary in “‘OTT Is Exactly What TV Is Not’: Structural Adjustment and Shifts in Indian Scriptwriting.”  According to Tiwary, Patal Lok is one important example of Indian creators’ newfound attention to long-form narrative, which subsequently “allowed the writers to represent India as a mix of different castes, classes, and religious dynamics—what Indians speak of as a ‘melting pot,’ unlike films, where the main hero takes more than half the screen time.  The series format allows more character depth and exploration of different ‘Indias’ in a way that is not possible given the brief length of movies” (78-9).

For Tiwary, shifts in form and style have even greater significance for the future of Indian media industrially and beyond, marking a possible turning point in otherwise contentious spaces like government censorship.

Chapter Five, “Challenging Cultural and Political Taboos: A Turkish SVOD’s Experiments in Taboo Comedy” by Asli Ildir, continues the sentiment of earlier chapters, positioning Turkish comedy series as valuable cases in point for the argument that “create space for storytellers to challenge culturally or politically taboo issues” (89) like sex and crime. However, Ildir stresses that, although these series breaks the boundaries of “linear television—with its restrictive norms, rules, and narrative conventions” Turkish streamers must still exhibit some sort of self-censorship, mindful of the nation’s “restrictive government censorship guidelines” (96-7). Therefore, Turkish comedy series “point out the cultural/political bound- aries of linear television that are shaped by the regulatory environment and the conservative taste of the mass audience” (103).

Shifting gears, Joaquín Serpe in “Argentina On Demand: Streaming Crisis, Gangsters, and Athletes” examines SVODs in the Argentine context, looking at how series extend, rather than deviate from, “prestige” arthouse cinemas and national audiovisual cultures more broadly. Yet, what connects Serpe’s sixth chapter with the preceding chapters comes from its approach to the question, “how do SVODs inform story-telling strategies in different national contexts?” (107). To answer this, Serpe offers that Argentine series, rather than merely embracing common narrative and representational strategies common to mainstream media, instead follow in the footsteps of New Argentine Cinema, a globally popular movement “characterized by its low-budget social dramas and incisive representation of the impact of neoliberal policies in the country” (108). In effect, Argentine SVODs signal “the maintenance and extension of Argentina’s national culture” (123), pandering to local audiences while still appealing to folks outside of the Argentine context.
Extending the conversation on South American SVODs, Chapter 7—“Girls from Ipanema and Netflix’s Deviations from Brazilian Serial Storytelling Norms” by Simone Maria Rocha and Livia Maia Arantes—examines the fluctuating landscape of Brazilian telenovela production in the midst of Netflix’s expansion into Latin America. Rocha and Arantes identify four so-called “deviations” in contemporary telenovelas caused by Netflix, “related to plot structure, protagonists, character perspective, and national specificity” (128) that, for better or for worse, serves the transnational goals of such large-scale SVODs. The examples telenovelas provided by the authors in Chapter 7, like the earlier chapters, serve as clear cases in point for the impact of industrial demand on televisual form and style, and for the authors, contemporary Brazilian telenovelas function even more significantly as an instrument for interrogating “a range of issues infrequently addressed in telenovelas, such as intersectional feminism, homosexuality, open marriages, and structural racism” (132).

Excerpts from Monzón: A Knockout Blow (Bossi, 2019) and Apache: The Life of Carlos Tévez (Caetano, 2019), discussed in Joaquín Serpe’s “Argentina on Demand: Streaming Crisis, Gangsters, and Athletes.”  According to Serpe, Argentine SVODs “continue the trend that existed before their arrival into the Argentine market: foreign companies forging alliances with major domestic production firms, some of which form part of multinational conglomerates” (124), as in the cases of recent fictional series like Monzón and Apache.
Excerpts from the Brazilian telenovela, Girls from Ipanema (Roth and Cedroni, 2019-2020).  In “Girls from Ipanema and Netflix’s Deviations from Brazilian Serial Storytelling Norms,” Simone Maria Rocha and Livia Maia Arantes observe that the series’ “use of Latin American melodrama as a starting point suggests a genre hybridism and shows that strategies, decisions, and changes are not born in a historical-cultural vacuum” (139).