Netflix’s Ted Sarandos On Deal With Obamas, Drive To End Theatrical Window, Content Strategy: “Nothing Gets Lost”

Netflix programming chief Ted Sarandos defended the methods of the streaming service’s approach to programming during an hour-long appearance today at the Paley Center for Media.

The streaming service is aiming to appeal to “2,000 different taste clusters of people,” he said during the Paley Media Council session, which was moderated by veteran media writer Ken Auletta. The ultimate goal, he added, is producing “the show that everyone in the house can’t live without.”

Asked at the tail end of the session about the news of ABC canceling Roseanne, Sarandos said, “No comment.” A minute later, he noted the commotion in the room after an audience member shared the news as it came across the transom. “Everybody is looking at their phones,” he chuckled.

Netflix has spent hundreds of millions to lure Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes in recent months, leading to grumbles from traditional rivals about Netflix’s war chest. “That gives you an advantage they can’t compete with,” Auletta said, articulating the argument by traditional networks. “They can compete with that,” Sarandos countered. “We were competing with them to do” the deals.

Paley Center for Media

While Auletta raised the common lament that too much gets “lost” on Netflix because of its massive, $8-billion-a-year content frenzy, Sarandos replied, “If you think something got lost, it may not have been for you. …¬†“Things don’t get lost on Netflix. They actually very much get surfaced and found.” As an example, he cited a movie with strong youth appeal, Kissing Booth. He asked the audience of a few dozen people if any had seen it. One hand went up. Sarandos explained that it was “one of the most watched movies in the world right now” and No. 4 in IMDB rankings behind tentpole releases like¬†Deadpool 2, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Avengers: Infinity War.

The conversation mostly focused on familiar areas of Netflix’s business — its aversion to releasing ratings data, its binge-release strategy, and so on. Even so, many new insights and color on the company’s two-decade rise came to the surface. Auletta asked whether right-wing viewers would be able to detect a left-wing tilt to Netflix, especially after it signed Barack and Michelle Obama to a high-profile production deal. “Wait for the programming,” he said. “There is no political slant to the programming.” Sarandos, a Democrat, did acknowledge the reality of Hollywood. “It’s hard to argue that there’s not a left lean to the creative community,” he said.

When Auletta persisted with the point, Sarandos said (repeating frequent public comments on the topic) that the moves fit with the company’s larger strategy. “What we have found is that our best investments have turned out to be our most efficient ones,” Sarandos said. Even the lofty spending on content ($8 billion this year alone, famously) can often yield handsome returns, he said. Plus, he said, “The thing creators want is for their work is in the culture. That it’s in the zeitgeist, that it’s talked about.”

Later, during audience Q&A, he rebutted the assertion that talent is taken advantage of by the economic model, which requires a single up-front payment, with no back end or opportunities for future payments. The company just renewed one of its mainstays, House of Cards, for a sixth season, he noted (mistakenly calling it the “seventh”). “It’s hard to say that anyone there is not experiencing great financial success.”

Cannes was not mentioned by name, but Auletta’s questions about Netflix’s view of traditional theatrical windows elicited some of the most passionate comments from Sarandos. Auletta asked him if Netflix would like the traditional 90-day window between a movie’s theatrical premiere and its move to on-demand platforms to be completely eliminated. “Yeah,” he said, without hesitating, calling it a “huge inefficiency” in the industry. “I think it’d be great for consumers. And then we have to figure out a business model that matches it.”

Sarandos, who recalled his own history in the home video sector, managing video retail stores before joining Netflix, said that the nine movies nominated for Best Picture in the most recent Oscars did not maximize their theatrical runs. While many were profitable, Sarandos said, he said if the entire theatrical run of each film were pooled and calculated from the beginning to the day the films all ended theatrical play, they played to about 635 million empty seats. “What that tells me is, that windows are just way too long,” Sarandos said. “This romantic experience of sitting in a dark room with strangers and watching a movie, you’re mostly by yourself by the end of it.”

Here is the full interview:


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