Obama Is Said to Be in Talks With Netflix to Produce Shows
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR, KATIE BENNER and JOHN KOBLIN
The New York Times
Mar 5 2018
FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA is in advanced negotiations with Netflix to produce a series of high-profile shows that will provide him a global platform after his departure from the White House, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Under terms of a proposed deal, which is not yet final, Netflix would pay Obama and his wife, Michelle, for exclusive content that would be available only on the streaming service, which has nearly 118 million subscribers around the world. The number of episodes and the formats for the shows have not been decided.
Obama does not intend to use his Netflix shows to directly respond to President Donald Trump or conservative critics, according to people familiar with discussions about the programming. They said the Obamas had talked about producing shows that highlight inspirational stories. But the Netflix deal, while not a direct answer to Fox News or Breitbart.com, would give Obama an unfiltered method of communication with the public similar to the audiences he already reaches through social media, with 101 million Twitter followers and 55 million people who have liked his Facebook page.
“President and Mrs. Obama have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire,” Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to the former president, said Thursday. “Throughout their lives, they have lifted up stories of people whose efforts to make a difference are quietly changing the world for the better. As they consider their future personal plans, they continue to explore new ways to help others tell and share their stories.”
In one possible show idea, Obama could moderate conversations on topics that dominated his presidency — health care, voting rights, immigration, foreign policy, climate change — and that have continued to divide a polarized American electorate during Trump’s time in office. Another program could feature Michelle Obama on topics, such as nutrition, that she championed in the White House. The former president and first lady could also lend their brand — and their endorsement — to documentaries or fictional programming on Netflix that align with their beliefs and values.
It is unclear how much money the Obamas will be paid, given their lack of experience in the media business. Netflix recently signed a five-year, $300 million deal to lure Ryan Murphy away from 21st Century Fox, but Murphy is among the television industry’s most sought-after producers
The deal is evidence that Obama, who left the White House when he was just 55 years old, intends to remain engaged in the nation’s civic business, even as he has studiously avoided direct clashes with Trump about his concerted efforts to roll back Obama’s legacy. It is also a clear indication that the former president remains interested in the intersection of politics, technology and media.
Several people familiar with the Netflix discussions said that executives from Apple and Amazon, which have their own streaming services, have also expressed interest in talking with Obama about content deals.
The former president has maintained a low profile since leaving office. He and his wife are each writing highly anticipated memoirs, for which they were reportedly paid more than $60 million. And Obama has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches in the United States and around the world. The Obamas are rarely seen in public in Washington, where they still live.
Obama has long expressed concerns about how the flow of information — and misinformation — has the power to shape public opinion. In the past several months, Obama has discussed with technology executives and wealthy investors the threats to U.S. democracy from the manipulation of news. He has seethed privately and publicly about what he says is the manipulation of news by conservative outlets and the fractured delivery of information in the internet age. In several recent public appearances during the past several months, the former president hinted at his frustration with the way conservative news outlets have shaped people’s perceptions about the divisive 2016 campaign and the issues he cares about.
“If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you are listening to NPR,” Obama told David Letterman in an interview broadcast in January for the comedian’s first Netflix program. In December, at a forum in New Delhi, Obama conceded that “If I watch Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me. I would watch it and say, ‘Who is that guy?'”
Evidence began to emerge while Obama was president that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube were being used to spread false information about candidates and issues. Social media’s impact on society became even clearer in February, when the special counsel, Robert Mueller, indicted 13 Russians and three companies that had used social media companies to undermine democracy in the United States and push voters to reject Hillary Clinton.
As the 2016 presidential election came to a close, Obama told the New Yorker that the new media landscape had made it possible for large swathes of the country to ignore facts. “Everything is true and nothing is true,” he complained. He later personally scolded Facebook’s chief executive for saying it was “crazy” to think the social network influenced the election.
For Netflix, securing the Obama programming is a part of the company’s broader search for original content, as the streaming service competes for viewers with HBO, Apple, Amazon and the traditional broadcast networks. Netflix has said it could spend as much as $8 billion on content this year. It has been paying top dollar for original programs like its hit “Stranger Things” and the documentary “Icarus,” which won the Oscar this year for best documentary feature. It would also be another coup for a company that began by distributing DVDs and is now doing deals with some of the most powerful names in entertainment.
Several of the technology and media worlds’ top executives have been close advisers and donors to Obama over the years, including John Doerr and Reid Hoffman, the Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the entertainment executive. But Obama has particularly close ties to Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer. Sarandos is married to Nicole A. Avant, an activist who served as Obama’s ambassador to the Bahamas. And Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, was close to Obama while he was president and an attendee at state dinners.
A spokesman for Netflix declined to comment about any discussions with the former president and his wife. Some of the biggest media companies on the internet, like BuzzFeed and Vice, have embraced politically themed programming, even as they have recently seen their growth flatline with shifts in the digital advertising and distribution landscapes. Political news startups like the website Axios and the podcast “Pod Save America,” hosted by former Obama officials, have connected with audiences that are eager for scoops, analysis and opinion.
The deal between Netflix and Obama would be a modern media twist on an approach that former politicians have tried in the past. Al Gore, the former vice president, created a new cable network after losing the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. Gore and Joel Hyatt, a businessman and Democratic activist, purchased a small cable company in 2004, eventually renaming it Current TV and positioning it as an “independent voice” in the political debate. The network expanded its presence on cable and satellite networks and changed formats several times during the next eight years, at one point providing a home for Keith Olbermann, an outspoken liberal and a former host at MSNBC. In 2013, Gore and Hyatt sold their company to the Al Jazeera Media Network, which shut down the Current TV channel.
Obama’s approach is less of a direct challenge to the existing news establishment. But he is embracing the streaming services that have become a direct threat to the cable and network television infrastructure, especially among younger viewers.
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