Netflix has to be thrilled with the performance of “Harry & Meghan,” its new docuseries about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The program was not only the streaming service’s most watched documentary debut but the first three episodes drew a bigger audience than Netflix’s acclaimed semi-fictional royal drama “The Crown.”
That should be good news for the streamer, which in September 2020 signed the couple to an overall deal estimated to be at least $100 million; for Spotify, where Markle recently launched a podcast; and for Penguin Random House, which is publishing Harry’s memoir next month. Netflix just greenlighted a second series to be produced by the couple as well.
But just when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex would seem to be proving their enduring popularity, it’s the very thing any media company in business with them should be questioning.
That’s because some skepticism is warranted regarding whether they’ve finally gone to the well one too many times with their oft-repeated tale of mistreatment at the hands of England’s royal family.
While the success of their Netflix docuseries demonstrates that the audience’s curiosity wasn’t sated by last year’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, how much more meat could possibly be left on this bone, especially once Harry’s own take, “Spare,” arrives in print?
There can only be so many revelations left to share with the public now that the couple have exiled themselves away from their fractious coexistence with the monarchy. Given that they’ve beaten this horse to death, perhaps this one-trick pony is due for the glue factory.
Of course, Harry and Meghan would have you believe they are about so much more than their own story. The brand they believe they are building through their media company, Archewell Productions, is meant to be about all the social causes and charities they support.
Their game plan has always been, Come for the sob story, stay for the high-minded uplift. But that’s a shaky strategy for keeping an audience around that probably doesn’t care about anything either of them has to say that isn’t royal gossip.
Surely Netflix must have realized that, though when its deal with the Sussexes was first announced a few years ago, it was specified that they would not be doing a reality show about their lives — and yet that’s exactly what “Harry & Meghan” is. Their pair-up with the streamer was touted as yielding “programming that informs, elevates and inspires” in the form of scripted series, movies, docs and children’s programming.
All that’s materialized is a second project they are executive producing that was just announced Monday, “Live to Lead,” which features interviews with figures who have changed the world, including Gloria Steinem and Greta Thunberg. Markle was exec producing a kids animated series, “Pearl,” on which Netflix shuttered development earlier this year.
Spotify is said to be paying anywhere from $15 million to $25 million in a deal with Archewell that so far has yielded “Archetypes,” a series of one-on-ones between Markle and celebrities including Issa Rae, Serena Williams and Judd Apatow. Given that the celebrity interview format is about the most commoditized format in all of media, it probably won’t surprise anyone to learn “Archetypes” no longer ranks particularly high among the top-performing podcasts.
Archewell isn’t exactly a well-oiled machine, either. The company recent replaced its head of podcasting, Rebecca Sananès, after she complained on TikTok that she felt overlooked for her work on “Archetypes.” The top exec at Archewell, Mandana Dayani, also recently exited and was replaced by Harry and Meghan themselves. Like they’re seasoned media executives, right?
Penguin is paying Harry a reported $20 million advance for “Spare,” and it could be the first of as many as four books, which begs the questions, What on earth will the other three be about, and will anyone care?
Don’t be surprised once “Spare” hits shelves that a backlash already starting to grow really accelerates as the couple’s strategically timed disclosures start to come across too carefully choreographed. It’s not unlike the criticism elicited by many journalists who have gone on to write books about the White House, complete with previously untold bombshell revelations. If your reporting is so important, why did you wait so long to disclose what should have been shared with the public years before?
It’s not that Harry and Meghan don’t have a story worth telling; the prejudice they faced from the royal family and the British press was awful. But telling the story ad nauseam has diminishing returns.
At some point, even the dimmest of minds among their fans is going to tire of their “Oh, woe is us” routine as they play the victim card again and again. That’s a tone-deaf message to be sending from the remove of their posh Montecito estate at a time of economic insecurity around the world.
At some point soon, Harry and Meghan need to pivot to something beyond retelling their old plight over and over. It’s not as if they’re going to have new stories to tell of their days in the U.K. now that they’ve been largely cut off from the monarchy.
Like a burlesque act, each story Harry and Meghan tell about their own lives is akin to an article of clothing they peel off their bodies at staggered intervals. It makes for a good show while it lasts, but eventually they’re going to be left naked.
Update: Hours after this was published, Netflix announced the second project featuring Harry and Meghan, “Live to Lead.” The commentary and its headline have been updated to reflect this.