The Politician As Show Runner

Photo of Tim Mulligan
by Tim Mulligan

Monday’s announcement by Netflix that it had engaged the Obamas to produce a show represents the further evolution of the power of the show runner and the increasing overlap between celebrity and politics. Barack Obama’s presidency presided over the rise to prominence of the current crop of tech majors and the consumer pivot towards streaming. His administration was active in helping to support the sector through legislation, such as the April 2015 ruling that reclassified broadband providers as common carriers, and therefore mandating equality of data provision for all digital services. His successor Donald Trump arguably indirectly benefited from this benign regulatory framework, through his use of social media to bypass traditional TV and print media and reach potential voters directly.

The power of the show

As was covered in From Reality TV Host To Commander In Chief – The Enduring Power Of TV,  Trump effectively built up a personality brand through his ability to reach individuals in the comfort of their own homes, and in a carefully choreographed manner, which only the moving image currently empowers a focused individual to achieve. Arguably, Trump is now a next-generation personality brand through his highly effective use of social media to compliment his existing TV audience base, both to gain power via Facebook and to retain it via Twitter. So, effectively Trump is now post-TV personality brand.

Conversely, Barack Obama was an early adopter of social media, which he deployed to great effect: for the first time to gain the Presidency and to retain it for his second presidential term. Ironically, Obama is moving into (streaming) TV at the same time that Trump is vacating it.

It’s all about the show runner

Netflix is a data driven service focused on optimising public relations opportunities to grow its global brand. Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are internationally recognised individuals with clear voices on current affairs and universal themes that resonate globally. Barack Obama is one of only four US presidents to have received the noble peace prize and he famously made a conspicuous choice to reach out to non-US audiences with his famous 2009 Cairo speech. He has also been a passionate commentator on climate change, both during his Presidency and since he left the office. Michelle Obama has been a vocal advocate of female empowerment both within the US and internationally, and has developed a position as the voice of conscience within American elite circles, such as her recent speech at the United State of Women summit.

With the recent moves of Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Ryan Murphy (Glee), and now the Obamas, Netflix has rapidly become the incubator for showrunners. A showrunner is the creative project lead behind a TV series and they are moving to SVOD services because of the compensation and, equally, because of the creative freedom afforded by streaming subscription services, which do not have to rely upon advertising or prime-time viewing schedules when making commissioning decisions. In Michelle Obama’s words:

“Barack and I have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire us, to make us think differently about the world around us, and to help us open our minds and hearts to others.” She went onto say: “Netflix’s unparalleled service is a natural fit for the kinds of stories we want to share, and we look forward to starting this exciting new partnership.”

The 2016 presidential election ushered a TV celebrity into the most powerful democratically elected post in the world. Now, the most famous political couple in the world are poised to become the most influential TV celebrities on the planet.

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