In fact, Variety itself had run, just a few days earlier, a pointed rebuke to the term from no less an authority than the Oscar-winning actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson. “To hear people talk about ‘content’ makes me feel like the stuffing inside a sofa cushion,” she said at the Royal Television Society conference in Britain last week.
“It’s just a rude word for creative people,” she added. “I know there are students in the audience: You don’t want to hear your stories described as ‘content’ or your acting or your producing described as ‘content.’ That’s just like coffee grounds in the sink or something.”
Thompson’s not only right about the implications of the phrasing. She’s right about the real-world impact of what is, make no mistake, a devaluing of the creative process. Those who defend its use will insist that we need some kind of catchall phrase for the things we watch, as previously crisp lines have blurred between movies and television, between home and theatrical exhibition and between legacy and social media.
But these paradigm shifts require more clarity in our language, not less. A phrase like “streaming movie” or “theatrical release” or “documentary podcast” communicates what, where and why with far more precision than gibberish like “content,” and if you want to put everything under one tent, “entertainment” is right there. But studio and streaming executives, who are perhaps the primary users and abusers of the term, love to talk about “content” because it’s so wildly diminutive. It’s a quick and easy way to minimize what writers, directors and actors do, to act as though entertainment (or, dare I say it, art) is simply churned out — and could be churned out by anyone, sentient or not. It’s just content, it’s just widgets, it’s all grist for the mill. Talking about “entertainment” is dangerous because it takes talent to entertain; no such demands are made of “content,” and the industry’s increasing interest in the possibilities of writing via artificial intelligence (one of the sticking points of the writers’ strike) makes that crystal clear.
Perhaps the finest example of this school of thought can be seen at Warner Bros. Discovery, where David Zaslav ascended to the throne of chief executive by overseeing the Discovery Channel’s transition from nature documentaries to reality swill. The “content”-ization of that conglomerate’s holdings is the only reasonable explanation for the decision to rename HBO Max as simply Max — removing the prestigious legacy media brand that most clearheaded, marginally intelligent people would presume to be an asset. It lost 1.8 million subscribers in the process, but that’s merely the battle; it won the war, because when you visit Max now, the front-page carousel is a combination of scripted series, HBO documentaries, true crime and reality competition shows. It’s all on equal footing; it’s all content. But “Casablanca,” “Succession” and “Dr. Pimple Popper” are not the same thing — and the programmers of a service that pretends otherwise are abdicating their responsibility as curators.