If You Like Privacy Invasion, You May Also Enjoy: Streaming’s Influence on Pop Culture

For decades, consumers looking for a distraction at dinnertime or a new sitcom to follow were forced to invest in a television set and all the stations that came along with it. Networks benefitted from this form of broadcasting; in splicing on-air programming with ad content, these TV companies were able to generate massive amounts of revenue. The introduction of the Internet in the late 90s complicated this system. For the young, tech-savvy, content-hungry users of the new millennium, the web became a new channel for entertainment; through webisodes and other such methods, fans could dive deeper into the world of their favorite TV show and go beyond the regular diegesis. In 2007, ABC launched its online streaming program, allowing users to catch up on all their favorite ABC shows online and pull the plug on their TV sets.

Netflix

Reed Hasting at Netflix’s Canadian launch, 2010. Via Ben Lucier, Flickr.

Despite contractual hurdles for TV writers and financial disputes over the integration of advertising, streaming took off, becoming a cornerstone for nearly every major network thereafter. Beyond that, outside companies began to invest in streaming initiatives, allowing TV and film fanatics to stream popular content right to their computers. Netflix was a trailblazing force in this new movement. Founded by Reed Hastings, the company started primarily as a DVD rental service, switching to a streaming-rental model in 2007. As the popularity of DVDs fell, Netflix began to shift its focus to streaming, eventually spinning off its DVD-mailing operation into a new company called Qwikster. The emergence of streaming in today’s “now or never” culture eventually forced the decline of brick-and-mortar renting services like Blockbuster, marking a new chapter in the history of entertainment. But what seems like an innocent business dedicated to fueling our binge-watching needs is in fact much more sinister. As Wheeler Dixon discusses in his book, Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access, streaming services couldn’t care less about what their customers feel about their content, only what they like (97). Recommendation systems like those found on Netflix analyze a user’s behavior in order to determine what products he or she may like.

Netflix

Netflix uses your past watch history to provide new programming suggestions. Via my Netflix page.

In enabling users to blast through content at the touch of a button, streaming services have made never leaving the house that much more appealing, but there remains a deep-seated anxiety in some consumers, even digital-savvy ones, about the consequences of such systems. How do we know such fears exist? Because they’ve started surfacing in our popular culture.

The final season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation serves as a perfect example. The comedy, created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur and starring SNL alum Amy Poehler, centers around the quirky members of the Parks Department in Pawnee, Indiana and has developed a cult following since its launch in 2009. Though the satirical sitcom has targeted technology in the past (namely, through Tom Haverford’s social media addiction and Ron Swanson’s aversion to the Internet), the subject has become a more central part of the show’s last season, reflecting many of the concerns that Dixon voices in his book. In episode Gryzzlbox (Ep. 7×5), Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt visit the headquarters of a media conglomerate named Gryzzl (which not-so-subtly mocks the omnipresence of companies like Amazon, Apple, and Facebook) in order to investigate their questionable business practices. At one point in the visit, the company’s CEO begins explaining a new app which utilizes the Gryzzl-phone’s camera technology to gauge its owner’s emotions: “If the camera senses that you’re in a bad mood then we could geomatch you to say the nearest cup of sweet pick me up java. If you’re in a good mood, then we could geonudge you to a sweet coffee shop and you could keep the good times going.” Ben’s response (“So it’s really just a coffee sales app?”) echoes Dixon’s thoughts on the intersection of technology and advertising, especially social media’s use of data mining to target its user’s interests. The Gryzzl-phone, which secretly remains on at all times to track its owners, draws eerie parallels to the “smart” televisions that Dixon describes, which use “facial recognition technology to identify viewers and [scan] the room to ‘real facial expressions and determine whether you’re entertained or bored’” (137).

Pushing the idea further, the episode portrays the company’s drone initiative, in which they use data mining to collect information about Leslie and her friends and subsequently send them packages filled with personalized products that they would enjoy based on their online information. The town’s outrage over this massive invasion of privacy (one resident notes: “I opened my box in front of all my friends and it was a bunch of Virginia Woolf novels…now Miley and Haley know I like to read!”) parallels the country’s uproar over the NSA’s surveillance programs in 2013, in which NSA members were proven to have been collecting personal information through people’s email and social media accounts. The fear that drove the national NSA uproar in 2013 – that the “prying digital eyes at Facebook and Google” (Dixon 139) can easily identify our likes and dislikes simply through our search history or social media profiles – bubbles to the surface in the Parks episode, with the Gryzzl CEO justifying the behavior by saying: “I mean, we just wanna learn everything about everyone and track them wherever they go and anticipate what they’re about to do.” (The phrase is eerily similar to a statement made by ad agency CEO, Rex Harris, who pointed out the usefulness of “smart TVs” by claiming that “when your device knows where you are and knows what you like, it will be a more valuable experience for you” (Dixon 137)).

But then again, perhaps it’s not just society’s fear that is leaking through to our pop culture but the TV industry’s. Parks and Rec is, after all, a product of NBC, a major television network who stands to lose a lot from the streaming boom and similar sites. Are Poehler’s jokes reflective of the country’s fear of technology and its dangerous intersection with entertainment? Or is she a mouthpiece for her network’s fears? Who knows. Either way, it’s clear the subject of streaming technology and its potential dangers have entered the public dialogue and that “streamers” remain hesitant to fully embrace the subversive streaming technology.

Featured image via FanPop.com.

Sources:

DeAmicis, Carmel. “Parks and Recreation takes on Silicon Valley in final season.” Gigaom.com. 6 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. <https://gigaom.com/2015/02/06/parks-and-recreation-takes-on-silicon-valley-in-final-season/&gt;.

Dixon, Wheeler. Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access.: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013. Print. Hardawar, Devindra. “NBC’s ‘Parks and Recreation’ puts data privacy under the comic lens.”

Engadget.com. 7 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. <http://www.engadget.com/2015/02/07/parks-and-recreation-privacy/&gt;. Marich, Robert. Marketing to Moviegoers: A Handbook of Strategies and Tactics. N.p.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013. Print.

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