A ‘Netflix for the 99 Percent’ Enters the Streaming Wars

Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood gets its name from the Gowanus Canal, the notoriously polluted waterway snaking through it. Intensive cleanup efforts began over a decade ago, after the Environmental Protection Agency declared the canal a Superfund site, and real estate developers began sniffing around the area. As the waters changed from extremely gross to just gross, their surroundings transformed too. The industrial zone is now home to a mishmash of condo mid-rises and warehouse spaces repurposed as playgrounds for adults. An axe-throwing bar, a fencing gym, a rock-climbing studio, a skateboarding academy, a shuffleboard club, and an archery range are all a few blocks from one another. There’s a cavernous Whole Foods. Brave souls can kayak the canal in the summers.

Gowanus is also home to the live events space Littlefield, which hosted the New York premiere of Means TV, a new “post-capitalist” streaming service, on a windy Friday night last week. The premiere’s crowd skewed young, with interesting haircuts. They sipped Modelos and clapped loudly when emcee Jake Flores, the host of the podcast Pod Damn America, asked if there were any anarchists or communists in the room. And they sat attentively for the screening of the documentary Sarasota Half in Dream, a woozy, surrealist found-footage collage about the Florida city’s considerable weird side. The event, like the service’s other premieres in London, Seattle, and Detroit, was packed with supporters, many wearing T-shirts and pins to signal their support for Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

But showing up to support a cause is one thing. Paying for it every month is another.

Means TV’s Detroit-based founders, Naomi Burton and Nick Hayes, first gained national attention as the producers of a low-budget and tremendously effective viral campaign video for US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, helping propel the freshman congressperson into progressive stardom. After that, they worked on campaigns for candidates around the country under the name Means of Production, all the while dreaming of a project they pitched as “Netflix for the 99 percent”—a platform for leftist voices, by leftist voices.

“The idea is that we’re bringing together all these disparate leftist creators, be they podcasters, be they shitposters, be they YouTube content creators,” Hayes says. “We see it as a project for rebuilding some sort of leftist media institutions.” Citing the democratic socialist magazine Jacobin and the anticapitalist media nonprofit Democracy at Work as inspirations, Hayes and Burton envision Means TV as a way to provide an alternative platform for filmmakers and audiences who want their art to reflect their left-leaning politics. They hope the business model and ideological tilt will help it stand apart from its many, many competitors; its offerings are selected for their politics in addition to their value as entertainment, and the company is structured as a worker-owned cooperative.

The advent of streaming atomized the entertainment and media ecosystem in a way that can suck for audiences. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of shows, but accessing them requires shelling out lots of small payments. In place of cable packages, people now often select subscription streaming services a la carte. Amazon, Apple TV+, Netflix, Disney+, and Hulu are all courting general-interest customers, and there’s also been exponential growth in the niche streaming sector, with a dedicated option for just about any interest one can imagine. Shudder (horror) and Crunchyroll (anime and manga) are two prominent examples, but there are many, many more. (Did you know comedian Kevin Hart has his own streaming service? He does.)

Means TV, in other words, is debuting into a crowded market. Most people are willing to sign up for about six subscription services, shelling out around $38 per month, according to a recent survey from market research company Magid. Means TV’s $10-per-month fee would be a big chunk of that, especially for folks looking at the $7 monthly price tag on Disney+ or the $5 one on Apple’s streaming service. Also, Means has limited options, just 13 exclusive feature films, and 27 items of original content in total.

The 2017 film Rodents of Unusual Size, which explores how anti-fur protests inadvertently created a situation in southern Louisiana in which an enormous, rat-like invasive species called nutria threatened the region’s coastal wetlands, stands out among the exclusive films as an example of Means TV at its best. Narrated by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce, it’s a maddening rolic that educates about an overlooked economic and ecological crisis and also succeeds as entertainment.

The majority of the content on Means TV, though, is short clips sourced from left-leaning YouTubers. “We want to offer them an alternative platform they can be on in addition to YouTube,” Hayes says. The fact that Means TV pays for the clips and invites creators to join its cooperative business allows for those creators to bring in additional revenue, but the model also means subscribers are provided with a lot of stuff they could otherwise watch for free. Presenting content from leftist YouTubers also has another problem: an uneven catalog that may bristle potential patrons who appreciate the underlying politics but cringe at the art.

Means TV features content like Why Bosses SuckCourtesy of Means TV

Burton and Hayes are aiming to bulk up their original and exclusive offerings soon. Several live programs are launching in March, including a daily news show and a gaming show. They have found eager creative partners in the project, like Nathan Sims, an Arizona-based artist who works under the name Teenage Stepdad, who was so excited by the concept that he approached Hayes and Burton to join. “A lot of leftist content talks down to people, and I never thought that they were doing that,” he says.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based comedian Sara June is leading up the co-op’s efforts at original programming. “I am currently in the process of producing a live-action series and an animated series for them,” she says.

Not bad at all for a startup funded entirely by crowdfunding and supporters—Burton says Means TV raised around $200,000 before launch—but a very small catalog for a streaming service asking for as much money as competitors with much bigger archives and flashier originals.

Means TV is unique, though, in that its value proposition does not necessarily rest on its content as much as the idea of its content. It’s the opportunity to support a streaming service that both emphasizes a specific political perspective and attempts to provide an alternative financial model for how to run a media company. “We’re trying to distinguish ourselves in a marketing sense in that we are only subscriber funded,” Hayes says. “There’s no shadow money, no dark money, there’s no venture capital. I think that that resonates with people and allows them to build trust with us.”

So far, the service has amassed around 2,100 subscribers. A teensy fraction of something like Hulu’s user base, but then again, it makes more sense to view it as a boutique experiment rather than comparing it with corporate efforts like Netflix. “I look at it as a kind of collective Patreon,” Sims says.

Means TV has a decent chance of survival, according to Guy Bisson, the research director for market research group Ampere. Bisson tells WIRED that niche streaming services, which often have low content costs, don’t require large groups of subscribers to succeed—just a dedicated core audience. “They are not intended to be Netflix-killers, but just to tick over serving a small—but loyal if they get it right—viewer base,” Bisson says. “This service is clearly targeting ‘angry young things’ and the political drive of a youth disaffected by global politics. On that front, there surely couldn’t be a better time to try, given the extreme polarization of political views across much of the world.”

That doesn’t mean it will be an easy path forward. Worker-owned businesses can be very successful, like the grocery chain Publix. But Means TV is attempting to launch a worker-owned cooperative model in an industry without any obvious predecessors, and with shallow pockets. They “pay union rates” Sara June says, but “currently don’t have the budget to work with the actual unions.” For a streaming service with an explicitly pro-organized-labor outlook, that is a particularly sticky issue.

Churn is another potential problem, especially because its slim archive means people can burn through exclusive content quickly. Magid’s 2018 survey also found that 41 percent of millennial viewers only planned to keep the services they signed up to use for six months or less. The “post-capitalist” service will have to prove its appeal as a commercial product in order to hold onto its audience, especially as it also faces competition from other independent leftist media projects.

While the United States does lack mainstream media institutions that represent leftist perspectives, in recent years there has been a bloom of projects, like the podcast Chapo Trap House and the magazine Current Affairs, catering to the anticapitalist audience Means TV is courting—people interested in democratic socialism, labor and workers’ rights, universal health care, and the failures of the Democratic party. These projects often share goals and support each other—Chapo Trap House has worked with Hayes and Burton, and Current Affairs’ editor in chief Nathan Robinson recently tweeted his support of Means TV. But they are, still, in competition. Even the most diehard socialists have to pick and choose which subscriptions to buy.

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