Netflix boss Ted Sarandos can’t take his eyes off British TV
First he got Black Mirror, then he wanted Bake Off… now the boss of Netflix is using the British royal family to launch the company's next big push
If you thought The Great British Bake Off ’s migration from its cosy home on BBC1 to its new slot among the ads on Channel 4 was controversial, what would you be thinking now if the nation’s favourite show had been snapped up by on-demand TV provider Netflix? Because it might have happened...
The wealthy US global streaming giant is a hungry beast and the man in charge, chief content officer Ted Sarandos, thinks his company missed a chance to run off with a tasty slice of the broadcasting cake. “We knew it was brewing, but I didn’t actually think it would happen,” laughs the 52-year-old. Was Netflix slow off the mark? “Yes, yes!”
These are candid words (for a powerful US TV executive, anyway) and he laughs heartily when I suggest that a tsunami of outrage from the show’s ten million viewers would have washed across the Atlantic.
But he also notes that previous series of Bake Off are “very popular” on Netflix USA, and suggests there’s a “slight” case of double standards in Channel 4’s defence of its acquisition of the show. Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt, after all, expressed outrage earlier this year when Netflix swooped for Charlie Brooker’s dystopian drama series Black Mirror, which was one of her golden, brand-defining shows. “Black Mirror couldn’t be a more Channel 4 show,” Hunt thundered. “We grew it from a dangerous idea to a brand that resonated globally.”
Sarandos, who has commissioned 12 new Black Mirror films, now smiles at the comparison. “I think Charlie Brooker would take great exception to the notion that they developed the show,” he says. “That is the work of Charlie Brooker, who is a brilliant television creator, and the ambitions that he and [executive producer] Annabel Jones had for the new season were... seemingly out of reach or beyond the appetite that Channel 4 had for the show. So they cancelled it. And we picked it up.”
TV is, says Sarandos, “becoming a much more competitive marketplace, which is great for talent and really great for viewers”. Black Mirror fans are going to get two six-episode series of the show rather than the one or two programmes a year Channel 4 could afford, his reasoning goes. What’s wrong with that? Even better, “they’re all filmed in the UK with British directors, British talent”.
Another landmark in the 600 hours of new programming unveiled this year is The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic story of Queen Elizabeth starring Claire Foy as the monarch and Matt Smith as the Duke of Edinburgh. It’s the kind of lush original drama aimed at reaching out to an audience that’s far from the cult crowd who have been drawn to Netflix so far – Sarandos is clearly eyeing the mainstream.
In fact, UK television executives may want to nervously take note of the fact that he’s a big fan of British quiz shows such as The Chase and ITV2’s Dating in the Dark, and often spots British series on the seven or eight long haul flights he makes to the UK every year. He caught Happy Valley on a BA flight and snapped it up for the international market.
Television is clearly changing faster than ever and Netflix, which Sarandos joined in 2000 when it was a DVD-by-mail service, is at the forefront of the revolution. It currently operates in nearly every country across the world, except for China, North Korea and Syria, he notes with a smile. And Sarandos wouldn’t rule out getting a foothold in those places either.
Netflix is spending $6 billion (around £5 billion) on content this year, with commissions such as House of Cards, Stranger Things and Orange Is the New Black. It also provides an international home for local successes, many of them British. As well as Bake Off, Happy Valley and Peaky Blinders are both big hits on Netflix USA.
Netflix also provides a home for shows that get axed by domestic networks. For example, it has picked up Scrotal Recall, Channel 4’s gentle relationship comedy, which will get a second outing on the service in November – although under the less crass name Lovesick. That’s a new lease of life it wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed.
Sarandos also says that he’s mostly keen on working with British broadcasters on producing shows together – co-financing them and getting the international rights.
Currently Netflix has a hand in an array of upcoming UK dramas, including ITV’s Paranoid and a new thriller called Kiss Me First, based on Lottie Moggach’s novel, which it’s making with Channel 4.
Sarandos hails from a large family of Greek descent (his dad worked as an electrician and his mum was a housewife). He grew up in Arizona, and started out managing a chain of video rental stores in the 1980s, rising up the food chain of the sector before being hired by Netflix founder and boss Reed Hastings, who personally recruited him 16 years ago.
The big creative decisions are all taken by Sarandos, a tastemaker whose instinct for successful shows is highly praised by Hastings, who seems to trust him totally.
“I think what’s unique is that I work in a culture that’s not paralysed by fear,” says Sarandos. “So it enables you to make more adventurous decisions and try different things. I think in most commissioning jobs you’re mostly worried about getting fired. All the time! And I don’t ever think about that.”
Famously, Netflix uses computer technology to work out whether certain shows (like House of Cards) might be popular. And House of Cards certainly was. And its algorithms also help to make bespoke viewing recommendations to its customers.
House of Cards
It also doesn’t publish figures on the number of people who watch individual programmes, and Sarandos regards ratings as the enemy of creative endeavour. He tells me that even the programmes’ producers and writers are not told how many people watch their shows.
“We give them directional feedback on how the show is working, sure, just because it’s human nature. You want to know, ‘Are they happy?’ And we let them know if we’re happy.”
Another example of the company’s sometimes opaque decision-making came this summer, when some customers complained about a hike in the subscription prices (the £5.99 monthly package for those who signed up when it first launched in the UK rose to the £7.49 fee that a new member pays for the basic package).
But his company’s brand has become so ubiquitous that Netflix has become a by-word for binge-watching – and the phrase “Netflix and chill” has become global youth slang for staying in and having sex. He must be pleased about that...
“I wouldn’t have been happy if we’d created [Netflix and chill]. I’m glad the public created it. It was a bunch of 16-year-olds. That’s the connection that people make with the brand. Binge-watching was created in the press, and we tried to stop it because we thought it was a very negative word and had a lot of negative connotations, but it just caught on with people. And then ‘Netflix and chill’ was a creation of social media, and nothing we had anything to do with. And we were kind of torn about it...”
When Netflix does bring BBC-originated shows such as Happy Valley, or the Greg Davies-fronted comedy Cuckoo, to an international audience, they are labelled “A Netflix Original” on the site, which makes some UK producers uncomfortable. He insists that he doesn’t use the word exclusive and says that the wording “helps give consumers some clarity about where they can find [the programmes]”.
One thing we can be sure about is that Netflix will never launch a TV channel, because Sarandos believes traditional TV is doomed. As is the BBC licence fee. “You know, these things are generational. In the US they use the term ‘cord-cutting’ [to refer to not being subscribed to a pay-TV service]... I think the more impactful one will be the ‘cord nevers’, you know, the generation that’s in high school and college today, that will likely never have pay TV and will probably not value the licence fee as much as others either.
“It feels like that’s what’s happening in increments. The iPlayer was one of the great innovations in television around the world. And now the BBC has announced that you have to sign in to iPlayer... I think the BBC has done a phenomenal job in cultivating great talent, in telling very British stories that a decade ago were almost impossible to get produced. Now there are a lot more options for the shows to get produced.
“I think there are many things that the BBC do today that they previously needed to do to perpetuate British storytelling and British culture. Today, there’s a lot of people in the open market who want to do that as well, and who in some ways can do that more effectively than a big bureaucracy like the BBC.”
But it’s not just the BBC who should be worried. Sarandos seems to see almost everything and everyone as a competitor, whether it’s Sky Atlantic, Auntie, or Amazon. “On a sunny day, we’re competing with the sun!” he laughs.
The Crown premieres on Netflix today, Friday 4 November