Ted Sarandos on how Netflix has changed lives
Netflix global creative head Ted Sarandos is singularly responsible for perhaps the hugest urban, global addiction/affliction of our times
To paraphrase the line from the desi picture Don (1978, 2006), if he wasn't dealing in something altogether legit/legal, 190 mulkon ki (countries') police would anxiously wait to nab Ted Sarandos, 54, by now. For, he's singularly responsible for perhaps the hugest urban, global addiction/affliction of our times. I tell him that as we meet, and he laughs. "Subconsciously influenced" by the daily show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman back in the '70s — the entire weeks' episodes of which he used to watch with his parents on Sunday nights, when they were aired back-to-back on TV — Sarandos essentially came up with a simple but evidently life-altering idea of dropping the full season of a TV show, to be consumed at one go on Netflix, while a countdown almost seduces you to press for the next episode, when the previous one has just finished.
While working on what was then a rental library, Sarandos could also see vast number of customers, who would order in to "watch a few episodes a night [of a TV show], and burn through the [entire] box set!" This didn't surprise him at all. At a practical level however, Sarandos insists, "When we started with House Of Cards, our clear intent was to let the market know that we're not making webisodes, or YouTube videos. We're pushing television to the edges. A crude way of putting that across, would include 60-minute episodes, without commercials — which makes it 15 to 20 minutes longer than an hour on TV. And you don't need recaps of what you saw last week [when the entire season is right there]."
What's the formula to ensure sustained interest levels though? The broad construct is simple: "You have to do something in the first three episodes to get everyone intrigued. Every show has got a slower, or a background episode, or that moment when characters go on vacation, and nothing happens. But the audience is ready for that." What has Netflix effectively done as a result? United people from across the planet in their perseverance, to skip work, weekends, even vacations, going through seasons after seasons of shows on their laptop/phone/TV.
You could erase days from a calendar, as if they never existed. They certainly didn't matter. What did were the goings-on in the lives of folk in Orange Is The New Black, Stranger Things, The Crown, Making A Murderer, Ozark, Mindhunter, Wild Wild Country… The playlist is almost endless. Sarandos is obviously not complaining. The modern word for the cultural phenomenon is binge-ing, or binge-watching: "A reporter for The Wall Street Journal first started writing 'binge' [in reference to Netflix]. We actually tried to get him to stop, because we thought binge was negative, that [connotatively] leads to purge!" The more positive association with Netflix is, of course, the word 'chill' —Netflix and chill — the origins of which Sarandos has no clue about: "It was created by the Internet, and took on a life of its own. We recently did a campaign for Halloween, which was the first time we used it at all. They talk about their love for Netflix in a way that they're in a relationship with Netflix!"
But it is what it is. With people binge-ing sometimes for 10-12 hours straight, Netflix broke media-myth number one — that audience has short attention span, so 'keep it short, stupid' — a thumb-rule that content heads would strongly adhere to, for everything, from cinema, TV, to newspapering. Which is clearly not true, as Sarandos reveals, "Our shortest show is Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. The average episode is 18 minutes long. But the average watch-time for the show is over an hour and half! So they binge-watch even 18-minute interviews!" I'm a little surprised by this. Not the numbers. But the fact that Sarandos is talking numbers at all. Netflix is notoriously secretive about sharing any kind of viewership data. "Ah, I think you can write it," he assures, thankfully. As chief content officer of Netflix, the company he's been with since 2000, Sarandos currently marshals unheard-of resources — production budget alone of $8 billion a year, for one — making him arguably the most powerful man in global entertainment.
He needs no ad-revenues, or a theatrical run (though some Netflix films do open in select cinemas at the same time as they drop online, as Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, or Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, inevitably will). The productions are directly funded by 137 million subscribers, or members, as they're called. Relying far more on instinct than regular Hollywood studios, Netflix also does no focus-group surveys: "The only audience-test we do is in comedies, [to check] for laughs, that's it," Sarandos points out. Be that as it may, he seems to wear power rather lightly, like his casual, blue polo tee, at the Netflix India office in Bandra-Kurla Complex as he delves into his love for Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather series — why the third part suffered because of devotees' insurmountable expectations ("problem with anticipation, and art") — or how he stays up any night that Sidney Lumet's The Verdict shows up on TV (yes, he still watches TV).
Sarandos inevitably comes across as a pucca fan-boy that he would've started off as — having led the non-linear transition from TV, VHS, DVD to OTT — rather than a hardened, know-it-all studio-suit, merely studying demography, or counting numbers. You can sense that in the choices he's made. Media-myth number two that Netflix irreversibly broke was that people don't enjoy foreign language, subtitled, or dubbed entertainment: "I still argue with people who try to tell me that Narcos is not in Spanish! It really is. We made it. We know!" The immediate outcome of this is one can instantly see all kinds of story-telling/entertainment seamlessly crossing continents, let alone borders as Sarandos self-admittedly sticks to the credo: "The more authentic, the more global."
Netflix landed in India in January, 2016, with pre-existing content on the OTT app. They started local, original series production with Sacred Games, a heavy, no-holds-barred crime-thriller, which was set in Bombay, and was as Bombay as it gets. Having gone seriously bullish on a "growing market", Netflix currently has six Indian films and 10 original series at various stages of production. The meeting room we're in is named 'Baahubali', after the desi blockbuster; the prequel of which is being readied for Netflix. Earlier in the day, Sarandos was on the sets of Selection Day (series based on Aravind Adiga's novel of the same name).
"And I was thinking: Those kids [on the set], when I see them next, would've become very famous all over the world," he says, recalling how Johnny Carson would go to the French Open, because no one recognised him in France, even as 40 million people watched him every night on The Tonight Show in the US. That's obviously not possible with the same show (with Jimmy Fallon, catering to 190 countries) on Netflix. Right from when he was 12, Sarandos says he knew he'd get into journalism, which he also majored in, but chose not to pursue after college, because he thought he wasn't "a very good writer." He's sat on thousands of interviews from the other end, over the past couple of decades though. What's that one question that annoys him most, I ask, before we sign off: "What's your favourite Netflix show? This is an impossible thing for me to say out loud! Glad you didn't ask." No point!
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