Spencer Thomas | Sports Editor
As long as it has been the premier service for entertainment streaming, Netflix has always touted their commercial-free environment, but that doesn’t mean they don’t participate in their fair share of promotional content.
An escalating trend has seen Netflix produce a series of “documentaries” that are just dressed-up marketing for their subjects.
The latest installment of this trend is their sports documentary series, “Untold: Swamp Kings,” which covers the Florida Gators football teams of the late 2000s, who were as well known for their success on the field as their personalities off it.
The 2008 national championship team, led by Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow, reportedly had 41 of its players arrested at some point. Yet, the documentary opts to ignore the majority of these stories, and instead frames their success as some kind of inspirational culmination of leadership and magnetic personalities.
Within 10 minutes of the first episode, Meyer brags about how he inherited a program that lacked discipline. He talked about how his family’s military background influenced his iron-fisted approach to the team. Dramatic music plays as Meyer’s players go through brutal conditioning drills aimed to weed out players who lacked discipline and commitment. Their eventual success makes it appear that Meyer had reshaped the culture in the locker room.
The documentary does not mention how wide receiver Percy Harvin attacked one of his own coaches in the clubhouse.
The most extreme tightrope act comes when mentioning Aaron Hernandez. The star tight end was convicted of first-degree murder in 2012 while playing for the New England Patriots. He also had a series of off the field issues while in Gainesville. The documentary mentions Hernandez’s involvement in a locker room fight, but not his involvement in a double homicide less than five years later.
Any mention of future superstar Cam Newton getting kicked off the team? Nope. Shots of Tim Tebow reading the Bible by a pool at sunset? Absolutely.
These mind-boggling omissions feel like production errors, but in reality, they are indicative of an increasing trend of documentaries favoring a glitzy retelling of one side of the story over an in-depth investigation of the whole.
I can only speculate, but I’d assume that the documentary only landed their three biggest talking heads – Meyer, Tebow and SEC Network employee Paul Finebaum – on the condition that crucial aspects of the narrative be manipulated or omitted.
For future documentaries, Netflix ought to focus on the truth. If that keeps the people who are only in it for good PR from telling their side of the story, then so be it. Carry on and tell the complete story as best as possible. They wouldn’t get an interview or access from some enigmatic names, but at least it’d be real journalism, which is good for producers and consumers.
Other recent examples of this include Johnny Manziel’s documentary, which doesn’t include interviews with anyone from the Cleveland Browns, the team that signed Johnny Football during his 9-month NFL career. Had another side of the story been told, it’s likely Manziel’s participation in the documentary would be in danger.
“McGregor Forever” covers UFC star Conor McGregor’s losing streak through behind the scenes footage that was likely handed over to Netflix on the condition they omit footage of McGregor assaulting an elderly man over a shot of whiskey.
These digital puff-pieces aren’t exclusive to the sports realm either. In 2022, “Harry and Meghan,” was a documentary series covering the drama surrounding Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s ordeal with the British Royal Family. Yet, despite starring Harry, Meghan, her family, Serena Williams and even Tyler Perry, there is only one interview with a member of the royal family. And no disrespect for Prince Eugenia, but it wasn’t anybody particularly insightful on the controversy. The Royal Family claims it was not contacted for comment.
Netflix earns the bulk of its subscribers through content that trends in the short term, which is what these “tell-all” stories with massive celebrities attached to them always do. But, if somebody were to produce a much more in-depth and impartial narrative, they might not get the big names to put on a poster or thumbnail. The film would be a more enduring success, one that years later, people can look to as a time capsule of what really happened.
However, steaming services are not looking for long-term investments. They’ll take the fireworks over a slow burn every day of the week.
These documentaries are so easy and cheap to produce when withholding the truth means that producers get access to every interview and big name they could want. That’s why streaming services that make their money off content that trends for weeks at a time love to take these stories and mishandle them. It is simply cheaper and more profitable in a monthly streaming world to tell one side of the story than a thorough and honest narrative. It’s what Netflix has begun doing, and what they’ll continue to do.