Obamas herald new era in power of television

Mission: Obama’s new TV shows will aim to “identify people doing amazing work”.

Is TV more powerful than politics? Barack and Michelle Obama will produce a raft of new documentaries and TV shows for Netflix — they aim to promote “greater empathy” across the globe.

“I would not have been president had I not learned very early on in my professional career the importance of stories,” Barack Obama recently said. “Everyone has a story that is pretty sacred.”

Soon he will be able to share these stories with countless people across the globe — thanks to a multi-million dollar deal he and his wife Michelle struck with Netflix last month.

Details of exactly what it will entail remain unclear. In a statement, Netflix said the Obamas will produce different types of projects including “scripted series, unscripted series, docu-series, documentaries and features.”

One New York Times piece speculates that Obama may moderate discussions on topics like health care, immigration and climate change. He and Michelle could also work off-screen, producing fictional TV shows.

While Barack insists the projects will avoid partisan politics, he still identified a broader political goal: “If we are hearing each other’s stories and recognising ourselves in each other, then our democracy works.”

And with over 100 million subscribers, Netflix could hardly be a more ideal platform. As comedy writer Matt Forde states, the Obamas will soon “reach into the living rooms and mobile phones of millions of people across the world to influence them directly.”

But just how influential can television and film really be?

In 2006, former US Vice-President Al Gore released his famous climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The film won him the Nobel Peace Prize, with one study finding that clips made viewers more motivated to fight climate change.

And it is not just documentaries that can make an impact.

In the UK, Ken Loach’s 1966 drama Cathy Come Home caused such a stir with its heartbreaking depiction of urban poverty, the homelessness charity Crisis was launched in response.

In more recent years, the quirky US sitcom Modern Family has been credited with increasing support for same-sex marriage among everyday Americans.

Is television more powerful than politics?

Producer in chief

Nonsense, some respond. The decisions politicians make affect every single person, every single day — from the taxes workers pay, to what children learn in schools. Then there are grand matters of state. Only world leaders barter trade deals and declare war. Politics has the power to shape every part of life, big or small.

Not so fast, others respond. Television shapes society’s values, and commands a far larger audience than many politicians can ever hope for. The finely wrought characters of soaps and dramas foster empathy with those unlike ourselves, and arresting documentaries inspire debate and action to fight injustice. TV’s influence is subtle, but powerful.

You Decide

  1. Can television change the world?
  2. Is Barack Obama still relevant?


  1. Write a list of your favourite TV shows. Discuss them with a partner if you like. Would you say that any of these programmes changed the world? Why/why not?
  2. Imagine Barack Obama has commissioned you to come up with a new TV show. It must feature him in some way, and have a positive social impact. How would your programme work? Write a 100 word pitch describing your idea.

Some People Say...

“Good television can make our world a better place.”

Christiane Amanpour

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Having struck the Netflix deal, the Obamas established their own production company, Higher Ground Productions, to produce the content. Barack Obama has appeared in several documentaries and TV shows in recent years. He discussed climate change with Leonardo DiCaprio in Before the Flood, and allowed a film crew to record his last months in office in The Final Year.
What do we not know?
Precise details about the projects. We do not know exactly what type of shows will be produced, when they will be released, or if the Obamas are planning on starring in the programmes as well as producing them. We have a rough idea of what Netflix paid for the agreement — CNN reporting it as a “high eight-figure deal.”

Word Watch

For more information see the New York Times link in Become An Expert.
This was recently reiterated by Netflix executive Ted Sarandos who declared that there would be “no political slant to the programming”.
Having strong support for a particular group, party or cause. So in this instance we can expect the Obamas to refrain from direct attacks on the Republican party and President Donald Trump.
The actual long term impact of the film has been debated by researchers. For more information, see The Conversation link in Become An Expert.
Cathy Come Home
A television play written by Jeremy Sandford. A 1998 Radio Times poll voted it the “best single television drama”. Another industry poll in 2000 rated it as the second best British TV programme ever made.
Still in operation, the charity has centres in London, Newcastle, Oxford, Edinburgh and Merseyside.
Same-sex marriage
The show depicts a same-sex marriage in the relationship between Cam and Mitch. See The Atlantic link for more.

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