Feb 16, 2021 - Economy

Americans are consuming more foreign content than ever

Illustration of a film reel covered in passport stamps

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Content from abroad is boosting its share of the American entertainment diet, thanks in large part to streaming, the pandemic and the creator economy.

Why it matters:  "As 'American exceptionalism' has become less of a truth geopolitically, the same goes for entertainment," says Brad Grossman, founder and CEO of ZEITGUIDE.

Driving the news: The U.S. demand share for non-U.S. content was higher each quarter in 2020 than in the previous two years, according to data provided to Axios from Parrot Analytics, which measures demand for entertainment content

  • "This trend started in mid 2019, so it pre-dates COVID-19, but the strong upward trend has continued into 2020," says Wade Payson-Denney, an insights analyst at Parrot.
  • In Q3 2020, non-U.S. shows accounted for nearly 30% of demand in the U.S.
  • The data shows that U.S. audiences are discovering content from previously unfamiliar markets, like India, Spain and Turkey.

The top 5 international markets in the U.S. by Q4 2020 were the U.K. (8.3%), Japan (5.7%), Canada (3.2%), Korea (1.9%), and India (1.5%), per Parrot.

  • Demand for Indian shows stands out. Indian series went from having an almost negligible demand share in Q1 2018 (0.3%) to the 5th largest country at the end of 2020 (1.5% share). "Naagin," an Indian fantasy thriller series, was the top Indian show in the U.S. last year, with 16.7x the average demand.

Netflix has been a large catalyst for what Grossman calls "cultural diffusion," or the globalization of content across borders. Before Netflix's streaming dominance, studios often bought up rights to a foreign film or series so they could recreate it in an Americanized version.

  • Netflix has had to look abroad for growth as the U.S. becomes more saturated. Its investments in international content have influenced the entire industry.
  • "International gating has become rare," says Rex Sorgatz, a media consultant.

Be smart: The pandemic has put more pressure on streamers to feed antsy audiences in lockdown, especially those craving travel. With production limited or halted in some cases, TV networks and streamers looked to foreign content to deliver to U.S. audiences.

The big picture: The trend extends across all genres.

  • Music: "A growing number of the biggest pop stars in the world are from outside the traditional capitals of the continental U.S. and U.K.," Bloomberg's Lucas Shaw writes. "Of the 25 biggest pop stars in the month of January, 12 hailed from places that speak a language other than English," compared to just four last April.
  • Social: The rise of TikTok and other creator apps globally has helped to surface talent, particularly music artists, globally. Some of TikTok's most popular creators last year were from places like Mexico and India (before India banned the app).
  • Television: The makeup of U.S. TV series premieres (on traditional TV and streaming) from non-U.S. markets rose to 21.8% in 2020, up from 18.3% in 2019, per data from Diesel Labs, a content measurement platform. The most "imported" genres were drama, action and adventure.
  • Movies: Last year "Parasite," a South Korean black comedy thriller, won the award for Best Picture at the Oscars, becoming the first foreign language film to do so in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards. Netflix's "Roma" received 10 Oscar nominations the year before.

What to watch: "You're seeing this trend across cultures," says Snigdha Sur, founder of The Juggernaut, a subscription publication for South Asian stories and news.

  • Examples she cites include "Never Have I Ever," about the Indian American experience, which reached the top 10 in several countries, including India; and "Indian Matchmaking," focused on both the U.S. and Indian experience, which made it big in mainstream America.
  • A similar trend is playing out with U.K. content, although Sorgatz notes that the Brits seem to be a bit more guarded about licensing their shows. Still, the popularity of shows like "Bridgerton" and "The Crown" indicates the appetite for British-culture content in the States.
  • Grossman notes that many international hits in the U.S., like "I May Destroy You" and "Lupin," feature Black lead actors. Some domestic shows featuring Black performers or themes, like Ava Duvernay's “When They See Us,” are even more popular abroad than in the U.S., disproving the old Hollywood notion that films with Black characters wouldn't do well abroad.

The bottom line: "In the past, movies and celebrity culture have always been American cultural exports to the rest of the world," says Grossman. "If content succeeded here in the U.S., it had a better chance of succeeding internationally.  But successful entertainment no longer has to come from the U.S."

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