Those worried about the future of television can rest easy, because Harry and Meghan are here to save it. We’re referring, of course, to news that the Blighty-abandoning Sussexes have signed a megabucks production deal to make TV shows for the world’s biggest streaming service, some of which they may even appear in. Forget Netflix and chill. This is Megxit and shill.
The controversial royal couple have founded an as-yet-unnamed production company and signed a multi-year contract to make documentaries, children's programmes, scripted dramas and more. Yes, this is television by Royal Appointment. Harry’s TV Burp and Meghan Behaving Badly, anyone?
The eyebrow-raising move comes eight months after Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle stepped back from royal duties and relocated to California with their toddler son Archie. It seems they’re already fully embracing the Hollywood lifestyle. A punch-up with paparazzi and rehab for yoga addiction could be next on the agenda.
They’re following in the illustrious footsteps of the Obamas. In 2018, Netflix signed a similar deal with former US President Barack and his lawyer wife Michelle. The streaming giant clearly enjoys throwing piles of money at people who’ve already got too much of it, to do something that’s not really their job. While it's not known how much the Obamas were paid by Netflix, Penguin Random House reportedly paid the Obamas a $65m advance for their memoirs.
It’s no coincidence that Harry interviewed Obama while guest-editing Radio 4’s Today programme and that the couple recently signed with the New York-based Harry Walker Agency, which also represents the Obamas and the Clintons. Meghan is said to admire the lucrative-yet-dignified career that the Obamas, especially Michelle, have carved out since leaving the White House.
A totally spontaneous-sounding statement from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex said: “Our focus will be on creating content that informs but also gives hope. As new parents, making inspirational family programming is also important to us.” Harry and Meghan added that they’re confident that Netflix's "unprecedented reach will help us share impactful content that unlocks action”, whatever that means.
Meanwhile, Netflix head honcho Ted Sarandos said: “We’re incredibly proud they have chosen Netflix as their creative home and are excited about telling stories with them that can help build resilience and increase understanding for audiences everywhere.”
Because that’s exactly why we all watch TV, right? Pass the remote, dear, I want to build my resilience with another episode of Selling Sunset. Then let’s unlock action with a Friends rerun before bed.
Word is that projects already in development include “an innovative nature docuseries and an animated series that celebrates inspiring women”. Both of which sound OK, if a little worthy. Where is the evidence that the couple are remotely capable of making decent TV? Well, let’s have a look at their respective CVs.
Meghan was a jobbing actress who found success in the subsequently canned legal drama Suits – the role she left in 2018 to marry her ginger prince. Otherwise, she’s done a few Hallmark movies, lifestyle website The Tig (a sort of Poundland knock-off of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop) and was a “briefcase girl” on the US version of Deal Or No Deal.
Her first post-Megxit gig was narrating this spring’s Disney+ docuseries Elephants, landing the job after Harry recommended his wife’s voiceover talents to Disney chairman Bob Iger at a film premiere. In showbiz, after all, it’s not what you know, it's who you collar at red carpet events.
Harry, meanwhile, has done military service, bared his backside in Las Vegas, launched the Invictus Games for wounded veterans and become a fixture in the VIP seats at sporting events. His tentative forays into TV comprise partnering with Oprah Winfrey on an Apple docuseries about mental health and appearing in Rising Phoenix, a recent Netflix documentary about the Paralympic Games. His favourite film is The Lion King, and he's reportedly a keen viewer of The Voice Kids.
In short, actual TV producers will hardly be quaking in their boots. This pair are surely the least qualified TV producers since… well, since their Uncle Edward staged It's a Royal Knockout and later dissolved his Ardent Productions company with assets of just £40.
What might The Sussexes’ production slate look like? It will invariably involve documentaries about endangered animals, “game-changers”, “trail-blazers” and worthy-but-dull charity initiatives. Avocados and rugby might well feature, too.
There might also be the odd drama with a mental health theme, possibly starring the couple's new mate Jameela Jamil – the presenter-cum-actress-cum-“activist” (translation: social media irritant) who visited their $14m Santa Barbara mansion last week. It probably wasn’t to give an estimate on cleaning the gutters. Their meeting came the day after Jamil called Prince Andrew an “alleged paedophile” on Twitter, which must have made for lively smalltalk over the oatmilk lattés and gluten-free mini-muffins.
