Netflix chief content officer Bela Bajaria was a mix of confident and casual on Jan. 31 as she led a very network TV-like presentation to explain why Netflix is nothing like a traditional TV network.
“No entertainment company has tried to program with this ambition — for this many tastes, cultures and languages. Ever,” Bajaria told a few dozen entertainment reporters who gathered Wednesday at the streamer’s Tudum Theater in Hollywood for a TV and film preview event dubbed “Next on Netflix 2024.” She cited the sheer scale of the company’s 260 million worldwide subscriber base as something that can’t be compared to past network TV dynasties.
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“We can’t define ourselves narrowly, even though many of you would always like us to. But we can’t. We have to think much more broadly about who’s watching and what they want,” Bajaria said. “The biggest mistakes I see creative executives make are to program for one sensibility or assume that their personal tastes are what everyone else loves. And that’s hard because many of us do live in this coastal bubble.”
Bajaria noted that January 2024 marked the one-year anniversary of her elevation to chief content officer for the trailblazing company that she joined from NBCUniversal in 2016. She had a few things on her mind, not least of which was to challenge the notion that Netflix’s content strategy is all over the map. To ask “what makes a Netflix show” is to miss the point entirely, Bajaria asserted to her audience. She also gently chided entertainment reporters for indulging in overheated speculation on names for potential successors for Netflix film chief Scott Stuber, who announced his exit back to producing last month.
“I have not met with all those people that you’re all reporting,” she said during the post-presentation Q&A. She quipped, “It’s been like five seconds” since Stuber resigned.
In essence, Bajaria sought to emphasize that Netflix at this stage doesn’t function as a monolithic network looking to one an audience profile as much as it is a form of multichannel distributor. Instead of offering a lineup of individual themed channels, Netflix keeps the viewing all on one platform by offering big bundles of programs that represent shows in every major (and not-so-major) genre, theme, format or language. The streamer has to appeal to “lots of different tastes and moods,” Bajaria said, as it cooks up a steady stream of new TV and film originals across its platform.
Netflix gave sneak peeks and first-looks at a host of new shows for the coming year during the roughly 90-minute session. But the larger message was clear in the subtext of comments from Bajaria and two key content executives who joined her in the presentation: Brandon Riegg, VP of unscripted content, and Francisco Ramos, VP of Latin American content. Volume and binge-viewing matters to Netflix subscribers: “They love different things and they love new things,” Bajaria explained. But so do quality and distinctive storytelling rooted in specificity and worlds largely unseen on U.S. television.
“We’ve learned that it’s a mistake to try and cater to a ‘global’ audience,” Ramos said. “If you try to make a film or a series that appeals to everyone, you typically end up with something generic or bland that appeals to no one. It’s why every local language original that became a global hit first took off in its home country.”
Ramos outlined three high-profile Spanish-language originals coming this year, including a Colombian adaptation of the renowned Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
New and returning series that got big plugs were “3 Body Problem,” from the “Game of Thrones” showrunner duo of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss; “The Gentlemen,” a stylish crime drama from director Guy Ritchie; “Monsters: The Lyle and Erik Menendez Story,” from Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan; Season 2 of Keri Russell starrer “The Diplomat”; and Netflix’s acquisition of Tina Fey’s much-praised Peacock comedy “Girls5eva.”
Riegg focused most of his time on detailing Netflix’s strategy of mostly eschewing rights to live games from sports leagues and franchises for sports-adjacent content ranging from documentaries to narrative biopics. He only briefly mentioned the $5 billion deal that Netflix struck last week with the WWE for 52 weeks a year of live wrestling content. When pressed about the sexual abuse scandal that erupted around longtime (but now former) chairman Vince McMahon, Bajaria sliced the air with a hand gesture and pointed to his forced resignation late last week. “He’s gone,” she said. “He’s not there.”
As for the decision to get into grappling, a sport that has been a staple of TV since the 1950s, Riegg thinks the WWE will have a warm welcome among the subscriber base, and possibly bring in new business. “Similar to a lot of our other shoulder programming, sports narrative programming, there’s an opportunity and an upside for folks that might not have otherwise sampled [WWE] or checked it out or even been exposed to it. And that really to me is the power of what we can do. So introducing it to a new set of fans as well as servicing existing fans that were either already Netflix subscribers or will come over — ether way is a win.”
All three executives sought to downplay the perception that Netflix programming decisions are made by data analytics-fed AI bots. In fact, the $17 billion annual truckload of content that is delivered by Netflix is assembled by small-ish and “tightly knit creative team groups” in strategic spots around the world, Bajaria said. “When we greenlight something, it’s because a creative executive saw something in a pitch or an idea that was distinct or surprising or bold — and then they felt the clarity of the writer or producers’ vision,” she said.
Other tidbits from the session:
Grounding Halle Berry’s “The Mothership”: Bajaria maintained that the decision to pull the plug on the sci-fi movie that has been in the can for three years came as a consensus among key parties. “There was just a lot of issues during production and creatively, so everybody just felt like it was the right thing to not do it, and do something else together eventually.”
What’s next for Harry and Meghan: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have a “bunch of development” in the hopper, albeit in early stages. The list includes an unscripted series and a movie, Bajaria said.
Searching for Stuber’s Successor: Bajaria was pressed about what she’s looking for in Netflix’s next film chief. “Somebody who’s really excited about what we’re doing at Netflix and understanding we have such a great opportunity to make amazing films and lots of different kinds of films on this global service,” she said.”
Live TV Strategy: The SAG Awards will unfold live on Netflix’s platform on Feb. 18. The WWE “Monday Night Raw” deal that kicks in January 2025 will bring three hours a week of live spectacle. “Live is a terrific tool in terms of expanding the portfolio,” Riegg said. “It’s applicable to all the content genres that we have. The hope is as we get more attuned to what people are responding to, we’ll have a better sense of like the bigger events and moments that we can make live,.”
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