In the second half of Oprah’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, she asks the couple whether they’ve seen the Netflix series The Crown. Harry and Meghan are describing the turning points in their relationship with the “institution” arm of the royal family, and Harry mentions that things got especially ugly after their Australia tour. “I’m thinking, because I watch The Crown, okay?” Oprah says. “Do you all watch The Crown?” “I’ve watched some of it; we’ve watched some of it,” Harry says (in universal code for “obviously we have watched all of The Crown”).
At the same time that Oprah’s interview ran on CBS, the winners of the 2021 Critics Choice awards were announced, which included The Crown for best drama series, and awards for Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles, Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher, and Emma Corrin as Princess Diana.
Those two cultural objects — Netflix’s The Crown and Oprah’s CBS interview with Harry and Meghan — are clearly linked by subject, but they come from two separate TV worlds. The Netflix series is one of the streaming platform’s most successful titles and has been key to defining Netflix’s status throughout the world. It is globally popular, critically appreciated, and has won a slew of major awards. And, thanks to Netflix’s continued streaming dominance, The Crown is everywhere. Streaming ratings are a mess of uncertain metrics and platform’s unclear self-reported numbers, but Nielsen’s streaming numbers suggested that viewers spent 3.36 billion minutes watching The Crown’s fourth season in the first week of its release. The Crown is the current reigning champion of what streaming TV even is.
The Oprah interview, meanwhile, is a bastion of the oldest-school TV imaginable. Viewers knew it was coming because CBS ran short promotional ads ahead of the Sunday night airing, but those promos gave little sense of the interview’s full scope. The interview ran from 8 to 10 p.m. EST Sunday night, a classic primetime scheduling move, and it appeared on CBS, a network that has been around since 1927 and on TV since 1948. It was a simple, longform conversation between two or three people sitting in chairs across from one another, in the tradition of other revelatory TV interviews like Frost’s conversation with Nixon, Barbara Walters talking to Monica Lewinsky, and Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, being interviewed by Martin Bashir. It was a pre-recorded TV event that made news, whose biggest headlines hadn’t been leaked online ahead of time. There was a sense that you had to watch it as it aired, and as of the initial morning after numbers, over 17 million people did.
And although it was possible to watch the whole interview online the morning after, it was hilariously absent from Paramount+, the streaming service CBS recently launched to play in the Netflix streaming space. If you wanted to watch Harry and Meghan Monday morning, you had to do so through CBS on its website or app. It’s confusing. Aren’t we supposed to sign up for Paramount+? Isn’t that where new, exciting TV shows up, on a streaming service with a weeklong trial option and a monthly subscription fee? Nope, it was on CBS, with all its original ad breaks preserved and no subscription required.
From the perspective of What TV Is Now, though, the fascinating thing about Oprah’s interview and The Crown is not in how they come from different corners of the TV world. It’s that the interview is a powerful demonstration of what can happen when those two systems collide with one another, and the way each part of that equation feeds into and reinforces the success of the other.
Most streaming platforms, especially smaller ones like Apple TV+ and Peacock, have become silos for their original programming. They are small niches viewed only by subscribers, and original shows like Peacock’s Saved by the Bell reboot, or Apple’s Servant, have a tough time breaking through into broad cultural relevance. But a show like The Crown, on a platform like Netflix that has managed to make itself feel more like a utility than a luxury, is a demonstration of how broadly familiar and pervasive a streaming platform’s storytelling can be. Oprah brings up The Crown in her conversation because she knows it will be a widely accessible touchpoint for a huge portion of the interview’s audience, and because it’s big enough and popular enough that the narrative it presents is a useful point of comparison. Harry’s describing their Australian tour, which Oprah points out is an echo of the Australian tour his father and mother did shortly after their marriage. The CBS interview then plays clips from the tour — the real one, with Charles and Diana waving from the back of a car at crowds of adoring onlookers — but the story Oprah then describes is the one laid out in The Crown’s fourth season. “The Australian tour, where your father and your mother went there, and your mother was bedazzling?” Oprah says. “So are you saying that there were hints of jealousy?”
Oprah’s asking about Harry and Meghan: were there hints of jealousy from the royal family when Meghan proved to be so adept at navigating public relations and capturing press attention? But her question implies that everyone understands the version of Charles and Diana laid out in The Crown, where that same dynamic played out behind the scenes while the press continued to cover what still looked like a happy, successful royal tour from the outside. It’s as though The Crown is the necessary and implicitly accepted pre-viewing assignment for the whole conversation — and it seems unlikely that Oprah’s Harry and Meghan interview would’ve been nearly as anticipated outside the UK without an American audience’s familiarity with The Crown.
It’s not just that The Crown made American audiences excited about British royalty, either. This is hardly the first time American audiences have been fascinated by the royal family. It’s that The Crown laid the groundwork for the specific angle of the Oprah interview: the British royal family is an antiquated, privileged institution that harms everyone it touches in the name of protecting an abstract idea of what the monarchy should look like. Over its four seasons, the series has laid out a sequence of stories about members of the royal family being hurt (traumatized, silenced, ignored, stifled) and then turning around and inflicting that same harm on other members of the family. With that background in mind, Harry’s language about feeling trapped within “the institution” doesn’t sound vague, it sounds laser-aimed at the same narratives that play out in The Crown’s fictionalized version of his family history.
The Crown helped lay the groundwork for public sympathy toward Meghan and Harry, and it’s likely that the intense interest in Oprah’s interview with them will loop back around into continued excitement for future seasons of The Crown. They are two ends of the TV spectrum that have merged together in a way that’s beneficial for both. Oprah’s news-breaking, old school event television interview draws on years of the fictionalized royal story as laid out in The Crown, and the focused, intensive attention on Harry and Meghan feeds back into interest for Netflix’s sprawling, multi-generational drama. It is a perfect TV storm.
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