TCA: Sarandos Concedes Peak TV Glut, But Sees Netflix Having an Edge

Complete Coverage: TCA Summer 2016

Beverly Hills, Calif. -- Ted Sarandos, chief content officer of Netflix, waved off the company's recent earnings disappointments and marshalled an array of series news to argue that Netflix has an edge despite the overall glut of programming.

In his remarks onstage, he derided the "mediocre" shows overwhelming viewers during the Peak TV era. Later, he clarified to reporters that Netflix has put out “a few” mediocre titles itself, but overall retains key advantages. "The average Netflix watcher is watching for two hours a day," he said. "There is no other network on television that gets that much viewing."

Little more than three years after launching its first original show, Lilyhammer, Netflix is keeping its foot on the accelerator on the programming front. The roughly $6 billion being spent on content in 2016 “will increase” in 2017, though Sarandos didn’t say by how much.

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His prepared remarks at the outset of the session pointed to a range of categories and upcoming show launches, from New Mexico-set Western Lawless to opulent Peter Morgan royalty drama The Crown to Baz Luhrmann’s 1970s hip-hop origin story The Get Down. Plus, the company is in the midst of “doubling down” on kids and family content, he said, with a target of 40 overall series on air by year-end, including Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters and Llama Llama with Jennifer Garner.

“I know that’s a lot of shows, but which ones would you have cut to keep a series count from the linear age intact? Our vote is to keep the bar high, and to keep ‘em coming,” he said.

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"When people talk about Peak TV, they talk about it through an old-media lens," he told reporters later. "But today, the viewer has total control over what shows they want to watch and how they want to get to them. And in that world, it's almost infinite the possibilities for how people can connect."

One reason Netflix takes so many big swings, creatively and budget-wise, Sarandos said, is the intense and constantly shifting consumer landscape.

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"The reason we do big TV shows is that we're not just competing with Fresh Off the Boat on ABC,” he said. “We're competing with Pokémon Go. We're competing with Star Wars movies and Jurassic World. We're competing for attention in a really noisy world." With Netflix, he continued, “You don’t say, ‘Oh my God, I forgot to DVR it.’ We try to take all of that complexity out of watching.”

As has become his semi-annual ritual, Sarandos also dismissed recent attempts, by Symphony and Nielsen, to gauge Netflix ratings, including for its signature show, Orange is the New Black. “Both claim accuracy, but one had the ratings twice as high as the other,” he said. “Either number, if true, would be great for Netflix.” But the numbers are for viewing within the first 35 days, and only domestically. Given the company’s long-tail and increasingly global strategy, he reiterated that ratings numbers were irrelevant.

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One metric Sarandos emphasized throughout his remarks was that 17 Netlfix series, films and specials took home 54 Emmy nominations, a more than 50% increase from 2015.

Asked about the company’s recent miss on subscriber estimates, which sent already slumping shares down further earlier this month, Sarandos shrugged that “multiple things” were to blame. New international territory launches—which, he later said, can take years to make viable—complicated estimates, as did price hikes rolled out last spring. “In fact, we grew much faster than we anticipated in Q1 and slower in Q2,” he shrugged.

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Among the other revelations during Sarandos’ session:

  • Chelsea Handler’s talk show Chelsea is getting a second, 90-episode season. He defended the show’s start, despite a showrunner change. Years ago, “I used to see the departure of a showrunner as a huge failure,” Sarandos said. “Now I just see it as a part of making great television.”
  • As the company continues its rollout around the world, “They’re all difficult.” It took four years before the company “turned the corner” in Latin America and smoothed out all of the wrinkles in areas from billing to streaming to locally relevant programming. Those learnings, he noted, don’t apply to any of the company’s 130-plus markets. But “you really don’t know the problems until you are there.”
  • Netflix series such as The Ranch and The Get Down have been released in chunks of two or three episodes at a time, as opposed to the company’s trademark full-season binge release approach. Amy Sherman-Palladino earlier in the day had joked about losing her effort to get the Gilmore Girls revival released as individual, 90-minute films, but other creators have raised the possibility of more serialized rollouts, which work well for Game of Thrones and Walking Dead, among other linear shows. Sarandos said the company is open to newer patterns, with the abiding motivation being “getting content people like to them faster.”