Courtesy of Netflix

October 24, 2021

YANG | The Romance of Foreign Language TV

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Netflix’s explosive success with Squid Game is the defining snapshot of the increasingly globalized landscape of television culture. This is not the first time that a non-American TV series has appealed to an American audience. Money Heist, Elite, How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast), Dark, Lupin and Alice in Borderland are all recent examples of non-American shows that are witnessing successful runs in the domestic market. Yet the dystopian South Korean series has spawned a pop culture phenomenon on an unprecedented scale.

Squid Game is the first non-American global smash hit in television history. The show is not only global for its production in South Korea; it conquered the world by appealing to an audience across the globe. Not only has the South Korea-produced series achieved success in the U.S. and in South Korea, but it has further topped the chart in 83 countries

Notice what the shows I mentioned earlier have in common? They’re all produced and financed by Netflix, and this is far from a coincidence. The global sensation of Squid Game is the crystallization of Netflix’s long-term plan of global expansion. The streaming giant is now operating in 190 countries, and only about one-third of its paid subscribers are from the U.S. Such a sizable international audience sets Netflix apart from all the other Silicon Valley-based streaming giants — Hulu, HBO, Disney and Amazon — whose users are primarily based in the U.S. 

In the past few years, analysts have given Netflix a gloomy forecast. They find that it is unlikely to have much growth in the domestic market with increasing competition from other platforms. Yet, the streaming giant didn’t just accept the grim prediction — they turned to foreign markets that were still untapped by Silicon Valley.

To appeal to an international audience, Netflix began investing in localized content across the globe. Netflix first entered the international production business in 2015 with the Spanish-language series Club de Cuervos. The Mexico-produced show marked the start of Netflix’s ambitious (and financially successful) plan of funding original local productions. 

The goal of such global expansion of localized production, according to Erik Barmack, Netflix’s vice president for international originals, is to “tap into new international audiences while also appealing to American Netflix viewers,” according to a 2017 New York Times article. 

Squid Game helped push the frontier even further forward — the localized content not only appealed to an American audience but resonated with viewers across the globe.

Yet, these great successes of foreign-language television only reflect one side of the story. While many view the present as the golden era of the global television industry, there’s an eerie colonial undertone to Netflix’s reshaping of the global television industry. 

Yes, it’s great that Netflix is pouring their money into local productions outside of the U.S. And yes, it’s wonderful that more Americans are consuming foreign-language content. But at the same time, there’s a simultaneous emergence of a cultural hierarchy that centers around American taste. This culture is what determines which foreign production gets funded. 

Despite American viewers accounting for only one-third of all Netflix users, their economic and cultural influence continues to dominate the streaming platform. Against this backdrop, foreign productions on the platform are increasingly produced with the goal of entertaining an American audience. With such pursuit in mind, the nuances of the thought, feeling, belief and knowledge that are local to other countries are often flattened to appeal to a white American audience.

There’s something unsettling about a reality where the taste of Americans (particularly white Americans) ultimately determines the narratives and the aesthetics of the non-American shows that are produced. It doesn’t sound right that Americans get to decide what other countries consume and produce, yet this is precisely the current market logic with the “glocalization” of Netflix. Or should I call this the Americanization of global television? 

Despite casting my doubts, I should reiterate that Netflix’s success in bringing local television outside of their respective home countries and onto the global stage is undeniable. This would have never been possible without the advent of streaming services. 

It’s mind-blowing how the table has turned, a year after I criticized Americans’ aversion to subtitles. Many foreign shows can now penetrate the American market without dubbing. Americans appreciate foreign content more than ever.

Nonetheless, it’s always worth reflecting on how the global media infrastructure fundamentally dictates what gets produced and consumed. The only way we can halt the Americanization of global television is to be critical of what we consume. Are we appreciating other cultures as they are, or are we projecting our romanticized (and exoticized) ideas of the foreign world onto the screen? We are the ones to make the call here, not Netflix.

Stephen Yang is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.