Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
So maybe the innovation of broadband streaming has not quite ushered in a brave new world of artistic freedom of expression after all.
Faced with a challenge this week from a government that didn’t like one of its programs, Netflix, among the most powerful players in entertainment and culture in the world today, caved. Rather than stand up for its artist, the bright young comic Hasan Minhaj, Netflix made an episode from his new late-night program unavailable in Saudi Arabia, which objected to the content, reported the Financial Times.
Minhaj devoted the entire episode of his new comedy/commentary show “Patriot Act” to a thorough takedown of Saudi Arabia and its supposedly reformist young leader Mohammed bin Salman. It surely could not have made the Saudis comfortable watching an American Muslim comic eviscerating MBS — as he is cutely known to TV anchors and close pals like Jared Kushner — for his suspected role in ordering the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the entire nation for its history of intolerance to women and alleged implication in the 9/11 attacks on the US. (The Saudi government has denied MBS’s involvement in Khashoggi’s death.)
Or as Minhaj zingingly put it, “Saudi Arabia is basically the boy band manager of 9/11. They didn’t write the songs, but they helped get the group together.” (The Saudi government has denied any role in the 9/11 attacks.)
To be precise, Saudi Arabia did not merely object to the program: It threatened some kind of legal action because it charged that Minhaj’s show literally violated a Saudi law against cyber crime. As written, that law forbids “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers.”
How Netflix might have been punished for this “crime” is unclear. But obviously Netflix found it easier to comply than engage in a confrontation over one minuscule sliver of the content in its firehose stream.
Netflix’s comment on the decision took pains to note the company’s strong support for “artistic freedom worldwide” while citing the “valid legal request” made by the Saudis. Though what makes it “valid” isn’t totally clear; is Netflix agreeing its show was committing a cybercrime by criticizing the Saudi regime? The law in question is the same one used to silence domestic dissidents and critics, which might make it look a bit invalid to freedom-loving folk.
But Netflix is clearly playing a bigger game. The company, which is, by any measure, one of the most impressive success stories in the recent history of American media, has made no secret of its ambition for global domination of the streaming market for entertainment. Big goals like that tend to move front of mind when nettlesome problems arise.
I have interviewed Minhaj on a couple of occasions, and both times found him thoughtful and fiercely intelligent (a point reinforced by his willingness to use a “Hooverville” joke on the Saudi show, as obscure a reference as is likely to make it onto any late-night comedy show this decade). He is also clearly on a mission to use his comedy to make searing points: about big issues like justice, freedom, American democracy and religion. He is Muslim from an Indian background, but also deeply Californian. (He was born in Davis, California.)
Minhaj has the credentials to go after MBS and Saudi Arabia, but he doesn’t really need credentials — not if you believe in free speech and artistic freedom of expression.
Netflix clearly hired Minhaj to be outspoken; that’s what put him on the map. At his breakout appearance as the “entertainment” at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2017, Minhaj called Donald Trump the “liar-in-chief” among other memorable comments, mostly about the need for a free and un-cowed media.
And the company is obviously not actually censoring him, because unless you are confined to Riyadh or Mecca or one of the places you can’t get Netflix at all (China, North Korea, etc.), you can see Minhaj’s full Saudi onslaught any time you like (with a Netflix subscription of course). And even in Saudi Arabia, as Minhaj pointed out in his only comment so far on the contretemps, the performance can be still seen on YouTube.
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He also noted that the publicity kicked up by being kicked off also made the episode a trending phenomenon, which can only help the show in the long run. (It is only getting started: The show premiered October 28.) Minhaj, who has made no overt criticism of Netflix at all, is handling the unexpected attention with reserve — and panache.
But what of Netflix? Is there any risk that some artists pondering a Netflix contract may wonder how fully they may be backed in the future if they somehow run afoul of some authority in some locale that is vital to the global business plan? Probably not, if Netflix keeps paying those artists at well above the going rate.
Subscribers may have other thoughts. If you’re in Medina and coughing up riyals every month for Netflix, maybe you don’t want to see your content truncated. And even in Milwaukee, it might give some constitutional purists pause that their 10 bucks a month fee is going to folks who, in the interests of business, would rather not challenge the likes of MBS (Mohammad bin Salman) with FOS (Freedom of Speech).