Drama without Borders

3% is a Brazilian show. (Courtesy Netflix)

The global audience for Netflix means more access to international content

By Michelle Neha

When the Korean drama, Goblin: The Lonely and Great God (2016-2017) brought megastars of South Korean television to Old Quebec, they started something big.

Not only did historic sites feature in the drama’s storyline, they made Château Frontenac’s mailbox an international icon.

Now, dedicated fans have begun visiting the city and recreating their favourite scenes. The show has 250 million viewers across Asia.

Canada takes pride in its multi-cultural society, but Canadian content is overshadowed by the influence of the American shows. Guy Mullally, a Canadian screenwriter, is optimistic that they can learn from international content.

Canadian shows like Orphan Black, Kim’s Convenience, Murdoch Mysteries and Corner Gas are an export success story on Netflix. Bart Testa, lecturer at the Cinema Studies Institute in the University of Toronto says the common theme of these shows is a Canadian life that the rest of the world does not experience.

Netflix is capitalizing on this style by licensing shows of different languages, storytelling styles and formats from various parts of the world. They have begun developing and creating shows for audience of specific cultural backgrounds.

“We’re catering to a dynamic world full of people with different tastes,” says Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix in a press release. “We want to have something for everyone to enjoy.”

By taking advantage of the internet, Netflix has 117 million members in over 190 countries and more than 140 million hours of original series, documentaries and feature films and movies are watched per day.

Todd Yellin, Vice President of Netflix Product said in a press release, “human beings have incredibly diverse and unique tastes, each person is more than the demographic group they belong to. At Netflix, we not only have a catalogue that meets the needs of these tastes and moods, but we use our technology to ensure we surface the right story to the right person at the right moment.”

In the same press release, Yellin also says the streaming service delivered the biggest and most diverse schedule in Netflix history. More than 1,000 hours of new series, films, stand-up specials, documentaries and more became open for members around the world.

English content is syndicated all over the world on Netflix and other online streaming sites, but Canadian content still faces its biggest hurdle: recognition.

“The size of the Canadian television industry and production field is pretty small in proportion to the size of the [Canadian] broadcast industry,” Testa says.

“There are relatively few shows produced and many of them have ugly marks of funding agencies rather than real creativity,” Testa says.

According to Mullally, Canadian creators are getting better by watching and learning from different kinds of shows. Television has become more accessible and people are influenced by it.

“There’s always stuff to steal,” he adds.

Another issue that Mullally touches upon is that Canadians are reluctant to talk about Canadian culture. They prefer the production to look more American. But by doing so, Canadian productions are becoming less authentic.

“I think that, you lose something doing that, it becomes a little bit less authentic,” Mullally says.

American channels have turned to more diverse stories to attract viewers. Shows like Speechless, Fresh off the Boat, Black-ish and Modern Family have incorporated a diverse cast and story.

But millennials are watching various regional content even at the expense of subtitles.

According to Statista, 58 per cent of Americans between 25 to 34 years use Netflix regularly. Netflix was most used by the 16-24 category in 2015. The subscription increased to 50 million in the United States alone in the beginning of 2017, up from less than 30 million at the start of 2013.

A Korean odyssey is a Korean show and Netflix original. (Courtesy Netflix)

Korean dramas are a big hit with the diaspora and attract new viewer using subtitles, and stories of a different culture. The University of Toronto reported a large increase in the number of students studying Korean due to K-pop and K-dramas.

Seokygu Lim, who studies at Niagara College and lives in Toronto, enjoys watching Korean dramas because he understands the language and finds the shows fun. While he watches a lot of English content, he recommends Korean dramas to friends who don’t mind subtitles or prefer certain types of stories.

Karan Jain, a millennial from Karnataka, India, prefers Pakistani shows over Indian soaps because they are simple and easy to relate. More attention is paid to the story and script.

Indian shows on the other hand, are extravagant and lack realism. The characters are decked in extravagant clothes, elaborate sets and appeal to a sense of fantasy in the viewer.

Bushra Naumana Amini, Toronto native who now lives in London, England with her family says, “what I find appealing about Pakistani shows is that they deal with important issues in our culture and our society,”

“The Pakistani society to some extent, have a list of rules and the way they act and the way they behave at times, which has nothing to do with religion,” Amini says.

She says Pakistani shows deal with remarriage, women empowerment, women rights and education.

“In Brazil, the TV shows a season lasts for nine or 10 months,” Guilia Cariello says. These Brazilian telenovelas deal with farmers rights, rags to riches stories, government censorship, and sex abuse within families.

“I think the Scandinavian drama is on the bleak and my more minimalist approach,” Mullally says. The shows are slow, ponderous, dark and brooding.

These shows would have been inaccessible before. But thanks to the internet, they are gaining international recognition and popularity now.

But Netflix took it one step further by buying and producing shows in various parts of the world like the following:

Jinn – first Arabic original series

Leila, Ghoul, Crocodile – Indian original series

Korean Odyssey, Prison Playbook and Argon – Korean original series

Siempre Bruja – Columbian original series

“I think it’s amazing what Netflix is doing. How we seem to be focused on just getting good drama but also, they seem to be fairly sensitive to where it’s being shot and the sensibilities of the filmmakers there, be it Spanish or German or Scandinavia,” Mullally says. “I like what Netflix has done, especially their serialized dramas.”

Many use Netflix to binge on shows at a time.

“I just don’t have it in me to wait for an episode daily or weekly,” Amini says.

“There are so many outlets and television, so there’s a great deal more imported material,” Testa says. “When I went to Netflix, I’d discover a number of shows that are made elsewhere and were made for a local audience and I’m watching them. And this happens with Canadian shows that become popular in the United States even though people don’t know they’re Canadian shows.”

Cariello still feels English content continues to remain popular for its production value, storyline, actors and graphics. However, she watches Brazilian telenovelas for their socially conscious storylines.

Similarly, Lim watches Korean dramas for the element of fun. Korean dramas feature romantic stories, supernatural elements, historical stories and modern-day crime dramas.

But regional shows face many hurdles in terms of funding, representation and reach.

“Korean shows have younger actors due to cultural preferences,” Lim says.

The representation on such shows needs improvement in terms of portrayal, description and inclusivity.

Pakistani television deals with situations, everyday aspects and taboo subjects. But diversity is limited, Amini says.

“Similarly, Brazilian telenovelas tend to be over dramatic, with a lower production value and tend to revolve around family and social life,” Cariello says.

But while the world watches American television most of the production happens on Canadian soil.

“I was just watching a show which is so American, it’s called Designated Survivor,” Testa says. “The hero is the President of the United States. There was a scene towards the very end of one of the episodes and I know exactly where it was shot because it’s on the campus of my university, which means that almost the entire show was shot in Toronto. And then they send the second unit to Washington to shoot streets and buildings in Washington and then inserted into the show. But the whole production basically is taking place here.”

“We should be proud of our own stories because, the Americans aren’t the only ones, we can exaggerate to tell a good story,” Mullally says.

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