What appears clear is that we can’t expect to gain much insider access – or indeed, see much of the couple on-camera. Meghan has made it clear that her acting career is over. Fly-on-the-wall reality fare is also off the agenda. Bang goes any hope of seeing the pair pottering about their kitchen or reading Archie’s bedtime stories.
It’s likely they will instead follow the Obamas’ example of acting as figureheads and curators, helping to shepherd projects onto the screen before leaving it up to experienced, top-notch producers, rather than getting their hands too dirty with the mucky business of actually making TV. One can imagine Harry exec-producing, possibly even presenting, a documentary about the Invictus Games, while Meghan “does an Attenborough” by breathily narrating a nature series.
Any appearances on-screen will be ambassadorial and not terribly revealing. Think an eco-conscious travelogue or a talking head-style introduction to a credible documentary. Their promised “inspirational family content” sounds deeply dreary – the sort of thing that try-hard vegan parents try to make their unfortunate children watch instead of PJ Masks and Paw Patrol.
Trouble is, the couple have neither the intellectual credentials nor box office appeal of the Obamas. The former First Couple have successful careers and bestselling books behind them. Indeed, their partnership with Netflix has already yielded its first Oscar nomination.
The ex-President’s support was a major contributor to the momentum behind American Factory - a film following an Ohio auto plant’s takeover by a Chinese billionaire - earning a Best Documentary nod. Their deal also yielded feelgood disability rights documentary Crip Camp, already tipped for the 2021 Oscars.
The Obamas’ projects cover such hot-button topics as race, class and civil rights. Harry and Meghan’s are bound to be blander – less political, less contentious, therefore less interesting. Their public interests have so far been largely focused on social issues, environmental concerns and mental health. Such content, worthy as it is, could bore viewers and soon become a turn-off.
Netflix’s algorithms will record exactly how many people press “Play” on Meghan and Harry’s productions but also at which point they yawned and switched to something else. If the numbers aren’t good, it could be a kick in the dazzling white teeth for the image-conscious couple.
So what is in it for them? Well, with 193m Netflix subscribers worldwide, there’s potential to reach a huge number of people. There’s the prestige of being showbiz power-players and a sort of mini, millennial version of the Obamas.
Crucially, there’s also cash. It’s not known how much the couple will earn for the deal but it’s reported that they also spoke to Disney, Apple and NBC Universal in recent months. Execs involved in those discussions said representatives for the couple were seeking in the region of $100m. Netflix presumably upped their bid in response. Now they’ve given up public funding, such income will help bankroll their A-list lifestyle, not to mention their expensive security arrangements.
However, the Sussexes’ oft-stated desire for privacy could be affected. Their determination to keep the press at arm’s length will surely be compromised. How will their policy of “zero engagement” work with the need to publicise their programmes? The entertainment industry can be complex and controversial. It thrives on gossip and hums with rumour. The couple might crave creative latitude and be desperate to carve out their own identity outside the royal family, but there’s a risk that dancing with the media devil is more trouble than it’s worth.
There’s also the prickly issue of The Crown. If you will, The Crown of thorns. Not only is the Netflix menu full of low-rent royal documentaries and blue-blooded bonkbuster telemovies but Peter Morgan’s soapy, multi-generational saga is one of its flagship series – an all-too-rare streaming drama that wins both critical acclaim and decent ratings.
Added awkwardness comes from the fact that series four, which arrives in November, features the first appearance of Harry’s late mother Diana (played by Emma Corrin). How will Harry react if she’s painted in an unflattering light? What about when future series catches up to the present day, meaning that he, William and their wives are portrayed on-screen? It could lead to tense talks with new employers Netflix.
Netflix usually only gives these sorts of deals to established collaborators with a track record. The streaming service paid $300m to secure a production agreement with drama super-producer Ryan Murphy. They shelled out $150m for the services of Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rimes. Both are proven, experienced hit-makers – very much unlike Harry and Meghan.
The suspicion is that Netflix have been dazzled by the couple’s star power, global profile and ability to create headlines (yes, like this one). Harry and Meghan, in return, have had their egos massaged and pockets lined. Whether the venture will produce any must-see TV, though, seems somewhat unlikely. Going from Sussex to Netflix could be a bumpy journey.