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 directors 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.

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