The trillion-dollar conglomerate’s new show, based on user clips from digital doorbell division Ring and hosted by Wanda Sykes, is blasted by privacy advocates and Democrat Ed Markey: “This is no ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’”
Amazon’s synergistic plan for a lighthearted show based on footage culled from Ring, its controversial digital doorbell, is being denounced as surveillance-state TV in the tech press, activist circles and Congress.
Amazon subsidiary MGM Television produces Ring Nation, slated to launch Sept. 26, which hopes to capitalize on both the long genre history of Candid Camera-style reality programming as well as today’s social media swirl (r/CaughtOnRing is a popular Reddit forum). According to Deadline, which broke news of the show, the syndicated series is expected to feature clips such as “neighbors saving neighbors, marriage proposals, military reunions and silly animals.”
The show is currently cleared to air across the country in approximately 60 cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and Dallas. There is no plan in place for it to run on Amazon Prime Video.
The show’s premise was criticized in the tech press — including Popular Science, The Verge, Ars Technica, Input and PC Magazine — as “dystopian.”
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce Committee who’s investigated Ring’s privacy policies and civil rights protections, as well as pushed Amazon executive chairman Jeff Bezos for more clarity on its data security practices, tells The Hollywood Reporter: “Let’s be clear, this is no America’s Funniest Home Videos — Amazon appears to be producing an outright advertisement for its own Ring products and masking it as entertainment.” He adds, “The Ring platform has too often made over-policing and over-surveillance a real and pressing problem for America’s neighborhoods, and attempts to normalize these problems are no laughing matter. Amazon must focus instead on making strong safety and accountability commitments to Ring users and ensure that neighbors aren’t robbed of their privacy and civil liberties.”
To Vasudha Desikhan, political director at the Action Center on Race & the Economy, a left-leaning think tank, the show is proof of why “we need to regulate Amazon’s monopoly power. This ecosystem allows them to use all of their different lines of business in ways to only further their market dominance.”
In recent years Amazon’s Ring, which it purchased for a reported $1 billion in 2018, has been in the news for exposing user data, allowing hackers to take over the doorbells’ smart cameras (subjecting users to death threats and blackmail) and providing footage to police without a warrant or a court order. Ring also once turned users’ clips of children trick-or-treating into marketing material and declined to address whether it’d obtained consent from the kids’ parents, even though the minors were on private property at the time.
Ring Nation, aiming to entertain with users’ footage of others, faces similar questions. “Sometimes what’s right and what’s ethical doesn’t line up with what’s legal,” observes Chad A. Marlow, senior policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. “One person’s funny can be another person’s embarrassing or intrusion of privacy.” He adds, “This device was sold to homeowners for security devices. Now it’s also for a national laugh?”
A representative for MGM explains that Ring Nation will feature content from a variety of sources, including home videos, cell phones as well as Ring doorbells and cameras. “Ring Nation secures permissions for each video from the owner and anyone identifiable in the video or from companies that hold the rights to the clips,” explains the spokesperson.
Two activist groups — whose concerns about Ring products include their potential use to prosecute abortion patients and providers by tracking travel for health care — tell THR they’re launching a protest against the show. “Ring Nation is the latest attempt to rebrand, normalize, and profit off of the extensive surveillance of Black, brown and other marginalized communities, disproportionately impacted by police violence,” says Myaisha Hayes, campaign strategies director of MediaJustice. “There is nothing funny or safe about being watched by Amazon or the police each time you walk past your neighbor’s house.” Adds Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future: “Ring Nation is a PR effort to force-feed us to normalize Amazon’s police surveillance state. If they air this show, MGM is showing a mind-blowing lack of respect for our country’s foremost privacy, racial justice, reproductive rights, and civil rights groups.”
For its part, Ring pointed THR to a civil rights and civil liberties audit begun in 2020 by the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law. The academic group noted that because of its findings, the home security company had “implemented over one hundred changes to its products, policies, and legal practices.” (According to a spokesperson, Ring “contributed $25,000 to defray the costs of the audit” and the Policing Project then chose to donate the sum to a nonprofit organization.) After the Policing Project released its report in 2021, Ring’s president, Leila Rouhi, wrote: “We are proud of these changes and will continue to innovate on privacy, security and user control to help deliver on our mission to make neighborhoods safer for everyone.”
Ring Nation is produced by MGM TV’s unscripted banner, Big Fish Entertainment, best known for A&E’s top-rated Live P.D., which followed American cops on patrol. The network canceled that series in June 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and a national reckoning over police brutality. (It’s since been revived and retooled for the Reelz network as On Patrol: Live.)
Ring Nation host Wanda Sykes, who as it happens worked for the National Security Agency before segueing into her comedy career (she had a top-secret clearance for her job handling procurement), tells THR she hopes to capture the “warm enthusiasm and silly moments” of the late Bob Saget’s work on America’s Funniest Home Videos. “When I signed on to do this show, my only goal was to capture that energy with viewers at home,” adding: “I respect the privacy and civil liberties of all people and would never sign on to be a part of anything that would violate that — and I like to think my fans know this about me. The show I signed up for involves user-submitted content and is being developed in the spirit of what I can speak to, leaving your day a little more funny.”
Matthew Guariglia, policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, believes “Ring has exhausted the market for people who feel frightened and think they need security cameras. What this show does is it says, ‘Security cameras aren’t just for surveillance, they’re also for catching life’s most joyful moments by accident.’ What people don’t realize is that for every funny moment they capture, they’re also capturing 4,000 moments you’d rather weren’t sitting on Amazon’s servers.”