Netflix Insiders Decry Company Culture Shift: ‘What Ted Says Goes’

Ted Sarandos
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos (Image credit: Netflix)

More than eight months after it dropped on Netflix, internal dissent over the controversial Dave Chappelle comedy special The Closer continues to roil Netflix’s famously innovative company culture, with staffers now lamenting that the notoriously open communication lines between upper management and the lower ranks have been permanently severed. 

“Today, as a manager, we can’t speak up in content or studio teams, and what Ted [co-CEO Ted Sarandos] says goes,” wrote one Netflix manager in the anonymous employee forum Blind. “Very top-down culture and even when we raise the problems we see early on in our shows, our voices are not heard.”

The post was highlighted in a feature story running across Vox Media outlets Thursday, outlining a shift in Netflix company culture away from the “radical transparency” described in the company’s groundbreaking 2009 “Culture Memo.” 

The Vox story describes a longstanding Google doc at Netflix, on which employees from any rank and any department were encouraged to volley any type of concern or feedback they wished. Co-CEO Reed Hastings, known for “taking criticism on the chin,” was reputedly quick to respond earnestly to this feedback. 

Creative teams were also encouraged to reach out to employee resource groups (ERGs) to get feedback on a potentially sensitive topic. That was the case in 2018, when the “Trans* ERG” was asked to review a screening of the Cannes acquisition Girl. The “horrified” group staunchly objected to key scenes in the Caméra d’Or-winning film. The Trans* ERG wasn’t able to stop Netflix’s release of Girl, but it was reportedly satisfied that Netflix managers agreed to include a content warning. 

This exchange reportedly worked well. Beyond Netflix’s notably high salaries, it provided an important morale wellness tool amid a competitive environment for, say, software engineers, at a time when competitors including the erstwhile WarnerMedia and HBO Max sure could have used some better coding help. 

But the system reportedly broke down in the run-up to the October 5 release of The Closer

After an internal briefing was published that outlined numerous red flags associated with the standup special, the Google doc filled with pointed questions: “If we can measure an appetite from members for transphobic and bigoted content, will we start partnering with dangerous celebrities, actors, and comedians who are intentionally divisive (Owen Benjamin, Alex Jones, Ann Coulter) in an effort to ‘entertain the world?‘ ” wrote one poster. 

This time, however, an earnest response from Netflix upper management wasn’t so quickly forthcoming. 

The company’s response might best be outlined by the changes made to its Culture Memo in May, when this clause was put in: “As employees, we support the principle that Netflix offers a diversity of stories, even if we find some titles counter to our own personal values. Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful. If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.”

In the aftermath, the Vox story laments, the provocative conversations about Netflix culture and politics are occurring in forums like Blind, where users can post in the Netflix forum as long as they have the right Netflix corporate email address. 

This dialogue, however, no longer appears on the Google doc, which has become a “another venue for Netflix executives to post platitudes.” ▪️

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!