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What Netflix’s controversial new show means for the future of Australian television

In the lead-up to the release of Netflix’s new, anorexia-themed drama To the Bone, Australian youth mental health organisation Headspace cautioned against it. Issuing a warning to parents, teachers and young people, Headspace reminded viewers of the dangers associated with at-risk people being exposed to potential triggers.

This was a reaction to the trailer, which isn’t ideal: the film equivalent of judging a book by its cover. You can hardly blame them, however, given the trainwreck of 13 Reasons Why, the streaming giant’s suicide-glamourising young adult series, which drew widespread condemnation from mental health experts. This weekend nervous viewers from across the sector will press play on the much-discussed To the Bone, anticipating the worst.

Lily Collins stars as Ellen, a snarky 20-year-old anorexic who agrees to check into a rehab centre for young people with eating disorders. The place is run by the compassionate but zero-bullshit Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves).

When Beckham first meets Ellen, the Doc prescribes a big dose of shooting straight. “I talk to kids like you all day every day, so I know that you are, as a rule, full of shit,” he says. “The way that you’re going, one day you won’t wake up. And I’m not going to treat you if you aren’t interested in living.”

This does not inspire Ellen. She responds with a short and sarcastic “good speech” and rebuffs other adult wisdoms in similarly caustic ways. To the Bone is not a film that pretends a few neat words, delivered at an opportune moment, can make everything instantly better.

Writer/director Marti Noxon (who suffered from a severe eating disorder in her youth) does, however, believe in the power of conversation. Above all else her screenplay emphasises the need to talk about our problems; in that way it reminded me of the excellent 2008 Australian film Men’s Group.

Netflix knows exactly which country its users are coming from. But not, it seems, if they are in need of crisis support.

The mental health sector can breathe a sigh of relief. While the dangerous 13 Reasons Why tells young people suicide can be an elaborate game to play on their mates, To the Bone presents anorexia as utterly grim and joyless. There are issues with the writing – particularly Ellen’s backstory – though this is not 13 Reasons Why round two (sadly, that’s coming up in 2018).

But what if To the Bone presented issues of particular relevance to Australians? Or issues Australian people were more vulnerable towards, or more likely to respond to? The writing on the wall suggests Netflix’s one-size-fits-all approach may not be interested in, or even capable of, drawing such distinctions.

Consider the following. Every episode of 13 Reasons Why begins with a couple of lines of text, including the following: “If you or anyone you know need help finding support and crisis resources in your area, go to 13reasonswhy.info for more information.”

Type that address into your browser and you’ll land on a default page for the United States. This contains a list of American phone numbers that are useless in Australia. You can select Australia from a list of countries in a pulldown menu, but why aren’t Australian viewers directed to the relevant page in the first place?

If that sounds like a petty complaint, put it this way. Netflix have outlawed Australian VPN users, blocking them from its foreign content. In other words, when it comes to accessing its catalogue, Netflix knows exactly which country its users are coming from. But not, it seems, if they are in need of crisis support.

There is a larger conversation to be had here. It’s about what happens when multinational digital giants place extraordinary onus on individuals users, and next to none on the countries and real-world cultures they belong to.

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Companies such as Netflix, Facebook and Google treasure their secret sauce algorithms, which tailor unique versions of their interfaces to individual users. They certainly don’t seem to view the world in terms of borders and territories requiring different, culturally-specific approaches and methodologies.

There are upsides to the so-called global village, including benefits gleaned from accessing extraordinary amounts of data. But the bloom is off the rose, and we need to consider the downsides. If American content providers such as Netflix and Amazon (or local companies that rely on overseas content, like Stan) become the norm in Australia, what will happen to our local television production industry? We should seriously consider – at the very least – the introduction of content quotas for streaming service providers.

There are other discussions to be had along similar lines. In the case of Facebook and Google: given these two companies continue to play a highly significant role in the downfall of Australian journalism, should our government force them to repair some of the damage? This week’s episode of Media Watch contains an excellent summary of this debate.

The conversation around the release of To the Bone will not, thankfully, evoke the bitterness and alarm that greeted 13 Reasons Why. Perhaps we can be inspired by the show’s message about the importance of talking through things and tackling difficult issues head on. We can apply this to many areas of conversation – such as the company producing the show, the rapidly evolving industry it belongs to, and what we might envision that industry looking like in the future.

If you or someone you know is in need of support, help is available. Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. A detailed list of support services can be found here.

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3 responses to “What Netflix’s controversial new show means for the future of Australian television

  1. Really Luke?
    I’m not sure if you are critical of the Cut To The Bone, Netflix or both. 13 Reasons Why (which I have seen) is not the suicide glamorising, trainwreck monster that will unleash more suicides than Jones town that you describe. In fact it is very popular among the demographic it is aimed at.
    Now, it’s local content with Netflix that is the problem, but I have noticed more local shows than ever being added, and no they aren’t first release but repeat residuals to producers and actors will occur.
    What you are proposing is a nostalgic return to Breaker Morant, the simpler good old days.
    Remember George Miller’s Justice League proposal that the AFC knocked down? That could have delivered billions to the industry but instead, the priority of Australian content won the day, what a victory

  2. Why is an organization supposedly dedicated to mental wellbeing, acting as the censorship board? If people want or need to get their head around an issue, watching and thinking about all the implications is violent. Triggered? What about dealing with human beings on a daily basis – that’s what really triggers people. When you start to ban discussion of ideas via the arts, then you’re on a slippery slope to somewhere like China or North Korea. Headspace better get their headspace in order !

  3. Yes, Australian Content quotas for Netflix and Amazon, because we need more great local content like Masterchef, Australia’s Got Talent, The Project, Big Brother and Real Housewives of Sydney. :(
    Seriously, most ‘Australian Content is low grade dross, for every Wolf Creek there’s an Australian Ninja.
    I’d rather see the ABC deliver high quality Australian stories told by Australian voices, than force foreign companies to do it, they’ll go for lowest common denominator and we’ve seen the commercial channels go down that road already; qv Renovation Rescue.
    The ABC is supposed to be the vehicle for Australian stories and content, so how about it stop trying to be a wannabe CNN (which it does badly) and pissing vast amounts trying to be a massive digital news agency and instead concentrate on something that is uniquely Australian, one that talks to all Australian’s, not just inner-city ‘sophisticates’ with trendy left-of-centre views
    .

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