Why ‘Ring Nation’ may be the most dystopian show on TV

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CNN Business

Anyone watching the first episode of “Ring Nation” this week would have seen short clips of a man finding out his wife was pregnant with triplets, an uninvited iguana showing up at someone’s front door and an unsuspecting teenage boy being chased down by a crane in his driveway.

“Ring Nation,” marketed as a modern take on the classic “America’s Funniest Home Videos” franchise, quietly premiered on Monday on dozens of cable channels in over 70 US cities. But despite the light subject matter, it may be among the most controversial productions currently on television.

The show repurposes clips captured by Amazon-owned Ring doorbell cameras, as well as other home videos, and is produced by Amazon-owned MGM Studios. Advocacy groups have criticized “Ring Nation” both as an example of the e-commerce giant’s vast reach into consumers’ lives and for effectively making light of surveillance technology.

Ring devices, which are intended to provide additional security at home, have long faced scrutiny from lawmakers for how their footage can be accessed and used by law enforcement. As of July, Ring had provided surveillance footage to law enforcement without a warrant or the consent of doorbell-owners 11 times in 2022, according to a letter Amazon sent to Congress that month.

Ahead of the show’s premiere, tens of thousands of people signed an online petition calling for “Ring Nation” to be canceled.

“The show is making a mockery of the very real harms caused by Ring devices by essentially rebranding surveillance as entertainment,” said Myaisha Hayes, an organizer with MediaJustice, one of the creators of the petition. “With ‘Ring Nation,’ they’re trying to make viral videos trendy and entertaining this way, so more people buy these devices.”

Beyond that, Hayes also said the show highlights “Amazon’s monopoly power.” As she put it: “This is an Amazon-owned studio producing a show about an Amazon surveillance product.”

A Ring spokesperson told CNN in a statement that the program “showcases a wide variety of videos like the silly ways a dad picks up his daughter from school recorded on a smart phone and a man telling jokes to his family via video doorbell.” The spokesperson added: “We think that viewers will be delighted by these memorable moments shared by others.”

The company said privacy is foundational to the show, and “Ring Nation” secures permission to use the video from both the owner and anyone identifiable in the clip.

Still, privacy advocates say these cameras can potentially be used to capture far more sensitive footage than cute animal interactions and dad jokes. The show’s debut also comes at a time when the stakes for digital privacy have arguably never been higher. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, privacy experts have warned that digital data could be used to punish abortion seekers.

Evan Greer, the director of digital privacy group Fight for the Future, which is also sponsoring the petition calling for the show’s cancellation, said much of Amazon’s business depends on collecting data and engaging in forms of surveillance, whether it be through its website, smart speakers or doorbell cameras.

“Surveillance as a kind of ethos really runs throughout every single thing that Amazon does,” Greer said. With that in mind, Greer argues the light-hearted format of “Ring Nation” is an “incredibly insidious attempt” to make this mass surveillance “feel not just normal, but fun.”

Ultimately, Greer views the growing surveillance network of Ring cameras as “a threat not just to our civil rights, but to our understanding of what type of future we want to live in.”

In other words: It may make for entertaining TV, but it doesn’t make for a better society.