How and Why Streaming Services Are Embracing Purpose

Where are major streaming platforms headed after enjoying a year of explosive growth during the rise of the stay-at-home economy? They’re certainly delivering more content, especially as Hollywood studios turn to streaming to distribute movies while theater attendance remains low, as we have commented on before. But something else is going on, too: they’re embracing purpose, especially diversity and inclusion, in their words and actions.


As is often the case, major news events have acted as catalysts for streaming services to speak out against injustice. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in 2020, streaming companies very quickly used social media to take a stand against racial injustice. Starz relied on Twitter and Instagram to give a shout-out to organizations such as Color of Change and the NAACP already invested in the fight for racial justice in America. Netflix tweeted about the need to speak out against racial injustice, noting that “To be silent is to be complicit.” Since then, the streaming companies have remained vocal advocates for racial justice. When on April 20 a jury found former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of all three charges against him in the killing of George Floyd, HBO tweeted, “We remain committed to the Black community, especially our Black colleagues, storytellers, and fans, in this fight. We must continue to raise our voices and speak out against racism in all forms.”


Even as streaming companies capitalize on social to stand up for justice, they are also matching words with action. Netflix once again presents an especially strong example.  In June 2020, Netflix announced it would be shifting a chunk of its cash to banks — such as the Hope Credit Union based in Jackson, Mississippi — serving Black communities. The upshot of Netflix’s investment: those banks can now lend more.

In February 2021, Variety reported that the streaming giant has made another serious investment—into content diversity. Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer Ted Sarandos announced that the streamer has created a fund for creative equity which will be used in part to invest in organizations devoted to “setting underrepresented communities up for success in the TV and film industries.” The goal: inclusion in entertainment, and a focus on storytelling told by a range of authors from a range of backgrounds. Stories, in fact, that reflect more than a narrow slice of the world we live in. 

The announcement came on the heels of an internal audit of sorts: Netflix had contracted Dr. Stacy Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative research team to analyze the makeup of Netflix’s on screen talent in regards to gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+ and disability identity. The study identified the streamer’s strengths — Netflix has made great strides in terms of representing women on screen, for example — as well as areas for improvement, including greater representation of LGBTQ+ characters and Latinx/Hispanic communities. The streamer has demonstrated its desire to learn from the findings, with Netflix Vice President Scott Stuber pointing out the importance of kids “seeing themselves [represented], seeing who they are in those roles and making sure that we don’t have ‘Black Panther’ once a decade, that we have films where young people of color, young women can see themselves as heroes in active roles.”

Disney has also demonstrated a commitment to action, such as removing programming from its children’s Disney+ profiles due to negative cultural stereotypes. Movies like “The Aristocats” and “Dumbo” are still available on standard Disney+ profiles with a content advisory warning appended for context. But the titles, deemed dubious because of stereotypes, offensive lyrics, or insensitive storylines, are no longer accessible from children’s profiles. 

Disney also recently highlighted more diverse content on its streaming platforms ranging from Disney+ to Hulu. Consider “Reservation Dogs,” a half-hour comedy series coming to multiple international markets on Hulu via the “FX on Hulu” brand, and on Disney+ via Star. The coming-of-age story, created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, focuses on four Native American teens growing up on a reservation in eastern Oklahoma. Disney+ will also introduce one of Marvel comics’ newer characters, Ms. Marvel, in an original series. The first Pakistani superhero appears in the eponymous “Ms. Marvel,” due out late 2021.

Compelling Black stories have also found a home at Amazon Studios. Coming-of-age film “Selah and the Spades,” was picked up by the studio after it debuted at Sundance in 2019. If a mobster movie met “Heathers,” the result might be something like “Selah and the Spades,” which invites audiences to follow the story of Black characters caught up in the drama unfolding amongst the power factions at a prestigious Pennsylvania prep school. 

Lessons Learned 

What can businesses learn from the words and actions of these streamers? We recommend that you:

1. Respond to the values of your audience. According to a June 2020 survey conducted by public relations consulting firm Edelman, 60 percent of 2,000 US respondents said that how a brand responds to protests against racial injustice would influence whether they would do business with that brand. 

2. Be culturally relevant. The streaming companies are responding to the reality that we live in a more culturally diverse society. Culturally diverse content sells (just look at the success of “Black Panther”) and creates brand buzz (such as the Oscar nominations—and wins—garnered by Alfonso Cuarón’s film “Roma” in 2019, or the 2021 Oscar noms for “Judas and the Black Messiah”). 

The need to be culturally relevant affects most major businesses today, and one need look no further than the Golden Arches to see how brands are responding. In its “Serving Here” campaign, McDonald’s endeavors to link its brand to the consumers it serves. From menu choices that reflect a community’s tastes — expanded chicken offerings, for example, or the debut of a plant-based vegetarian burger — to culturally relevant marketing that focuses on vignettes of American life, the fast-food behemoth is invested in demonstrating that McDonald’s understands the people it serves.

The streaming services will continue to be an ideal home for diverse voices. They know how to use data to segment audiences and align content that matches each audience. They also operate differently from the traditional Hollywood film distribution system. Filmmakers are not beholden to the vagaries of opening weekends and theater runs. They can create content that finds its audience over a longer period of time on streaming platforms.

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