On Tuesday, 40 civil rights groups published an open letter calling on MGM Television executives to cancel the studio's upcoming reality show Ring Nation, which will feature former NSA employee and comedian Wanda Sykes presenting humorous surveillance footage captured from Ring doorbell cameras.
The groups say the studio is "normalizing and promoting Amazon Ring’s dangerous network of surveillance cameras," which, along with the Neighbors app, "violate basic privacy rights, fuel surveillance-based policing that disproportionately targets people of color and threatens abortion seekers, and enables vigilantes to surveil their neighbors and racially profile bystanders."
There's just one potential problem with the well-intentioned campaign: Amazon owns Ring, producer Big Fish Entertainment, and distributor MGM, and it also owns the Prime Video streaming service should it need somewhere to air it. It also has specific partnerships with thousands of police departments around the country should they happen to prove useful.
This tower of vertical integration means that Ring Nation is a show designed from the ground up to leverage Amazon's vast monopoly to push its own product on Americans, and it also means that it will probably (but not definitely) be impossible to kill. There’s very little chance that MGM executives will push back on the project when it's probably exactly the type of thing Amazon imagined being able to do when it spent $8.5 billion on a merger with MGM this year.
There is a kind of fifth column pushing this project over the line, too: Amazon and Ring's cozy relationship with police. As Motherboard has reported, Ring has forged partnerships with thousands of police departments and helped to foster a culture of paranoia around crime in U.S. suburbs while giving authorities a widespread video surveillance network to pull from—sometimes without a warrant.
Notably, Ring Nation producer Big Fish Entertainment is best known for its show Live PD. That show broadcast live police footage with commentary before being cancelled in 2020 amid uprisings following the murder of George Floyd by police. Big Fish was acquired by MGM in 2018, meaning Amazon also owns the company.
"Ring Nation is not a comedy but rather a propaganda strategy to normalize and further digitize racial profiling in our communities. Truthfully the cognitive dissonance about the dangers of these tools is a real concern. It’s striking to see a host who has been such a vocal supporter of racial justice protesters defend the very tech that was used to surveil activists during the uprisings in 2020," said Myaisha Hayes, campaign strategy director at Cancel Ring Nation co-organizer Media Justice, in a statement.
Ring Nation is the culmination of all of these things: Amazon's massive vertically-integrated monopoly that allows it to push its products via shows produced by studios it owns, and a society where police are empowered to surveil the public by profit-seeking corporations. It's unsettling to consider the base of power that the show stems from, even as it promises to merely show us innumerable videos of dads caught farting on the porch and other common Ring fare.
"The Ring Nation reality-TV series is anything but funny. It weaponizes the joy of our daily lives in an attempt to manufacture a PR miracle for scandal-ridden Amazon,” Evan Greer, director of co-organizer Fight for the Future, said in a statement. “By normalizing surveillance, it will teach our children to relinquish their privacy in exchange for a quick laugh."
The show is set to launch on Sept. 26, though it hasn't been announced which networks will carry it. As previously mentioned, Amazon always has Prime and its millions of subscribers to fall back on as a sort of captive audience for the show.
The groups didn't immediately respond to a follow-up about obstacles that Amazon's vertical integration might pose to the campaign. Regardless, they promise to continue attempting to get the show cancelled. "In the coming weeks, Fight for the Future, Media Justice, and our org partners will be mobilizing our supporters and forming a loud and fearless coalition of civil rights groups to cancel Ring Nation," Greer said.