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Amid the turmoil after George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020, Netflix sought to address racist dep͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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July 3, 2023
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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we’d intended to take this week off but couldn’t stop the scoops coming.

Production cycles in the film and TV business are slow — months at least, often years. And that can be a problem when society changes fast. Max’s story below marks a real sign of the times: A major anti-racist project commissioned by Netflix in 2020 was quietly killed as the winds changed. I suspect there are many more like that we haven’t heard of.

Also today: One big reason that CNN staffers’ Jeff Zucker fantasies won’t come true, and the Vice aftermath continues.

If you’re feeling patriotic, sign up with one-click for Semafor Americana, Dave Weigel’s consistently-a-month-ahead twice-weekly look at American politics.

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Bristol: ESPN fires a bunch of big names, girding for a streaming future. — New York Post

Paris: A right-leaning French tycoon is extending his influence over media. — FT

Dublin: The Irish national broadcaster RTÉ is engulfed in a scandal around secret payments to its star host Ryan Tubridy. The sums, it should be admitted, might not persuade an American TV star to get out of bed. —BBC

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Max Tani

Why Netflix quietly shelved an anti-racist video project

Michael Buckner/Variety/Penske Media via Getty Images

THE SCOOP

Amid the turmoil after George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020, Netflix sought to address racist depictions in its film and television library in its own, particularly on-brand way.

Some entertainment companies, like Amazon, had added disclaimers before television shows like Mad Men and movies including Borat. Others, like NBC Universal, removed episodes of television shows that included blackface.

Netflix, by contrast, sought to expand its successful nonfiction series “Explained,” produced by Vox Media, into that sensitive space.

In early 2021, the company contracted with Vox to create a series of videos that would run alongside movies or television shows featuring racist or stereotypical caricatures. The videos would explain topics like the use of blackface and “yellowface” in Hollywood, as well as the depiction of native Americans in classic films and westerns.

The task fell to Vox Creative, a brand studio within the media company that aims to “influence audiences from a position of truth and purpose, and to build a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming brand experience,” according to its website.

More than two dozen Vox staffers and post-production contractors worked on the videos, which were regularly shared with Netflix executives for notes and feedback, according to two people who worked on the project.

But as the political climate cooled — and corporate racial justice initiatives faced a growing backlash from the right — the project lost steam. First, Netflix told producers that the short videos should be pieced together into a lengthier explainer on race on screen.

Earlier this year, Netflix killed the project.

MAX’S VIEW

Netflix did not explain its decision to kill the project to the people who worked on it, and didn’t respond to an inquiry from Semafor.

But the decision represents the latest retreat by a major brand away from the social justice messaging many companies adopted in the wake of Floyd’s death in 2020.

Over the past several months, a number of prominent companies have caved to backlash from conservative groups around LGBTQ messaging. Anheuser-Busch cut ties with trans model Dylan Mulvaney, and put the marketing executives responsible for bringing her on as a spokesperson for Bud Light on leave following massive anti-trans backlash. Target pulled items from its Pride line following complaints from the right.

Advertising and marketing executives have conceded that there have been consequences for brands from highlighting issues like race, sexuality, and gender identity. Last summer chief brand officer at Procter and Gamble Marc Pritchard told an audience at Cannes Lions that advertising had “gone too far into the good” at expense of commercial goals. This year, Semafor reported that organizers of the advertising industry’s top awards ceremony quietly advised jurors to steer clear of granting awards based solely on politics and advocacy in favor of focusing on more commercially-minded campaigns.

And while many large, mainstream brands are loath to admit that they’re responding to social pressures, staffing reflects shifting priorities. Quietly, a number of companies have laid off, fired, or seen executives leave who were brought in to address diversity, equity, and inclusion. Just last week, Netflix announced that its head of inclusion strategy was stepping down in September, while Warner Bros. Discovery said it was laying off diversity executive Karen Horne on Friday amid restructuring.

For Room for Disagreement, read here.

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One Good Text

Jon Meacham is a former Newsweek editor, historian and occasional adviser to President Biden, who said last week he’s heard from journalists that “there’s no editors any more.”

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One big thing in cable news… There’s a certain logic to the debt-ridden WBD selling CNN, and to Jeff Zucker and his friends — or some other investor — buying it. The problem: Zucker’s money comes largely from the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis and Qataris also quietly make up much of the cash available to big deals like this.

But a foreign-backed bid for CNN could trigger “the mother of all CFIUS reviews,” said Ivan Schlager of Kirkland & Ellis, a leading expert on the foreign influence regulation. He noted that even the sale of Forbes to Indian investors has been held up by political concerns. If the investment is more than 25%, and if the foreign parent aren’t truly passive limited partners (neither the case in Zucker’s Redbird IMI), Schlager predicted that competitors and members of Congress could block the deal on concerns of creating “another Al Jazeera.”

One big thing in bankruptcy…Just weeks before Vice declared bankruptcy in May, the millennial media company paid performance bonuses to top-level executives.

The bonuses were part of the annual payouts executives at the company received based on performance in the previous year, according to two people with direct knowledge of the stipends. But the checks were written as the company was gearing up for potential bankruptcy — which means many rank and file staffers and freelancers weren’t paid for work from April and May, and were furious to learn of the bosses’ bonuses.

The company has continued to cut costs in other areas, including eliminating the messaging app Slack. On Thursday, an HR rep sent an email to staff saying that the company will not be able to pay severance this month.

A spokesperson for Vice declined to comment, but the company has previously maintained that despite delays, it intends to pay staff and freelancers for work completed before the bankruptcy.

In podcasting….The BBC is looking for a new head of audio to grow the organization’s commercial podcast business and help the British media giant expand into the US…Former Reply All host PJ Vogt’s new podcast Search Engine is expected to drop on July 7.

In news partnerships…Uber whistleblower Susan Fowler Rigetti is taking over as editor of Future Tense, the tech publication run by Slate, Arizona State University, and the New America foundation.

— Max

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